Tennis

8 Dark Horses to Keep an Eye on in Indian Wells

Abbey ChaseContributor IIIMarch 4, 2014

8 Dark Horses to Keep an Eye on in Indian Wells

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    Michael Heiman/Getty Images

    A favorite among players and fans alike, the BNP Paribas Open begins in Indian Wells on Wednesday, the first major event of the season for both tours since the Australian Open.

    Just over a month ago, Stanislas Wawrinka sent shock-waves through the tennis world after defeating Rafael Nadal in the final in Melbourne, skyrocketing him to No. 3 in the rankings and capitalizing on a recent breakdown in the dominance of the Big Four.

    Wawrinka will undoubtedly be one of the most-watched players heading into Indian Wells, but enough has happened since Australia that the Swiss won’t be the only player to watch. He won’t even be the only Swiss player to watch.

    A win in Dubai last week made the conversation surrounding Roger Federer’s resurgence that much more interesting, and Federer has had the best season of the Big Four. Rafael Nadal, who looked on fire in Australia, suffered a back injury in the final. And both Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have yet to find their best tennis this season.

    Over the past decade or so, rarely has there been a moment when the top tier looked penetrable and while Djokovic and Nadal are still the men to beat in Indian Wells, the door has been opened ever so slightly.

    On the women’s side, the usual absence of the Williams sisters opens up the field for Victoria Azarenka, back in action for the first time since her quarterfinal showing in Australia, and Maria Sharapova.

    Sharapova’s 2013 season (which ended in August with a recurring shoulder injury) was forgettable for the most part, but the Russian is the defending champion and is in need of a big result to kickstart her 2014 season.

    Also back in action in Indian Wells will be Australian Open champion Li Na, who posted a dismal showing in Doha in February.

    But while most of the big names have been taking it easy for the last month, the players that don’t make up the superstar contingent have been grinding away. On the men’s side, Marin Cilic, Grigor Dimitrov and Tomas Berdych have all put together an impressive month of play, posing a formidable threat to anyone in their sections of the draw.

    On the women’s side, a surprise resurgence from Venus Williams dominated the news in February. But with Williams out of this week’s tournament, Simona Halep and Dominika Cibulkova—the latter of which is coming off a final appearance in Australia—will be the ones to watch.

    Both tours are chock-full of talented players and despite slight shakeups, the big names are still running the show. But the tournament in Indian Wells has had its fair share of surprise finalists and winners over the years. Ivan Ljubicic and Andy Roddick played in the final in 2010, John Isner was a finalist in 2012, Mardy Fish was a finalist in 2008 and Daniela Hantuchova was a surprise winner in 2007.

    Here are eight potential dark horse candidates at this year’s event.

Tomas Berdych

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    Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    Ranking: No. 5 (career-high)

    Best result this year: Title in Rotterdam, semifinal in Australia

    Why he’s one to watch: Of all these dark horses, Berdych is the one with the best shot at actually taking the title. 

    The Czech had built a reputation of being a head-case early in his career, but a complete one-eighty in 2010 saw Berdych jump into the top 10 and never look back.

    This year, Berdych has put together quite a season that has included a run to the semifinals at the Australian Open—where he lost to eventual champion Stanislas Wawrinka—a title in Rotterdam and an appearance in the final in Dubai.

    Berdych has the game and the confidence to play with (and defeat) the best, and with the top players looking more vulnerable this year, Berdych is in the perfect position and in perfect form to make a deep run in the dessert.

    Last season, Berdych scored wins over Roger Federer, Richard Gasquet, Andy Murray (twice), Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer. The 28-year-old has asserted himself at the top of the game and, while it seems odd to call Berdych a dark horse at No.5, the Czech has only won one Masters 1000 event—a 2005 victory at the indoor event in Paris.

    Berdych is one of the few players outside the Big Four capable of determining his own fate. If the Czech can maintain his high level of play and find his best tennis, he could play the part of spoiler at the tournament this week.

Simona Halep

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    Osama Faisal/Associated Press

    Ranking: No. 7 (career-high)

    Best results this year: Title in Doha, quarterfinal in Australia

    Why she’s one to watch: For someone who has won seven titles in the last nine months, Halep has been a remarkably stealthy presence on tour, though she’s snuck into the top 10.

    Last season, Halep scored wins over Jelena Jankovic, Agnieszka Radwanska, Sam Stosur (three times), Marion Bartoli, Caroline Wozniacki, Petra Kvitova and Ana Ivanovic.

    Successfully building off of last season, the 22-year-old had her first breakthrough at a Slam— making it to the quarterfinals in Australia—and won the biggest title of her career in Doha last month, defeating Sara Errani, Radwanska and Angelique Kerber all in straight sets.

    Halep’s biggest weakness has been her inability to earn big upsets against the WTA’s top echelon—she has never won a match against Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, or Victoria Azarenka, and she is 1-1 against Li Na.

    The Romanian had a disappointing result at the BNP Paribas Open last year, losing to Dominika Cibulkova in the second round.

Marin Cilic

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    J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    Ranking: No. 26

    Best result this year: Titles in Zagreb and Delray Beach

    Why he’s one to watch: 2013 was not a banner year for Cilic, who tested positive for the stimulant nikethamide in May and was issued a nine-month ban (later reduced to four months). Once ranked as high as No. 9, the Croat returned to the court this season unfazed by the drama of last year.

    In February, Cilic defended his title in Zagreb without dropping a set, defeating Tommy Haas in the final. The 25-year-old continued his run the following week, defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Murray in Rotterdam before losing to Berdych in the final.

    Cilic picked up right where he left off at his next tournament in Delray Beach, cruising to the final again without dropping a set before defeating Kevin Anderson 7-6(6), 6-7(7), 6-4 for his 11th career title and second of the month.

    A highly anticipated talent since he came on the scene in 2009, Cilic has rarely delivered on the big stages. His best showing at a Slam was a semifinal appearance at the Australian Open in 2010, but he hasn't been able to consistently make the second week at majors.

    At 6’6’’, Cilic has struggled to maximize his height, but under the tutelage of Goran Ivanesevic, Cilic has come into his own and greatly improved his serve. Consistency and fitness have been Cilic’s two weaknesses in the past, but his early results this year indicate that he may finally be ironing out the kinks in his game.

Dominika Cibulkova

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    Hugo Avila/Associated Press

    Ranking: No. 11 (career-high)

    Best result this year: Final in Australia, title in Acapulco

    Why she’s one to watch: Cibulkova has had a career season so far, and it’s only March. The Slovak made her first career Grand Slam final appearance in Australia and played a solid first set against Li Na to force a tiebreak, only to lose the second set 6-0.

    Building off a career-performance, Cibulkova took home the title in Acapulco last week, defeating Christina McHale in the final 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-4. Though the field in Acapulco was not nearly as deep as it will be this week, match confidence is valuable no matter what—and the confidence gained from winning a title will be important for Cibulkova heading into the BNP Paribas Open.

    Cibulkova has had some impressive wins in her career—like those against Maria Sharapova at the 2009 French Open or Caroline Wozniacki at Wimbledon in 2011—but has never managed to build off any of those wins.

    For someone just 5’3’’, Cibulkova packs a punch behind her shots and has an Agassi-style short-hop approach when it comes to returns.

    The 24-year-old can be a bit erratic off the ground and she has a short-temper, prompting frustration that tends to hurt Cibulkova more than it helps. Her performance in Australia was a huge career moment for the Slovak, and if she can maintain her composure and consistency, she can continue to pose a threat on the big stages.

Grigor Dimitrov

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    Jam Media-Hugo Avila/Associated Press

    Ranking: No. 16 (career-high)

    Best result this year: Title in Acapulco

    Why he’s one to watch: A talent who has been highly anticipated for years now, with the impossible nickname “Baby Fed” to live up to, Dimitrov has begun to make his own name for himself.

    The Bulgarian won his first ATP title in Stockholm last October and he’s followed up with a strong performance this season, earning a berth into the quarterfinals at the Australian Open before losing to Nadal in four tight sets.

    Dimitrov won his second career title last week in Acapulco, where he took out Ernests Gulbis, Andy Murray and Kevin Anderson en route to the title. With the win, he improved to 11-3 for the year.

    All three matches required Dimitrov to go to a deciding set, but there is just as much, if not more, to learn from a close win than from a blow-out. Dimitrov’s ability to close out quality opponents in three very tight third sets (7-5, 7-6, and 7-6, respectively) illustrates his improved mental fortitude and match confidence.

    Like many younger players, Dimitrov struggles most with his consistency and the serve has been a weak area for the 22-year-old, though he has improved that aspect of his game significantly this season. Juan José from The Changeover gives a thorough breakdown of Dimitrov’s serving performance in Brisbane here.

    The improvements on his serve have been an important step forward for Dimitrov, and a continued attention to improvement in his physical fitness will likely be the next step to elevating his game further.

Ernests Gulbis

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    Claude Paris/Associated Press

    Ranking: No. 22

    Best result this year: Title in Marseille

    Why he’s one to watch: Is there a player on tour more aggravating for fans than Ernests Gulbis? There’s no denying that the 25-year-old Latvian has a mountain of talent and a killer backhand, but a wonky serve and questionable work ethic have prevented Gulbis from ever making a push into the upper echelon of the game. 

    So far, 2014 appears to be a “serious tennis player” kind of season for Gulbis. Since a disappointing loss in the second round in Melbourne, Gulbis is 9-2, with his losses coming against very hot players in Berdych and Dimitrov.

    His biggest win of the year came in Rotterdam in early February, where Gulbis decisively took out Juan Martin Del Potro in straight sets. The following week, Gulbis took home the title in Marseille, beating a triumvirate of Frenchmen—Nicholas Mahut, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—along the way. He backed that performance up with a quarterfinal run in Acapulco, bowing out in the quarterfinals to Dimitrov.

    If Gulbis can continue to focus on his game (and spend less time spouting off in the media), the potential for the still-young player to elevate his game is there. After his title in Marseille, Gulbis expressed his desire to be the best tennis player in the world (via ATP Staff):

    My long-term goal in tennis isn't to be Top 20. It's to be No. 1. Anything less than that wouldn't make me fully satisfied. I don't want to get to 30 years old, look back on my career and say I didn't make something of it. Everybody's looking for satisfaction in life, and my joy and happiness is based on my tennis career.

    Hopefully he can follow his own advice.

Jelena Jankovic

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    Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    Ranking: No. 8

    Best result this year: Semifinals in Doha and Brisbane

    Why she’s one to watch: Trying to keep tabs on Jankovic’s career could give even the most dedicated fan whiplash. The Serb has bounced around the rankings chart for the better part of the last five seasons, reaching No. 1 in 2008 before falling to No. 34 in 2012, but Jankovic has attained some stasis in the last 12 months.

    Now a consistent presence in the top 10, Jankovic has put together a solid season. She advanced to the semifinals in Brisbane to begin the year, earned another semifinal berth in Doha two weeks ago and made a run to the quarterfinals in Dubai last week, losing to Serena Williams in straight sets.

    Jankovic was the 2010 champion in Indian Wells and perhaps a return to the desert will help Jankovic tighten up her game even more.

    But the Serb’s biggest problem is her flair for drama. On-court antics have been Jankovic’s calling card for years and her most recent kerfuffle with Serena in Dubai was yet another instance of Jankovic’s problematic behavior (and she lost the match, to boot).

    Many players (John McEnroe, Serena Williams) play better when they’re angry, but Jankovic’s gamesmanship only seems to inhibit her own game, rather than derail her opponents. A 2008 U.S. Open finalist, Jankovic has the game to contend. If she would only get out of her own way.

Kevin Anderson

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    J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    Ranking: No. 18 (career-high)

    Best result this year: Final in Delray Beach, Acapulco

    Why he’s one to watch: Since making his debut on tour in 2007, Anderson has been the kind of player who wins every match he should and rarely ones he shouldn’t. In his career, Anderson has a 4-29 record against top-10 players, and though the South African is still waiting for his big breakthrough, he’s proven himself to be a more than capable player.

    At the Australian Open, Anderson fought through two protracted five-set matches to make it to the round of 16, only to be soundly defeated by Berdych. Since then, he’s been in two finals—both of which he has lost—but Anderson has shown increased consistency through the early part of 2014.

    Like all tall players (Anderson is 6’8’’), the South African poses a serious threat off his serve. But, unsurprisingly, his movement is his biggest weakness—though he’s looked sharper on that so far this season.

    While Anderson likely won’t make a huge dent in the draw this week, the first few months of 2014 have proven Anderson has continued to develop his game. That likely won’t manifest itself as early as this week, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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