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.
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.