Singles action at the 2014 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells kicked off on Wednesday, but Thursday marks the start of play in the men's singles draw and thus the first complete day of main draw showdowns in the desert.
Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer headline the men's field as the trio have combined to win nine of the last 10 tournaments at Indian Wells. Federer, who has won here four times since 2004, is more confident than ever coming in after winning his first title of 2014 in Dubai last week, per Sporting News:
I feel I am in good enough shape at least now and that's very encouraging. I feel my best tennis is around the corner. I've said that quite a few times, but I feel like this time it's really the case. I wake up with zero pain. I'm excited playing tournaments. It's a good start to the season.
Reigning Australian Open champion Li Na, currently ranked No. 2 in the world, will enter as the top overall seed. Despite boasting two major titles, Li has never won here, and will face stiff opposition throughout her time in Southern California.
With women's first-round action wrapping up on Thursday and half of the men's draw taking to the court, there'll be plenty of intriguing matchups and storylines to watch for.
*Click here to view Thursday's tournament schedule/matchups via BNPParibasOpen.com.
*Click here to view updated draws via BNPParibasOpen.com.
Men's Champion: Novak Djokovic
Despite Djokovic's strong finish to the 2013 season, he's failed to reach a single tournament final through the first two months of 2014, bowing out in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in January and falling in the semifinals at Dubai earlier this month.
For the first time since 2006 Novak Djokovic will be title-less going into Indian Wells. #atp— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) February 28, 2014
But many, including Sports Illustrated tennis columnist Jon Wertheim, aren't worried about Djokovic's ability to bounce back:
I could go either way on Djokovic. It wouldn't surprise me if he finished the year at No. 1. But it also wouldn't surprise me if he failed to win a major. Statistically, it was almost impossible for him not to have regressed from 2011, when he went 70-6 with three Slams and 10 titles overall. But it's not like he won the batting title and is now struggling to hit .250.
Expect Djokovic to be re-energized at Indian Wells, where he's won twice in the past, most recently in 2011.
Which recent BNP Paribas Open champion is most likely to win in 2014?
The hard surface suits his preferred playing style and he's sure to take advantage of a favorable draw. Unlike Nadal, who could potentially face off against Andy Murray (quarterfinals) and either Stanislas Wawrinka or Federer (semifinal), the biggest threats on Djokovic's half are Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro and Richard Gasquet.
Not only will the second-seeded Serb be better rested if he reaches the final, but he'll have the psychological edge over Nadal in a potential rematch of the 2011 final, which Djokovic won despite dropping the opening set.
Plus, keep in mind that Djokovic has won each of his past two meetings with Nadal dating back to the end of last season, beating him in Beijing and London to run his hard court head-to-head record against Nadal to 13-7 all time.
Women's Champion: Victoria Azarenka
Which top-ranked contender should be the favorite at Indian Wells?
Like Djokovic, Victoria Azarenka saw her reign at the Australian Open come to an end in January. The two-time Slam champion was dethroned in the quarterfinals in Melbourne and hasn't played since, falling to No. 4 in the WTA rankings.
But despite picking up a foot injury Down Under and failing to win the season's first major for the first time since 2011, the 24-year-old Belarusian must be considered a favorite at Indian Wells.
Azarenka won here in 2012 and will once again benefit from a wide open draw in the absence of Serena Williams, who has had Azarenka's number over the course of their careers.
Azarenka will have the benefit of avoiding Li or Sharapova until the final potentially. The woman her beat her in Melbourne, Agnieszka Radwanska is seeded second, but had lost seven straight head-to-head meetings prior to the 2014 Aussie Open.
Sports Illustrated's Courtney Nguyen breaks down Azarenka's situation heading into her first match:
The 2012 champion will need a few matches to knock off the rust and test her body, so she’ll be pleased with a draw that features some soft early opponents. Her toughest competition before the semifinal should come from Simona Halep, Sara Errani or Eugenie Bouchard.
If Azarenka is able to shake off the rust early and reach the semifinals healthy, there's a good chance she'll be playing her best tennis at the most important time. If that's the case, she'll be awfully tough to beat on the hard courts at Indian Wells.
A title here would also give Azarenka significant momentum heading to Miami, a hard-court tournament she's won twice since 2009. Positive results this March would also have her firing on all cylinders ahead of upcoming clay-court season, a surface that has challenged her throughout her career.
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