At first, it was an amusing trend. But now, seven days into the 2014 BNP Paribas Open, it's looking increasingly like one of the season's premier non-Grand Slams will be the tournament of the underdog.
Wednesday's action at Indian Wells saw third-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka's undefeated streak go by the wayside, while the foibles of Andy Murray since Wimbledon have only continued. Wawrinka lost to 17th-seeded Kevin Anderson in a match where he never quite looked in control. Murray took the first set against Milos Raonic but promptly blew the last two to get sent home early.
And that's not including the big one in Round 3, when top-ranked Rafael Nadal shockingly lost to Alexandr Dolgopolov.
Given that Novak Djokovic has also looked less than his peak self, you could probably talk the fans on hand into any number of finals combinations. Odds are Djokovic will pick up his play and we'll forget this ever happened, but still. The possibilities!
The women's side, of course, has been no less surprising. Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber have each been sent packing, their losses similarly opening up the bracket for top-seeded Li Na and second-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska.
Both women have looked far more comfortable than their male counterparts and remain overwhelming favorites to go all Clash of the Titans on the California courts.
Still, the first week of play at Indian Wells has made it clear that nearly every match is worth a cursory gander—just to make sure you don't miss anything actually exciting before the inevitable plays out.
With that in mind, let's take a look at everything you need to know about Thursday's action.
|Stadium 1|| Na Li|| Dominika Cibulkova||2 p.m.|
|Stadium 1|| Alexandr Dolgopolov|| Milos Raonic||4 p.m.|
|Stadium 1|| Flavia Pennetta|| Sloane Stephens||6 p.m.|
|Stadium 1|| Kevin Anderson|| Roger Federer||10 p.m.|
*Click here to view Thursday's complete tournament schedule/matchups.
Sloane Stephens Keeps Finding Her Rhythm
Over the last couple years, watching Stephens on a tournament-to-tournament basis has been a frustrating exercise. Her flashes of brilliance have often come on the biggest stage, lending credence to the expectation she's the next great American women's tennis player.
Only, between those surprising runs have been early exits in weak tournaments, bouts with immaturity and the type of wildly inconsistent play you'd expect from someone not yet of drinking age.
She's still yet to win a WTA tournament or even reach a final. For all the comparisons she receives to Serena Williams, Stephens has a long way to go before even garnering rightful comparisons to a young Williams.
Apparently, it seems Stephens' next step in development is excelling in high-profile non-Slams. She's looked great through her first three matches, not losing a set and keeping her composure even after mistakes early in matches. Having never made it past the second round at Indian Wells before, there's plenty of reason to be encouraged heading into her quarterfinal match against Flavia Pennetta.
Though Pennetta holds a 2-1 lead over Stephens in their career series, all three matchups have been held on clay. Pennetta is certainly no slouch on the hard surfaces, with a 2011 Australian Open doubles win and a 2005 U.S. Open doubles final on her resume. But at age 32, she's at a different place in her career—a viable competitor but probably at the peak of her run.
Stephens, meanwhile, told reporters Tuesday she's only growing more confident with every win:
The beginning of the tournament is when you have the most nerves. Then once you get going, you’re like, The person I’m playing has done well, you’re both playing well, so it’s good we are this deep in the tournament. But at the beginning of the tournament, first round, you’re like, Oh, my God. Please don’t lose first round. You’re worried about a lot.
Look for that confidence to keep building as Stephens reaches the semis in straight sets.
Roger Federer Struggles More Than You'd Expect, But Advances
It's hard to be all that upset at the draw, no matter what your ranking at this point. Djokovic's bottom half of the bracket should be a relative breeze, with John Isner being the only major threat standing in his way. Unseeded Julien Benneteau shouldn't pose any threat in the quarters, while the victor of Isner-Gulbis pares the difficulties down to one.
That said, Federer got the far cushier deal to be certain. With Nadal ousted in the third round and Wawrinka's 2014 rampage halted, the two biggest threats impeding his second straight tournament victory are gone.
Wawrinka and Nadal are arguably the world's two best players at the moment given Djokovic's shaky play, and Federer should walk into Thursday's quarterfinal swaggering on a hundred, thousand trillion.
Federer and Kevin Anderson have played just once, a straight-sets victory for the Swiss in Paris. At age 27, Anderson is at a career-high No. 18 in the world and should be beaming with confidence. But he's still mostly just a midcard guy, someone who plays well enough for his career to never be considered a failure—but never good enough to actually beat someone of Federer's ilk.
No, not even after Federer's 32nd birthday. He is in fine form at the moment, winning each of his matches in straight sets.
That said, there are some reasons for concern. He's already taken three sets to tiebreakers, and playing in successive days can't be easy on his legs even in the best-of-three format. It's not a stretch to say Anderson could win the first or second set and stretch Federer down to the wire.
"I know how tough he is," Federer told reporters of Anderson. "He's the best here usually in the States, outdoors on the hard courts. That's when he's had his biggest success. I'm aware that this is not going to be an easy match just because he's not ranked in the Top 10."
Quotes like that, of course, are why Federer was so rarely upset during his peak. He prepares for every opponent as if they're going to be the one who knocks him out of the tournament.
I'm not in love with the wear and tear on Federer's legs, so an upset wouldn't be a ridiculous notion. Just not one that's worth betting on or expecting.
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