Not one, but two Masters tournaments, the firsts of the year.
The only ATP events of the month, both centered in the sunshine of the United States.
These are the last hard courts before spring ushers in the clay. No more of the artificial, punishing surfaces until the tour heads back to North America in late July. Many, indeed, will postpone their transfer from the all-too-brief grass season until August.
So it is little wonder that Indian Wells and its Miami sister two weeks later draw the big names, the big crowds, the big coverage.
Indian Wells, in particular, is set like a sapphire in the Californian desert, a jewel in the tennis crown. More people soak up the tennis at this tournament than anywhere outside the Grand Slams.
It’s a place drenched in blue, wholly in tune with its watery origins. This most favored stop on the tennis tour, attracting the very best from both the ATP and WTA tours, offers a serene mountainous backdrop, cloudless skies, dry heat, clear air. It’s as close to paradise as wealth can bring to the desert.
More than 300,000 flock to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. It overflows with tropical flowers, trees, and fountains, and the courts themselves sit like miniature Aegean Seas within their grass-green surroundings.
The pale violet and blue peaks of the distant Santa Rosa range provide a glorious setting as this oasis bursts into flower.
Here are five blooms that promise a particularly heady scent.
Just three men have won this prestigious event three times since it moved the glorious Coachella Valley in 1976.
Jimmy Connors triumphed in that opening year, in 1981, and in 1984. The next player with top honors was Michael Chang: 1992, 1996 and 1997.
Last—and the only player to win in three consecutive years—is Roger Federer, from 2004 to 2006.
But the stars have most certainly not aligned well for him since that run. He made a shock first round entry to Guillermo Canas in 2007, ending a 41-match winning streak back to the 2006 U.S. Open. He lost to Canas again in Miami.
In 2008, with glandular fever still lingering in his system, Federer suffered a straight sets loss to Mardy Fish in the semifinals.
Last year, he returned to Indian Wells after a six-week break with a back injury. It was the first time in five years that he’d played there as No. 2, and his pared down, collarless, blue-black strip matched an unusually somber mood as he again lost in the semis. It marked a fourth straight loss to Andy Murray.
So will Indian Wells in 2010 treat Federer any better as he attempts to take the tournament record? This year, too, he returns to the azure courts after illness. A lung infection has prevented him from playing since the end of January.
That aside, however, his stars are considerably better aligned. Federer arrives on the back of his 16th Grand Slam and as No. 1 in the world. He may face the prospect of Wimbledon finalist Andy Roddick in his quarter. He may face Australian Open finalist, Murray again, in the semis. He did, though, beat them both in those finals.
So if his lungs can breathe deeply enough, Federer may be able to smell that record already. But the most thrilling prospect and the biggest challenge may await him on the very last day.
Not since the Madrid Masters last year has Federer met Rafael Nadal. On that occasion, he beat him too.
He may be the reigning champion in the Californian mountain resort, but the stars have shone less benignly on Rafael Nadal since he held the tour in a vice-like grip this time last year.
At Indian Wells in 2009, Nadal was 4,000 points clear of the field, world No. 1 and top seed, and he played like it.
Resplendent in new kit, shimmering white and blue, he dismissed Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarters, Roddick in the semis, and Murray in the final, all in muscle-bursting straight sets.
His only challenge, in the fourth round, took the impressive shape of David Nalbandian. Noone else took a set off the Spaniard.
But Nadal has been brought low by knee problems not once but twice in the last nine months, and like Federer, returns to Indian Wells after a six-week recuperation.
Nadal’s is a longed-for return. The tour seems somehow diminished without his presence. He wears his heart on his sleeve and his passion on his face. His forearms, shoulders, and legs contort with effort. And his smile has melted many more hearts, since his extra-curricular activities hit YouTube.
All of which will mean little to Nadal. If he defends his Indian Wells title, he will not just draw level with the tournament’s record but also draw equal with Federer in ATP Masters titles. Both men would then be just one shy of Andre Agassi’s record of 17.
Now that’s something to fight for.
The big cheeses in Indian Wells must be counting their lucky stars after the weeks of injury-stricken tournaments that hit the 2010 tour. They are missing just one top player, Del Potro, with injury.
Ace and king of the pack are surely Federer and Nadal—more kudos, charisma, and drawing power than any duo in sport. Their presence was far from certain until the last moment, and their return to health and fitness the most welcome news in tennis.
Queen of the courts, Justine Henin, also makes her first appearance since the Australian Open. She’s played just two tournaments since her return from retirement, and made two finals.
Grace and guts in equal measure and with a new joie de vivre, Henin needed rest and recuperation after such fast-paced success in January.
She is surely the most feared wild card of the year amongst players and the most welcomed wild card of the year to fans. Her presence in Indian Wells will, though, end her wild card status as she will then earn a ranking for the first time in two years.
Jack of the pack, David Nalbandian, has the power to draw the crowds like few others and the ability to push the best players like few others.
Indian Wells seemed an increasingly unlikely tournament for the talented Argentine in 2010. His return to tennis following hip surgery was postponed in January, and his actual return to Buenos Aires in February was curtailed by another injury.
But then he bounced into the Davis Cup tie against Sweden like a blast of sweet perfume. Not only did he help win the doubles rubber, he went on to steal the tie in the deciding singles.
So waving his wild card, Nalbandian strides into Federer’s quarter of the Indian Wells draw. Who knows whether he’ll make it through the first round, let alone past Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils, and finally Andy Roddick to meet the ace in the pack. But if he does, he knows full well he has the game to beat Federer on the right day. He’s done it eight times before.
Completing the flush, Nikolay Davydenko, his first appearance since retiring injured in Dubai. He’s the feared man, the hot ticket of the last few months, and with a slowly opening flower of a personality.
To add a little spice to the event, he is drawn in the same quarter as Nadal, who he has beaten in their last three meetings. The Russian could even meet Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, and he beat the Serb in their last Masters final in Shanghai.
If he’s fit, and he’s broken in his new racket, Davydenko could blossom once more.
Kim Clijsters, winner this week of the Laureus Comeback Award for her extraordinary victory in last year’s U.S. Open, will hope also to win the Indian Wells title. It would be her third, and a record in the women’s event.
If Clijsters’ Slam-winning return thrilled tennis fans last year, Henin’s return this year stirred hearts just as deeply. That she met her compatriot in the final of her first tournament added icing to an already rich cake.
Both declare and exhibit such renewed desire to win, yet also have found a new inner contentment.
So it is with some relish that the Indian Wells draw offers the chance for them again to meet in the final. It’s a prospect almost as mouth-watering as a Roger-and-Rafa final on the men’s side.
But the Belgians aren’t the only ones making history. The 2009 women’s final was contested between Vera Zvonareva and then reigning champion Ana Ivanovic. The former took the title from the holder. In 2008, the same pair had met in the quarterfinals.
This year, the fates have decreed that they may meet in the third round. But how their fortunes have changed.
Ivanovic, No. 1 in the 2008 tournament, had slipped to No. 5 last year, but this year is currently 28th in the world. A win in Indian Wells could be the boost to her confidence that turns her fortunes around. A loss could be a mortal blow.
It all started in Melbourne. The kernel of an idea, a few phone calls from Federer, and thousands of dollars raised for the victims of Haiti’s earthquake.
In Indian Wells, the target is $1 million, and noone would bet against its succeeding. Just look at the line-up for the first Friday evening.
Opening the proceedings are Steffi Graf and Lindsay Davenport against Martina Navratilova and Justine Henin. All are former winners in Indian Wells. All are multiple Grand Slam winners. Graf and Navratilova rank as two of the greatest women ever to grace tennis.
It's a combination that offers a mix of styles, personalities, and quality that sends a shiver of anticipation through the veins.
Little could top it, except perhaps the second match.
Four of the greatest men of the Open-era partner up for the exhibition of the year, perhaps of the decade. How else does one describe Federer and Pete Sampras playing against Nadal and Andre Agassi?
Once more, all are Indian Wells champions and all are multiple Grand Slam winners.
They bring passion, pace, humor and huge mutual respect to the court. They will also bring pleasure to many thousands. More importantly, they will raise awareness and cash for many thousands more.
As an aside, mention should also be made of Fernando Gonzelez, who has pulled out of Indian Wells to devote his energy to fund-raising for the more recent earthquake in his homeland of Chile.
May his efforts be as well rewarded as those of his colleagues in California.