The jewels in tennis’s ATP calendar, its nine Masters events, are here at last. And in celebration, March is bursting at the seams with two of them: sun-drenched Indian Wells and Miami.
These are the last hard court events before spring ushers in the clay, and they will not appear again until the tour heads back to North America in late July. Little wonder, then, that the United States’ hard court siblings draw the biggest crowds and the biggest prizes outside the Majors.
The first of them, Indian Wells, is set like a sapphire in the Californian desert, and attracts more people than any other Masters—a record 340,000 last year.
It’s a place drenched in blue, wholly in tune with its watery origins. This popular stop on the tennis tour is as close to paradise as wealth can bring to the desert. It overflows with flowers, trees and fountains, and the courts sit like miniature Aegean Seas within their grass-green surrounds.
The pale violet and blue peaks of the Santa Rosa mountain range provide the serene backdrop to an oasis of a tennis garden spread out in the dry heat beneath cloudless skies.
The setting may be perfect, but the challenge is huge. Although matches are best-of-three-sets, the tournament is crammed into little more than a week, which means six matches are played virtually back-to-back, sometimes day, sometimes night.
The draw contains a quality of field matched only by the Majors—Indian Wells has every player in the top 10 and 45 of the top 50.
All three of the top seeds—Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic—are past champions at Indian Wells.
Fourth seed, Robin Soderling, has been all but unbeatable in 2011, with 18 wins from 19 matches and three titles from four tournaments.
No. 5, Andy Murray, was runner-up at the Australian Open, won two hard court Masters last autumn and was runner-up in Indian Wells in 2009.
No. 6 David Ferrer has won 14 of his 16 2011 matches and has two titles so far this year.
On paper, then, this big title has all the big guns ready to fire. It’s a close one to call…