The Biggest Questions Facing Tennis' Top Stars Ahead of Indian Wells 2014

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2014

The Biggest Questions Facing Tennis' Top Stars Ahead of Indian Wells 2014

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    Roger Federer in finals in Dubai 2014
    Roger Federer in finals in Dubai 2014Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    The BNP Paribas Open is underway in Indian Wells. Along with the excitement associated with the biggest tournament since the Australian Open comes a slew of questions facing tennis' biggest stars. 

    With the exception of Serena Williams and Venus Williams, who have been boycotting the tournament since 2001, all the big names are slated to play in the desert.

    Roger Federer is coming off a huge title win in Dubai. Is he ready to take out other members of the Big Four? Second-ranked Li Na leads the field of women. Can she capitalize on the momentum she gained in Australia? Defending champions Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova must navigate through tough draws en route to repeating. 

    With no clear-cut favorite on either side, these are the biggest questions facing the top stars ahead of Indian Wells. 

Rafael Nadal: Is He the Undisputed Best Player?

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    Rafael Nadal celebrates win in Brazil
    Rafael Nadal celebrates win in BrazilSilvia Izquierdo/Associated Press

    As the No. 1 player and defending champion, Nadal rolls into Indian Wells with a target on his back. Novak Djokovic is gunning for him and his No. 1 ranking. Federer would love to defeat his old nemesis and Stanislas Wawrinka probably wouldn't mind beating a "healthy Nadal."

    Nadal has a 16-1 record this season. His only loss came against Wawrinka in the finals at the Australian Open. Indian Wells gives Nadal a chance to cement his status as numero uno. 

Li Na: Is She Ready to Make a Run at No. 1?

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    Li Na kisses 2014 Australian Open trophy.
    Li Na kisses 2014 Australian Open trophy.Aaron Favila/Associated Press

    Li Na told reporters in Hong Kong that she's shooting for No. 1 and more Grand Slam titles. Ranked No. 2, she leads the WTA in points earned this season. She also has the best record: 13-1.

    It's only March and Li already has two titles, a Grand Slam and the most points on tour. You'd think that winning the Australian Open and securing the No. 2 ranking would solidify a player as a serious contender for the top spot.  

    However, Li has yet to face anyone in the Top 20. With a number of defending champions in the field, it's unlikely Li will get through Indian Wells without taking on a top-tier player. Is she's truly ready to make a run at No. 1?  

Novak Djokovic: Can He Reclaim His Winning Ways?

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    Novak Djokovic during exhibition at 2014 Indian Wells tournament
    Novak Djokovic during exhibition at 2014 Indian Wells tournamentKathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    Novak Djokovic, the winner in 2008 and 2011, has a lot to prove this year at Indian Wells.

    Djokovic lost his No. 1 ranking to Nadal late last season. He now finds himself chasing Nadal and trying to keep Wawrinka at bay.

    Djokovic hasn't reached a final this year. It's the first time he has failed to reach a final before March since 2006. He also hasn't won any titles since bringing Boris Becker aboard as coach.

    Indian Wells will be an important test for their partnership and a chance to get back on track.

Agnieszka Radwanska: Can She Halt the Heavy Hitters?

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    Agnieszka  Radwanska
    Agnieszka RadwanskaAssociated Press

    Agnieszka Radwanska turned 25 on March 6. At a critical juncture in her career, she finds herself back in the Top Three almost by default—her rise had more to do with Azarenka and Sharapova losing points.

    Still, Radwanska manages to live among the elite with persistence and patience. Athletic and quick around the court, Radwanska has proven she has talent. The question about her game has always been if she can handle the power from the heavy hitters.

    Counterpunchers like Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki are still trying to break through the pack of more aggressive players. Is this her year? 

Stanislas Wawrinka: Can He Maintain That Aussie Magic?

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    Stanislas Wawrinka after winning the 2014 Australian Open.
    Stanislas Wawrinka after winning the 2014 Australian Open.Andrew Brownbill/Associated Press

    Stanislas Wawrinka continues to bask in the glow of his Australian Open trophy.

    A movie buff, Wawrinka went on a tour of Hollywood sites ahead of the tournament in Indian Wells. Hollywood is the perfect place for tennis' "feel good story" of the year. But now it's back to the courts to prove the Aussie Open wasn't a fluke.

    Now, near the land of Disney, can Wawrinka retain some of that Aussie magic? 

Victoria Azarenka: Has She Lost Focus?

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    Victoria Azarenka poses with Redfoo at the Hall of Game Awards.
    Victoria Azarenka poses with Redfoo at the Hall of Game Awards.Associated Press

    Azarenka's struggles in 2014 have been perhaps the most puzzling development on the women's tour. After another thrilling three-setter in the 2013 U.S. Open, Azarenka seemed like the one true challenger to Serena Williams. 

    But since then, it's been rough going for Azarenka who has fallen from No. 2 to No. 4. Hampered by a foot injury, Azarenka comes into Indian Wells with more questions than any other player. Has she lost her focus? How healthy is she? Is this a mere slump or a descent out of the Top 10? 

Andy Murray: Is He Back on Track?

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    Andy Murray at exhibition in Indian Wells
    Andy Murray at exhibition in Indian WellsKathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    Andy Murray is slowly working his way back into form following minor back surgery last year. 

    He told the ATP press that his recovery is on track, saying, “The first few tournaments back were hard, but my body feels good now."

    It will be interesting to see how his back holds up during the back-to-back ATP 1000 Masters events of Indian Wells and Miami. 

Maria Sharapova: Is She Ready to Serve Notice?

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    Maria Sharapova at Paris Open.
    Maria Sharapova at Paris Open.Jacques Brinon/Associated Press

    The last time we saw Sharapova on the big stage in sports was at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Sharapova finally returns to the courts to defend her title at Indian Wells.

    In 2013, Sharapova got off to a fantastic start. Her win at Indian Wells moved her to No. 2 behind Serena Williams. 

    After taking half of last year off to nurse a nagging shoulder injury, Sharapova has looked inconsistent in her return. Her serve is the biggest question mark.

    She's only played 10 matches, but has recorded 64 double faults. Her first-serve percentage (57) is the worst among the top five players. 

    Has she improved her serve enough to defend her title? 

Roger Federer: Is the Maestro Back in Tune?

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    Roger Federer celebrates after winning in Dubai.
    Roger Federer celebrates after winning in Dubai.Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    Roger Federer is experiencing new life since hiring Stefan Edberg. He recently won in Dubai and is 14-2 heading into Indian Wells.

    After a horrendous slump last year, Federer seems to have gotten into a rhythm in 2014. He's in a tough draw at Indian Wells and may have to defeat Wawrinka, Nadal and Murray to claim the title.

    Has he fine-tuned his game enough to orchestrate a win at Indian Wells? 

Serena Williams: Has She Hit a Wall?

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    Serena Williams during match in Dubai 2014
    Serena Williams during match in Dubai 2014Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    Although Williams isn't playing at Indian Wells, there are questions about the No. 1 player's game. She was bounced in the fourth round of the Australian Open and beaten by Alize Cornet in straight sets in the semifinals in Dubai. 

    While her start to the 2014 season appears shaky, it looks almost identical to her start in 2013.

    After winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2012, Williams began her 2013 campaign with a win at Brisbane. She followed it with a loss in the Australian Open in the quarterfinals then lost to Azarenka in Doha.

    She skipped Indian Wells as she always does, but she then headed to Miami where she began a 34-match winning streak that included a French Open title.

    Has she hit a wall? The answer awaits in Miami.