Men's Look Forward: Indian Wells
It's one of those Deep Philosophical Questions: Is Indian Wells easier than it used to be, or harder?
This year, for the first time, the event will be a 96-draw: 32 seeds, all with byes, and 64 unseeded players, without byes. Until now, the tournament had been a 64-draw.
At first glance, that might make the event seem harder. But, on the other hand, the seeds still have to play only six matches, and there are 32 seeds instead of 16. And, what's more, they start playing sooner. Before, to win Indian Wells, you had to win six matches in six or seven days. Now, it's six or seven matches in eight to ten days.
Truly an interesting question.
At least the men will all be around to discover their particular answers. Indian Wells is the year's first Masters Series, and it has a field to match. Nine of the Top Ten, and 38 of the Top 40, are here; the only top players missing are David Nalbandian and Younes El Aynaoui.
And that means that, unlike the women's field which is rather lacking in high-profile first-round matches, the men's field will have quite a few high-expectations contests on the first day. As examples we offer:
* Ivo Karlovic vs. Andrei Pavel for the right to face Roger Federer
* Thomas Enqvist vs. Tommy Haas for the right to face Paradorn Srichaphan
* Filippo Volandri vs. Guillermo Canas for the right to face Albert Costa. And this not on clay
* Young fireballer Mario Ancic against old scrambler Sargis Sargsian, with the winner facing Guillermo Coria
* An all-Spanish battle between young David Ferrer and veteran Alex Corretja, with the winner facing still another Spaniard, Tommy Robredo
* Clay-loving Gaston Gaudio, who just missed a seed, against fastcourt-loving Nicolas Escude, with the winner facing hardcourt-loving Sjeng Schalken
* A Powerball lottery as Ivan Ljubicic takes on Robin Soderling for the right to face Agustin Calleri
The second round is, perhaps, even better, with many seeds likely to be challenged, or at least to face big names:
#1 Federer will face Pavel or Karlovic
#2 Ferrero will probably face Wayne Ferreira
#3 Roddick could face Jan-Michael Gambill, whom he beat last week but who has a good record against him
#4 Coria will face Ancic or Sargsian
#5 Agassi could face clay expert David Sanchez
#8 Hewitt will face Thomas Johansson (or a qualifier)
#9 Henman should face Felix Mantilla, who loves to run and who barely missed a seed
#10 Srichaphan will face Enqvist or Haas
#11 Massu will likely face Rafael Nadal
#12 Philippoussis might face Mikhail Youzhny
#13 Grosjean could face countryman Fabrice Santoro
#14 Schalken will face Gaudio or Escude
#15 Kuerten, last year's finalist, could face Taylor Dent
#16 Novak, who is just back from injury, will likely face Todd Martin
#19 Robredo will face Ferrero or Corretja
#21 Spadea is likely to face a Scottsdale rematch from Nicolas Kiefer.
#22 Calleri faces Ljubicic or Soderling
#23 Costa will face Volandri or Canas
#24 Clement will probably face Mariano Zabaleta
#26 Ginepri may face countryman James Blake
#29 Nieminen could face Hicham Arazi, who is even more "touchy-feely" than Nieminen
#30 Safin could face countryman Nikolay Davydenko
It's clear that most of the seeds will have their work cut out for them.
Roger Federer, for instance, after facing Karlovic or Pavel, will have to face probable #25 seed Fernando Gonzalez of the big forehand and the big errors. After that, he faces Mardy Fish or Jiri Novak. But the really interesting match is the quarterfinal, where he faces nemesis Lleyton Hewitt.
#2 seed Juan Carlos Ferrero faces an amazing amount of clay. He starts against Wayne Ferreira, then James Blake or #26 Robby Ginepri, but then, if the seeds hold, Gustavo Kuerten, then Carlos Moya. And if it isn't Moya in the quarterfinal, then it's Nicolas Massu or Agustin Calleri. But that may actually be good news for Ferrero, who after all is the only U. S. Open finalist in the bunch.
#3 Andy Roddick, the player who beat Ferrero in that Open final, would face the Spaniard in the semifinal here -- if he can get through a Murderer's Row of hardcourters. He opens against Gambill, who did lose to him last week but who made it close. Then comes Marat Safin, another guy with an Open title. Then, theoretically, Rainer Schuettler. Schuettler has been simply dreadful this year, but he was arguably the top hardcourt player last year other than Roddick and Agassi; if he bounces back, he's trouble. And former Indian Wells finalist Tim Henman is also in the mix.
#4 seed Guillermo Coria probably won't draw much attention from the oddsmakers, but he has a fairly nice early draw. He opens against Ancic or Sargsian, and he can outrun the former and out-touch the latter. After that comes Max Mirnyi, for whom this court is simply too slow. Then, probably, a Frenchman, theoretically Grosjean, but he's been out. Arnaud Clement is the #2 possibility, but his concentration seems a little off. The big match is the quarterfinal: Coria would face #5 seed Andre Agassi.
And speaking of Agassi: This is probably his #2 favorite Masters Series (after Miami of course), but it's a distant second; he's "only" won this tournament once, two years ago, though he has two other finals. For him, though, the extra day of rest in the middle of the draw can only help. And his early rounds aren't too bad: David Sanchez or Cyril Saulnier, then Dominik Hrbaty or maybe Xavier Malisse. The Round of Sixteen is more serious, when he faces Mark Philippoussis or Feliciano Lopez. Agassi is definitely going to be aced a lot. But those two are guys he can move off their games. Doing the same to Coria will be tricky.
#6 seed Schuettler may finally get a chance to work his way into a tournament: He will open against a qualifier. It will be interesting to see him match his speed against Jonas Bjorkman's attacking game in the third round. Ditto against Tim Henman in the fourth. As for Roddick versus Schuettler in the quarterfinal -- well, if the Schuettler of 2003 comes back, it might be interesting.
#7 seed Moya has two titles and two other finals already this year, but they've all been on slower courts than this. The big question for him will be how fast he adjusts -- and how fast his opponents adjust, since they're mostly clay-courters or at least people who like slow surfaces: Irakli Labadze, then Jarkko Nieminen, Nicolas Massu, and Ferrero.
#8 seed Lleyton Hewitt faces the most pressure of anyone here: He's the defending champion, and this represents a very large fraction of his points. And he'll face a tough opponent form the get-go in Thomas Johansson. Then Juan Ignacio Chela, then Paradorn Srichaphan, then Federer. He's shown he can do it; he's among the best hardcourt players here. But what a terrible draw!
The Rankings. We've been moaning for weeks about how dull things are at the top of the men's rankings. We'll just have to moan some more, because Roger Federer is #1 no matter what happens here. By a lot. Even if he loses first round and Juan Carlos Ferrero wins Indian Wells, Federer will still have more than a 200 point lead.
There is a real contest for #2, though -- though Roddick has his work cut out for him if he wants to pass Ferrero. The two came in fairly close together, but Roddick has more to defend. He must make at least the semifinal to pass Ferrero, and if the Spaniard wins his opener, Roddick has to make the final. If Ferrero and Roddick hold seed and reach the semifinal, then Roddick must win the event to become #2.
#4 Guillermo Coria can't move up. It's just possible, though, that he could fall behind Andre Agassi. Agassi has to win, and Coria has to lose before the quarterfinal -- but it could happen.
Agassi himself is under some pressure from Carlos Moya: If Moya can win the event, and Agassi loses before the quarterfinal, Moya is in line for #5.
#6 Rainer Schuettler, though, has semifinalist points to defend, and it looks as if his bad year will finally come home to roost. In safe points, he's 75 back of Moya, meaning that he must reach at least the quarterfinal and outlast Moya to stay #6.
There are no fewer than six players -- Henman, Srichaphan, Massu, Philippoussis, Schalken, and Grosjean -- who could theoretically nab injured David Nalbandian's #8 ranking. But all need to do well to accomplish it: Henman and Srichaphan need to reach at least the final, and the others have to win. Their odds of hitting the Top Ten are better; only 180 points separate Henman (#9 in safe points) from Grosjean (#14 in safe points). And there are five other players (Verkerk, Novak, Fish, Hewitt, Kuerten) within 500 points of Henman. Two of those eleven will be Top Ten when this is over. Which two? Too early to tell.
The player in the most trouble is of course Hewitt; #9 coming in, he's a mere #18 in safe points, which means he could fall out of the Top 20 if he loses his opener. The same could happen to #16 Gustavo Kuerten, who was last year's finalist. And then there is surprise semifinalist Vincent Spadea, whose results here last year were what really told us he was back. He's up to #22 now, but an early loss would certainly drop him below #35; he might end up around #40 or even lower. Last year's quarterfinalist Robby Ginepri runs the risk of falling out of the Top 30; James Blake, also a 2003 quarterfinalist, is barely Top 40 now and could fall lower.
Though the guy whose situation is really scary is Brian Vahaly. He was the last player to earn direct entry this year, and he made the quarterfinal last year. He came in at #122, and these points are over a third of his total. A first round loss would leave him around #180.