When world no. 1 Andy Murray – whose catchphrase is “there’s no such thing as an easy draw” – calls the bottom quarter of the Indian Wells draw “one of the toughest sections of all time”, you know it’s pretty loaded.
Actually, it is jam-packed beyond belief.
Unavoidably, in this particular draw breakdown, the commentary on the fourth quarter is going to outweigh that of the rest of the draw.
Projected quarter-final: Andy Murray (1) vs Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (7) (Murray leads H2H 14-3)
Seated atop this 128 player draw, Murray is further distanced from the three roadblocks of his career than he has ever been before at a Masters 1000 event. Thus, many will be writing the Scot down to fly through to the semifinals – at least – in yet another quest for a maiden Indian Wells crown.
Nevertheless, a quarter-final showing was written down as a given for the Brit in Melbourne – and he was shocked by a non-seeder in the fourth round. In California, he opens in the second round against qualifier Vasek Pospisil. The Canadian once faced Murray in the Wimbledon last eight, winning a set, and has squeezed past Yen-Hsun Lu in the Indian Wells first round. The winner of this clash will likely face no. 30 seed Feliciano Lopez in round three, with the Spanish lefty more than able to provide some resistance. The fourth round could take a step down in quality, with underrated Frenchman Adrian Mannarino looking to take advantage of a weaker section featuring no. 16 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta and qualifier Peter Gojowczyk.
Meanwhile, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga returns for the first time since winning back-to-back titles in Rotterdam and Marseille in February – and will surely have the confidence to carry on this form in America. Yet his opener is a tough one. Former world no. 8 (and well-known character) Fabio Fognini faces the flamboyant no. 7 seed in round two, after rebounding for a 0-6 7-5 6-4 opening round victory over Konstantin Kravchuk. Pablo Cuevas – fresh off a title in Sao Paulo – or fiery Martin Klizan could await in the ensuing match. A round of 16 meeting for Tsonga could come against no. 11 seed David Goffin – who is defending semifinal points in both Indian Wells and the ensuing Miami Open – rising star Karen Khachanov, Damir Dzumhur (recently a victor over Stan Wawrinka) and no. 22 seed Albert Ramos-Vinolas.
Tsonga may have a heavy losing record against Murray, but the confidence he picked up last month – and the way the eventual champion to the brink at Wimbledon 2016 – means that if the duo were to meet, the world no. 8 would have a shot at the upset.
Projected quarter-final: Stan Wawrinka (3) vs Dominic Thiem (8) (Wawrinka leads H2H 2-1)
Thanks to Milos Raonic’s absence with a hamstring injury, Thiem – who won his first title of the year last month – nabs a top eight seed. But as the Austrian continues to slaughter himself with a packed competitive schedule, this might not aid his campaign at all. A tough opener against experienced Jeremy Chardy is his first task, after the Frenchman dismissed qualifier Radu Albot in straight sets. Should Thiem survive, Mischa Zverev – who shocked Murray in the fourth round of the Australian Open – could well be awaiting with his serve-and-volleys, although Portugal’s Joao Sousa should not be overlooked. No. 10 seed Gael Monfils – the hot-and-cold athletic talent who found some consistency last season – is probably the most dangerous of potential fourth round opponents, with Darian King – a qualifier from Barbados – lucky loser Mikhail Kukushkin and the ever-big-serving John Isner all in contention for a last 16 spot.
At the top of the section, Wawrinka – entering the contest off a first round Dubai loss – looks to get back to his winning ways against veteran Paolo Lorenzi. The Italian gave Murray some issues at the 2016 US Open, but should not prove too difficult to put away. A trickier clash would await in either lethal Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov – who crushed former world no. 12 Viktor Troicki in his opener – or Philipp Kohlschreiber, who held seven match points over eventual champion Murray in Dubai last week. No. 13 seed Tomas Berdych leads the charge to face Wawrinka in the last 16, as the Czech continues to search for his first big run of the year – in a better draw than he has seen at a high-level event in a long time. Berdych opens against American wild card Brian Fratangelo, Bernard Tomic’s victor, with Croatian giant Ivo Karlovic and lucky loser Yoshohito Nishioka the other contenders for round four.
Wawrinka dominates his head-to-head with Berdych. But what if the Swiss player does not make it to round four?
Projected quarter-final: Kei Nishikori (4) vs Marin Cilic (6) (Nishikori leads H2H 7-6)
Cilic beat Nishikori in a three-set dead rubber at last season’s ATP World Tour Finals. Since then, he has not replicated the fine form that took him to some stunning results in 2016, and a quarter-final showdown with the Japanese fourth seed in Cali is anything but a certainty. That said, Cilic will be the clear favourite to progress through his first couple of rounds. Taylor Fritz may have been touted for greatness by pundits, but the 19-year-old American is in poor form – although a straight sets win over Benoit Paire in the desert will have bouyed him. Tunisia’s Malek Jaziri and no. 32 seed Marcel Granollers are in line to take on the winner of that match-up.
But Cilic can ill afford to relax. This is a soft section with one big exception: Grigor Dimitrov. One of the hottest players of the season, the Aussie Open semifinalist somewhat stained his 2017 record with a shock loss to world no. 11 David Goffin in the Rotterdam quarterfinals. Still, the no. 12 seed carries a 16-2 win/loss record on the season, and already has two titles to his name this year. While Mikhail Youzhny is never the easiest of openers, it would be surprising if any of the Russian, qualifier Henri Laaksonen or improving home star Jack Sock got the better of Dimitrov.
Meanwhile, Nishikori faces something of a nightmare opening clash against Dan Evans. The once non-committal Brit beat the no. 4 seed in the 2013 US Open first round, and has thrashed Dustin Brown 6-1 6-1 in his Indian Wells opener. Presuming he pulls through, Nishikori would then duel the winner of big-serving Sydney champion Gilles Muller against big-hitting Djokovic-slayer Jiri Vesely. No. 14 seed Lucas Pouille leads the charge to face the world no. 5 in round four, but the Frenchman is not in his best form. Acapulco champion Sam Querrey could easily be the man to emerge for the last 16, with Donald Young and Jan-Lennard Struff also in contention.
Projected quater-final: Novak Djokovic (2) vs Rafael Nadal (5) (Djokovic leads H2H 26-23)
There are no words to describe this quarter. Brutal, insane, unreal, lethal… Try them all, but this is frankly the toughest section of an ATP draw that the sport has ever seen. Thus, no single word can truly sum it up. And that is not just because the three biggest active tennis legends – Roger Federer and his 18 Grand Slams, Rafael Nadal and his 14 Grand Slams, and Novak Djokovic and his 12 Grand Slams – are all present in it.
Djokovic’s fall from sheer dominance to wobbly ground after the culmination of the 2016 French Open has been well documented, but his anger and frustration after losing to Nick Kyrgios in straight sets in Acapulco was tangible. That kind of reaction displays a much-needed desire in the Serb heading into this toughest of sections. In fact it is doubly necessary, with his mental and physical game still up-and-down. His first opponent will be fast-rising Brit Kyle Edmund – whom he beat at last season’s US Open. He should safely navigate this challenge, before a far greater one – potentially – in 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro. The Olympic silver medallist reduced Djokovic to tears when he downed him in the first round of Rio last season, but the world no. 2’s most recent ATP victory was an epic three-set win over the Argentinian in Mexico. If he survives the giant no. 31 seed once more, things stay dangerous. A rematch with Kyrgios could be on the cards – if the Australian scrapes through a potential maiden clash with the tour’s most accomplished rising star, 19-year-old Alexander Zverev, in round three. Horacio Zeballos and Federico Delbonis will be trying to upset that duo in the second round.
Just a few brackets away, Nadal will open his quest to defend semifinal points with the knowledge that Federer is in line for round four. Memories of losing a break lead in the fifth set of their epic Australian Open final will still be fresh in the Spaniard’s mind, but Nadal – who recently fell to Querrey in a shock Acapulco final loss – cannot afford to look too far ahead. The unpredictable Guido Pella will be his opening opponent, with the third round guaranteed to step up a notch. Doubles star Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Fernando Verdasco – the lethal lefty who traditionally brings his vintage best to face Nadal – are possible opponents.
Should Nadal emerge victorious, the challenges will likely have sharpened the 30-year-old. Meanwhile, Federer – seeded a lowly no. 9 – should face little resistance en route to a potential 36th meeting with his greatest rival. Entering the fray off a confusing and stunning loss to world no. 116 Evgeny Donskoy in Dubai, the Swiss star opens against French veteran Stephane Robert. Former world no. 10 Kevin Anderson – who has long been searching for his best tennis – or no. 24 seed Steve Johnson would await in round three.
Should Federer and Nadal face off – as the vast majority anticipate – it is hard to say who would rise victorious. The latter may dominate their head-to-head, but the tactics that Federer employed in Melbourne showed exactly why his 11 victories should not be discounted.
One thing is for sure: Whichever man comes out on top, they will either be fully prepared – or fully exhausted – ahead of a tough quarter-final challenge.
Thanks for reading! This should be a really intense tournament (in some quarters), and predicting was tougher than usual. Thoughts? Comment away!