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Indian Wells Preview: Djokovic’s absence opens up men’s side; can Swiatek defend?

They’ve made the return to tennis paradise.

The best men’s and women’s players have touched down in beautiful Indian Wells in preparation for the 2023 BNP Paribas Open.

It’s one of the most beautiful tennis landscapes in the sport, a picturesque backdrop in Riverside County, Calif.

It’s the first of two consecutive 1000 hard-court events, as the players will then head to compete in the Miami Open the following week – a stretch appropriately deemed the Sunshine Double.

Here are six storylines to follow as the action commences in the Golden State:

Momentum for Medvedev

He’s one of the most talented hard-court players on earth, and he’s also rediscovered his mojo just in time for the desert.

Daniil Medvedev arrives to Indian Wells in sensational form, winning three consecutive ATP titles over three weeks with powerful, deft and crafty tennis.

Medvedev first caught fire at the ATP500 in Rotterdam, confidently defeating last year’s champion and Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime before topping Italian talent Jannik Sinner in the final.

His schedule then moved to the Middle East, where he continued his run of perfection, winning the ATP250 in Doha, and nabbing another ATP500 at the Dubai Tennis Championships.

He became the first player to beat Novak Djokovic this season, defeating the world No. 1 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals before dispatching compatriot Andrey Rublev for the title.

Medvedev has a rare blend of tennis that features exceptional counterpunching skills, immaculate defence and court coverage, mixed with a potent first serve, a powerful two-handed backhand wing and an unorthodox yet effective forehand.

The 2021 US Open champion is now back to his best, and with the absence of Djokovic, he is the odds-on favourite to hoist the champions’ trophy.

Djokovic not granted entry, Rafa still hurt

He may be the world’s best tennis player, but such a title will not grant him any special privileges in the coming weeks.

Twenty-two-time slam champion Djokovic withdrew days before this year’s tournament after he failed to receive an exemption to travel to the United States.

Djokovic remains unvaccinated against COVID-19, while the United States travel restrictions remain in place until May.

With his absence, Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz moves into the No. 1 seed.

Djokovic’s greatest rival, Rafael Nadal, is also missing in action.

The tennis legend has been out since the Australian Open with a hip injury, and with his Indian Wells runner-up ranking points set to drop off at the end of the tournament, Nadal will fall out of the top 10 for the first time in 912 weeks.

Is Swiatek primed to defend?

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek returns to defend her 2022 title at Indian Wells, and suffice to say, she looks just as sharp as ever with her tennis.

Though Elena Rybakina denied her a chance at a maiden Australian Open crown with a fourth-round upset win in Melbourne in January, Swiatek promptly regrouped in her proceeding events in Doha and Dubai.

Swiatek hasn’t just been winning matches – she’s been demoralizing nearly all opponents in her wake with near flawless performances.

In Qatar, she lost a combined five total games across three matches, routinely dismantling former Aussie Open runner-up Danielle Collins, top-10 opponent Veronika Kudermetova and world No. 3 Jessica Pegula in the final.

The trend of destruction continued as Canadian Leylah Annie Fernandez fell victim to Swiatek, as did top-15 players Liudmila Samsonova and Coco Gauff.

Incredibly, 2021 French Open winner Barbora Krejcikova snapped the run in the finals, neutralizing Swiatek’s penetrating groundstrokes and overcoming the Polish star 6-4, 6-2.

Although Swiatek will be hungry to return to the winners’ circle, there are no shortage of dangerous names who could contend for the title over the next week and a half.

Aryna Sabalenka is only six weeks removed from winning her maiden grand slam title.

Wimbledon and US Open finalist Ons Jabeur is back in her first event since Australia and has a champion’s mentality to go along with her full set of tools on court.

Gauff and Pegula are just two of several talented Americans seeking to become the first homegrown winner of the tournament in 22 years.

Greece’s Maria Sakkari, runner-up at last year’s event, has been seeking a breakthrough title for the past few seasons and is one of the most physically fit players on the tour.

Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic is also quietly having an excellent start to the season, with 16 wins in 18 matches.

She’s returned to the top 10 on the strength of her pure baseline game and world-class backhand.

Bianca and Leylah eager for run

Mississauga, Ont.’s Bianca Andreescu had one of the most memorable titles in the desert just four years ago.

At just 19 years of age, the 2019 BNP Paribas Open signified the breakthrough of a new tennis superstar.

Andreescu entered as a wild card and dropped only one set en route to the quarterfinals. In the final eight, she decimated two-time slam winner Garbine Muguruza 6-0, 6-1.

She then defeated top-10 players Elina Svitolina and Angelique Kerber in succession to win her first-ever WTA title.

It’s no secret that Andreescu has struggled to replicate the success of her 2019 season, and she’s still in search of consistency this year.

She’s seeded 32nd at Indian Wells – if she wins her opening match, a showdown with world No. 1 Swiatek would await.

Montreal’s Fernandez has gone 8-5 in 2023 and has reached the round of 16 at Indian Wells the last two years.

Fernandez could meet 2022 WTA Finals winner Caroline Garcia in a potential rematch of their second-round Australian Open encounter, which Garcia won 7-6, 7-5.

Toronto-born Rebecca Marino is also competing in singles, where she’ll challenge Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic in the opening round.

Felix and Denis seeking form

Just two Canadian men are in the field this year at Indian Wells, with the highest expectations on the shoulders of Auger-Aliassime.

The Montreal native enjoyed a career year in 2022, winning four ATP titles and closing the season from Oct. 13 to Nov. 5 with a 16-match winning streak, three consecutive singles trophies and a spot in the ATP Finals.

His results to begin 2023 have been a bit bumpier.

He suffered a fourth-round loss at the Australian Open, then was unable to defend his Rotterdam title, losing to Medvedev in the quarterfinals and again lost to the Russian in Dubai.

Despite a slight lapse in results, he’s still seeded eighth at Indian Wells, and with zero points to defend from last year, has a terrific opportunity to bolster his position in the rankings with a strong result.

Denis Shapovalov, for all his immense talent and skillset, is still struggling to harness consistency.

A game full of firepower has proved volatile of late, as Shapovalov has dropped three of his last four singles matches heading into the desert.

A rather forgiving draw could help the 23-year-old find his way.

He opens action Friday against the winner between Bernabe Zapata Miralles and Ugo Humbert in the round of 64.

Alcaraz showcase returns

He’s the hottest ticket in tennis today.

After a leg injury forced him to miss the end-of-year ATP Finals and Australian Open, Carlos Alcaraz returned to play the South American clay swing in Buenos Aires and Rio.

Within hours, the human highlight reel was back in business.

Alcaraz electrified the Argentinian and Brazilian tennis contingency, winning the title in Buenos Aires, then finishing runner-up to Cam Norrie at the Rio Open.

Although there are question marks surrounding his current health heading into the event as his leg injury resurfaced in the finals of Rio, Alcaraz’s energized presence, masterful ball-striking, physical presence and bravado on court is fast winning him tennis fans across the globe.

Last year, he lost in a mesmerizing three-set encounter to Nadal in the semifinals.

A title this season would see him reclaim the No. 1 ranking, and further vault his superstardom in the sport.


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