The Toss: Handicapping Indian Wells
Novak Djokovic's 2011 title marked the seventh time in eight years that a Big Three member won at Indian Wells. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)
Last week’s Toss examined whether fifth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska has what it takes to win a Grand Slam title and/or reach No. 1. Nearly 60 percent of the readers sided with Tennis Grandstand's Lindsay Gibbs, who argued that the 23-year-old Pole could achieve at least one of those milestones.
This week we shift our attention to the men's side at Indian Wells. Roger Federer (three titles), Rafael Nadal (two) and defending champion Novak Djokovic (two) have combined to win seven of the last eight BNP Paribas Opens; only Ivan Ljubicic's 2010 title broke up the trio's dominance. With that in mind, SI.com's Bryan Armen Graham joins in to debate whether Andy Murray or another player from the field could keep the Big Three from making it eight titles in the last nine years.
Today’s Toss: Will one of the Big Three or someone from the rest of the field win the BNP Paribas Open?
Courtney Nguyen: As one who generally loathes the idea of dominance, even when it's balanced between three great players, I always want the field to shake things up a bit on the ATP Tour. But after reviewing the Indian Wells draw, I just don't see it happening. In my tournament preview, I tapped Djokovic and Nadal to meet in the final, with the Spaniard ending his seven-match losing streak to the Serb.
First, let's look at the history. As noted above, Ljubicic is the only player outside the Big Three to win here in the last eight years. It was undoubtedly a shocking run for the then-31-year-old ranked 26th, who beat Djokovic, Nadal and Andy Roddick, but let's put it into context. Djokovic labored just to reach a fourth-round match with Ljubicic and would struggle in several subsequent tournaments, and it was Nadal's first tournament back from the knee injury that forced him to retire to Murray in the Australian Open quarterfinals.
So to the extent Ljubicic's success is going to be used as inspiration for the field, I'm afraid there's not much there. The circumstances in 2012 are completely different and the top three enter the tournament in good form and/or shape. Despite his loss to Murray in Dubai, Djokovic is still looking relaxed and confident after his Australian Open victory. Federer arrives after back-to-back titles in Rotterdam and Dubai. And Nadal is well-rested and inspired by the progress he made in Melbourne. I just wouldn't bet against one of these three raising the trophy come March 18.
Bryan Armen Graham: Maybe Murray's win over Djokovic last week wasn't an anomaly -- as seems to be the prevailing opinion -- but the spark that will ignite a long-overdue breakthrough season. What better place to build momentum than on his preferred surface at Indian Wells, where the hardcourts play slower than those in Dubai? If this indeed is the Scot's year, a statement-making Masters title here could announce those intentions in resounding fashion.
Murray has always had the game to compete with Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. He has all the shots. He can attack, he can defend. He can hit winners off either side and he's one of the fittest guys on the Tour. But too often he's been undone by mental and tactical shortcomings, a reality that prompted the hiring of coach Ivan Lendl in December. What we've seen from Murray under Lendl is encouraging. He's cut back on the outward rage and histrionics that have so often emboldened his opponents at critical moments.
Even at the dizzying peaks of Djokovic's historic run, Murray's variety and technical ability were enough to give him trouble (see: last year's near-miss in Rome and a five-set loss in the Australian Open semis in January). As Lendl's influence continues to take hold, the gap in class between Murray and the Big Three only narrows. Look for further evidence in Palm Springs next week, when Murray repeats his victory over Djokovic before knocking off Nadal in the final.
Nguyen: So are you putting all your eggs in Murray's basket, Bryan? I agree with you that Murray is the best chance for the rest of the field. He's made great strides this year. A run to the final (which would mean a potential victory against Djokovic in the semis) wouldn't surprise me at all, but once he's there he'll most likely have to go through either Federer or Nadal. Murray has proved time and time again that he can beat both of them in best-of-three matches on hardcourts, but he's put together back-to-back wins over the Big Three only once in his career, in Toronto in 2010 when he defeated Nadal and Federer. Even with his improvements, I'm not ready to predict that he'll do it a second time here.
Graham: Like I said, I've never questioned Murray's game, and I'm seeing enough signs of progress in the areas that demanded improvement, despite an admittedly small sample size, to feel confident in his chances. As for the rest of the field, the most likely threats to derail a top-four semifinal twinbill are sitting in Nadal's and Federer's half. Big-serving Milos Raonic is more than capable of pushing Federer should they meet in the third round, and the dangerous Jo-Wilfried Tsonga looms for Nadal in the quarterfinals. As always, watch for Juan Martin del Potro, whose gradual improvement since wrist surgery will come to a head sooner than later. You decide: Sound off in the comments and vote in the poll to give your take on what to expect at Indian Wells.