INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- As the ATP draw ceremony unfolded at the BNP Paribas Open on Tuesday, the biggest question was where Rafael Nadal would land.
Now ranked No. 5, the two-time champion was due for a quarterfinal clash with one of the four men ranked ahead of him: Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray or David Ferrer. As the draw gods would have it, Nadal landed in Federer's quarter. It's been almost 10 years since the two rivals have played each other before the semifinal stage of a tournament.
Let's break down the draw (which is available here):
Novak Djokovic's half: Murray has a chance to overtake Federer in the rankings if he makes the final, but he'll probably have to get through Djokovic to do it. Djokovic, a two-time champion at Indian Wells, is riding an 18-match winning streak dating to the ATP World Tour Finals last fall, while Murray hasn't played a match since losing the Australian Open final to Djokovic in January. Murray hasn't won a match in Indian Wells since 2010, but he decided to skip all tournament play over the last month in order to focus on doing well here and in Miami. His projected quarterfinal opponent is Juan Martin del Potro, who's coming off a strong February after winning Rotterdam and making the semifinals of Dubai.
As for Djokovic, it's hard not to write him straight into the quarterfinals, given his recent form. Once there, he could face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has lost seven consecutive matches to the Serb.
Semifinal Prediction: Djokovic d. Murray.
Roger Federer's half: Federer comes to Indian Wells as the defending champion but also in a bit of slump. He hasn't made a final this year and lost in both tournaments at which he was the defending champion (Rotterdam to Julien Benneteau and Dubai to Tomas Berdych). Federer can lose the No. 2 ranking if Murray wins the title or if the Scot reaches the final and Federer fails to make the semifinals. Those scenarios make his potential quarterfinal clash against Nadal even more dramatic.
Of course, both men have to make good on their draws. Federer could get a rematch against Benneteau in the third round and then a repeat of last year's final in the round of 16, where Stanislas Wawrinka or struggling 2012 finalist John Isner could be waiting. Those are nice matches for the marquee, but unless Federer comes out flat, he should roll to the quarterfinals.
As for Nadal, this is his first hard-court tournament since Miami last year, which means his first few rounds will be heavily scrutinized as he transitions from clay. His first match could be against Ryan Harrison (on a five-match losing streak), followed by Mikhail Youzhny and Janko Tipsarevic, both of whom have been struggling as well. It's as good a draw as Nadal could hope for.
In the other quarter sit two men who lucked out in not having to face any of the Big Four before the semifinals: Ferrer and Tomas Berdych. Obviously, this is a huge opportunity for both. Neither has made it past the quarterfinals at Indian Wells. Ferrer has a soft section that includes Gilles Simon and Fernando Verdasco, while Berdych could face Richard Gasquet in the round of 16. That's been a tricky matchup for Berdych as of late. He's lost their last two matches.
One player to watch in Berdych's section is Bernard Tomic. He was impressive in his quarterfinal run in Marseille two weeks ago, holding match points against Tsonga before losing in a third-set tiebreaker. If Tomic is going to make a move up the rankings, he must perform better at the Masters 1000s, and Indian Wells is a good place to start.
Semifinal Prediction: Federer d. Ferrer.
Assessing the Americans: The big news is Mardy Fish's return this week for his first match since the U.S. Open last year. That's a feel-good story regardless of his results here, and it could be the only positive for the American men in the tournament. America's No. 1, Isner, is far from the form that took him to the his first ATP Masters 1000 final here last year. He could meet Lleyton Hewitt in the second round and Wawrinka in the third. Sam Querrey and Jack Sock could face off in the second round. As for Harrison, a win over Japan's Go Soeda would earn him a shot at Nadal.
Early-round matches to watch:
First round: Bernard Tomic vs. Thomaz Bellucci; Ryan Harrison vs. Go Soeda; Lleyton Hewitt vs. Lukas Rosol; James Blake vs. Robin Haase; Steve Johnson vs. Pablo Andujar; Nikolay Davydenko vs. Paul-Henri Mathieu; David Goffin vs. Victor Troicki; David Nalbandian vs. Marcel Granollers.
Second round: Rafael Nadal vs. Ryan Harrison; John Isner vs. Lleyton Hewitt; Sam Querrey vs. Jack Sock; David Nalbandian vs. Jerzy Janowicz; Bernard Tomic vs. Richard Gasquet; Feliciano Lopez vs. Janko Tipsarevic.
Third round: Novak Djokovic vs. Grigor Dimitrov; Milos Raonic vs. Marin Cilic; Mardy Fish vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; John Isner vs. Stanislas Wawrinka. Final Prediction: Djokovic d. Federer.