Rafael Nadal hasn't played a hard-court tournament in nearly one year. (Miguel Tovar/Getty Images)
There is no "Fifth Slam." Let's get that out of the way. But to the extent there is a tournament today that manages itself as well as any of the Slams, next week's BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., is the closest you'll get to a joint ATP Masters/WTA Premier Mandatory event that has the proper feel of a major.
Its Stadium Court is the second-largest tennis stadium in the world, it's continuing plans to expand the grounds to draw crowds that would make Wimbledon and the French Open jealous, and starting this year it's launching a radio channel for play-by-play analysis by seasoned veterans of the BBC and Tennis Channel. Even its TV coverage will be more robust, with Tennis Channel running a 30-minute pregame show that sounds like a mini version of its Slam coverage, in addition to ESPN and Tennis Channel splitting live action.
The tournament is currently in the pre-qualification stage (yes, Indian Wells even has a pre-qualie tournament), while qualifiers begin on Monday. Here are some of the storylines we'll be watching for.
1. Will there be a Big Four showdown? It's been more than a year since Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal made the semifinals of the same tournament, the last time being the 2012 Australian Open. Much of that blame can be placed on Nadal's knees, which (along with Lukas Rosol) knocked him out of Wimbledon, the rest of 2012 and the Australian swing in January. Some also belongs with Murray, whose inconsistent results, particularly in Indian Wells and Miami, and still-improving clay game left him out of the mix in the first half of 2012.
So with Indian Wells as the first Masters 1000 of the season and only the second mandatory tournament of the year, the question is whether we'll finally get the showdown the sport has been missing. At this point, the odds aren't great. There's still a chance Nadal could withdraw if his knees bother him this week in Acapulco, Mexico, and he's lacking confidence to contest on hard courts. Murray hasn't played a match since the Australian Open final, opting to go with an extended training block in Miami. Meanwhile, Djokovic has looked unstoppable in Dubai, and Federer seems to be playing himself into form after a disappointing effort in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
2. The return of Mardy Fish and Andrea Petkovic: Fish and Petkovic are set to make their 2013 debuts in the desert. Fish will play his first match since complications from a heart condition forced him to withdraw from the U.S. Open last year. Petkovic is healthy again after a series of injuries dating to back and ankle issues last year and a knee injury sustained during Hopman Cup in January. It's been difficult to see two players who enjoyed a career resurgence after committing so hard to fitness be knocked out when they were on the verge of even greater things.
The road back will be tough for both players. Though she surely could have asked for a wild card into the main draw, I've been told Petkovic asked for a wild card into the qualifying tournament instead, presumably to get some matches under her belt and properly gauge her form against lower-ranked opposition. Petkovic was a top-10 player eyeing another strong year when a back injury forced her out of the 2012 Australian Open. In her second match back from that injury she rolled her ankle in Stuttgart, Germany, tearing ligaments. And then, just as a new year was to mean a new season of better luck, Petkovic suffered a meniscus tear in her knee in Perth, Australia, leading to another missed Aussie Open. Petkovic is still just 25, but it seems like she's spent more time on the mend than on the court.
When Fish began to feel the effects of heart ahrythmia in February 2012, he was coming off a breakout season that saw him finish inside the top eight and get an invitation to the World Tour Finals. Since then he's tumbled out of the top 30 and he's gone from No. 1 American to No. 3 on a thin U.S. depth chart. It's tempting to play the age card and wonder why, at 31, Fish would work so hard to come back (stating the obvious here: heart issues are scary) with the intent to play a full schedule. Maybe he's taking inspiration from the likes of Tommy Haas, who at 34 is still contending for titles and preempting any writer's attempts to call tennis "a young man's game." Or maybe he has more to prove to himself. Or maybe it's for the love of the game. Whatever the reason, it'll be good to see him back.
Sloane Stephens is 1-2 since her run to the semifinals of the Australian Open. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)
3. Americans seek redemption: So can the hosts, on the men's and women's sides, put together a strong tournament? Outside of Serena Williams, who won't be in Indian Wells for all the well-documented reasons, the American stable has been quiet since the Australian Open. Sloane Stephens and Varvara Lepchenko combined for one match win in the Middle East. John Isner and Sam Querrey did well to make the semifinals in San Jose, Calif., only to get dumped out early in Memphis. And then there's Ryan Harrison, who has three first-round exits since reaching the second round of the Australian Open.
The American with the most pressure at Indian Wells is Isner, who beat Djokovic here last year to make his first ATP Masters 1000 final, where he lost to Federer 7-6 (7), 6-3. No. 15 Isner is defending more than a quarter of his ranking points, which means he could drop out of the top 20 if he doesn't do well.
Eight of the 13 main-draw wild cards went to Americans: James Blake, Tim Smyczek, Steve Johnson, Madison Keys, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Maria Sanchez, Melanie Oudin and Taylor Townsend. One noticeable name missing from that list: Jack Sock. The 20-year-old will have to play his way into the tournament via the qualifying tournament.
4. Victoria Azarenka is still streaking: Perhaps it's because Azarenka already put together a 26-match winning streak last year that this year's 14-match roll is met with a shrug. But Azarenka still hasn't lost in 2013. Azarenka can't recapture the No. 1 ranking at Indian Wells, but you have to like her chances of defending the title with Serena out of the mix.