Six weeks after the Australian Open ended, the tennis world is descending on Southern California for the Indian Wells Masters, which began Wednesday. Two weeks later, it will move to Miami for the second half of what’s known as the Sunshine Double. There has (surpisingly) been much tennis to chew on in February and early March, but things are about to ramp up in a big way. With that in mind, let’s take a look at 10 storylines to follow as the Tours head into Larry Ellison’s tennis paradise.
Naomi Osaka’s title defense
Naomi Osaka’s whirlwind rise to the top of the tennis world started a year ago at Indian Wells, when she defeated three top-20 players, including world No. 1 Simona Halep, en route to her first WTA title. She came into that tournament as the world No. 44 and left just outside the top 20, a result which eventually propelled her to back-to-back Grand Slam victories and the No. 1 ranking. But now, for the first time, Osaka is defending a significant title, and she’ll do so with a new coach in her corner: Jermaine Jenkins. A poor loss to Kiki Mladenovic in Dubai was not promising, and Osaka will need to have a good display to keep the Aussie momentum alive. Osaka also needs a good performance to defend the No. 1 ranking from Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova and Sloane Stephens.
Novak is back
Djokovic has not played any competitive tennis since the Australian Open, in contrast to his closest rivals. In past years, Djokovic usually played either Dubai or Acapulco, but he has opted to take more time off in 2019. Nadal, Federer and Sascha Zverev all played ATP 500s last week, and while Nadal lost early to Nick Kyrgios, Federer won in Dubai and Zverev made the final in Acapulco. Djokovic solidified his place atop the men’s game in Melbourne and is a huge favorite to sweep these titles (he already has six wins in Miami and five in Indian Wells.) Still, don’t be surprised if Djokovic deals with a little bit of rust early.
There is nothing more Nick Kyrgios than winning a 500 title after falling to No. 72 in the world. Kyrgios looked immobile and badly injured in Delray Beach, then won Acapulco with one of the most impressive title runs by a player in recent memory, beating Nadal, Wawrinka, Isner and Zverev.
So, is Kyrgios back? He only won 50.4% of his points in Acapulco, meaning he was probably a little lucky to have won the title. However, the Indian Wells draw has ensured Kyrgios will face big names early and, thus, he’ll likely try his hardest. His potential third round opponent is Djokovic, assuming Nole doesn’t lose to a qualifier like he did in 2018. Kyrgios usually focuses when he plays big names, and more importantly he generally focuses in the match before the big one so he can make it to the big stage. That second-round match should be a good barometer of what we can expect from Kyrgios going forward, should he make it that far.
Can an American woman break through at Indian Wells?
The last American woman to win Indian Wells was Serena Williams, all the way back in 2001. The Williams sisters’ boycott goes a long way in explaining the barren streak, but since Serena’s return to the tournament in 2015, she still has not managed to take a title here. Perhaps this is the year an American takes the trophy.
In addition to the usual names, new young American stars like Sofia Kenin, Amanda Anisimova and Danielle Collins have made a big impact to start 2019. Anisimova opened her campaign by obliterating Aleksandra Krunic 6-0, 6-4 and will face No. 15 seed Elise Mertens in the second round. In a wide-open women’s draw, there’s no better time for one of them to clinch a career-changing title in Indian Wells like Osaka did in 2018.
There are no such problems in Miami, as Sloane Stephens is the defending champion. That title defense will be a big hurdler for her, as she has struggled thus far in 2019.
What can we expect from Federer?
Federer’s poor showings in the early stages at Dubai were a cause for concern, but by the end of the week, he looked back to his usual self. He demolished Borna Coric and Stefanos Tsitsipas, both of whom had handed Federer high-profile losses over the last six months, to win his 100th title. The 37-year-old is showing signs of inconsistency, but once he finds his rhythm, he is still better than almost anyone. Federer is defending a final appearance this week, and he needs the points to rejoin the top five. The question is: when will the old Federer appear, and how long will he stay there?
Is Canadian tennis having a moment?
For those paying attention to the South American clay swing [crickets], you probably watched a babyfaced Canadian teenager stomp all all competition not named Laslo Djere. Felix Auger-Aliassime, still just 18, made his first ATP 500 final in Rio and backed it up with a semifinal a week later in Sao Paulo. Auger-Aliassime looks even younger than his age, but he has the mature game of a clay-court veteran. He has a wildcard in Indian Wells and his first match is against young Brit Cameron Norrie will be a fun watch. A potential second round match against fellow young star Stefanos Tsitsipas could be even better.
On the women’s side, another Canadian teenager has continued a strong run of form. After a breakout run in Auckland in January, 18-year-old Bianca Andreescu won a WTA 125K event in Newport Beach and made the semifinal in Acapulco. Andreescu has been wildly impressive in 2019, and she has also received a wildcard into Indian Wells.
WIth 19-year-old Denis Shapovalov already in the top 30, the new additions mean that Tennis Canada has three of the best young stars in the sport. With Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard also rounding back into form, Canada suddenly boasts one of the deepest pools of talent in the world. Go figure.
Petra Kvitova’s ascendancy
Kvitova continued her brilliant start to 2019 by reaching the final in Dubai. The Czech, who has already won 17 matches in 2019, is one of the favorites to take home a title in Indian Wells. However, if she gets that far, she needs to close the deal this time. Two three-set losses in finals—to Osaka in Melbourne and Belinda Bencic in Dubai—have kept her from the No. 1 ranking, and she needs to start converting in finals like she did in 2018 (when she won five times) if she wants to take it from Osaka and Halep. She has never made it past the quarters at either Indian Wells or Miami.
The boys are back in town
The last few ATP tournaments have been a trip down memory lane. Gael Monfils has played some of the best tennis of his career at age 32, winning a 500 in Rotterdam and making the semifinals in Dubai. Stan Wawrinka finally looked close to his old self in Rotterdam, where he lost to Monfils in the final. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won a title in Montpellier, and could get a wild card into Miami if his health allows (Tsonga has been dealing with sickle cell disease which limits his travel). Tomas Berdych is back in the top 100 and has a very winnable draw (Lopez, Khachanov, Carreno Busta/Haase, Isner). Forget about the Next Gen, the Old Gen still isn’t gone yet. It’s not hard to see one of these players make a deep run in the next month.
An endless array of young women to root for
There are so many young up-and-comers to root for on the WTA. We’ve already covered the North Americans (Kenin, Collins, Anisimova, Andreescu), but there’s also Bencic, Dayana Yastremska, Donna Vekic and Elise Mertens, who all played brilliant tennis in February. Of course, we haven’t even cycled through the January’s group of big-hitting youngsters on the WTA, so you should also keep an eye on Aryna Sabalenka, Anett Kontaveit, and Ashleigh Barty. The only young star in dire straits is 2017 French Open Champion Jelena Ostapenko, who has dropped to No. 22 and is in desperate need of a good tournament.
The looming ITF disaster
The first two months of the ITF Tour have been an unmitigated disaster, with dozens of players venting on social media about their frustrations with the ITF’s restructuring. Jon Wertheim expertly explained the issues in his mailbag, and it’s clear the total destruction of the lower levels has been widely unpopular. No one really understood the ramifications in Melbourne, but the problematic changes have really started to take effect. Don’t be surprised if some bigger names start sounding off on what’s happening in Futures and Challengers.