Indian Wells, tennis’s “fifth major,” begins today in southern California. Last year the men’s draw produced one of the most evil sections of a draw you will ever see: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro, Nick Kyrgios, and Sascha Zverev all crammed unhappily into one corner. After the dust (and vomit) settled, Federer ran free, and went on to win the whole tournament, the way he won most everything he played that year. And this one, too. But humor me for a moment and entertain the possibility that someone else might win.
This year the big names are a little more humanely distributed, with Rafa sitting out the action entirely. However, the path does not look much smoother for Novak Djokovic, whose prolonged slump enabled the Federer-Nadal tug-of-war over the last year. Not so long ago the Serbian held all four major titles at once, but he’s been dogged by injury and inconsistency for over a year now; after sitting out the back end of the 2017 season to recover, he endured the heat of the Australian Open, only to be undone by elbow pain and newcomer Hyeon Chung in the fourth round. Djokovic had what he called a “small medical intervention” in that right elbow, and now returns to the tour, looking for a taste of old glory at an event he’s won a record-tying five times, played on the surface that best suits his game—a grittier, slower hardcourt. Given his draw it might not come so easy.
Djokovic is the No. 10 seed with a bye, but he won’t have much time to play his way back into form. In his second match he may face an untimely challenge from No. 22 Kei Nishikori, the top-10 fixture whose wrist injury sent him tumbling down the rankings and is a land mine lurking in this sort of draw. If Novak makes it through Kei, he could next face Juan Martin del Potro, who is 11-3 this year and hot off last week’s Acapulco title, which he won by mowing down three straight top-10 opponents. Assuming seeds hold, Novak Djokovic would then need to take down Australian Open finalist Marin Cilic just to escape this quarter. Meanwhile, all the way on the other end of the bracket, with a more leisurely stroll in front of him, is Roger Federer, who is 12-0 this season, has five Indian Wells titles of his own, and is surely happy to add one more and keep that record all for himself.