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Indian Wells Masters 2017 tournament preview: Novak Djokovic bids for sixth title at the BNP Paribas Open, 6-19 March

Hannah Wilks in News 5 Mar 2017
  • Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic lead the field at the 2017 Indian Wells Masters from 6-19 March
  • Three-time defending champion, Djokovic seeks a record sixth title, Murray looking to get off the mark.
  • Multiple winners, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal retain significant threats at the 2017 Indian Wells Masters
Five-time Indian Wells champion, Novak Djokovic. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Novak Djokovic will bid for a sixth Indian Wells title when the first Masters 1000 event of the year takes centre stage from 6-19 March 2017; but the struggling Serbian faces severe competition from a packed field in the Californian desert.

Officially known as the BNP Paribas Open, a combined event played at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in the Coachella Valley, the first of nine Masters 1000 Series events is better known as the Indian Wells Masters, one of the biggest events in tennis which features all its biggest names.

The highlight of the spring hard-court season, together with the Miami Masters which follows it, the Indian Wells Masters will be played from 6-19 March 2017 and features a 96-player draw with the 32 seeds all receiving byes into the second round – the biggest draw you will find in tennis outside of the four Grand Slams.

The BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells has been dominated by three players over the last dozen years, with Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal sharing eleven of the last twelve editions between them. Djokovic heads the all-time list with five titles; Federer has four, while Nadal has three. 

Strangely, world number one, Andy Murray is yet to taste victory in the Californian desert.

The reigning Olympic and Wimbledon champion has just the one final to show for his efforts, and that was way back in 2009. Could this be the year when Murray corrects that anomaly?

If he is to do that, he may have to do something that hasn’t been done in the last three years- that is, beat Djokovic in California.

The Serbian has won three Indian Wells titles in a row, with the most recent coming after a comprehensive dismissal of Milos Raonic in the 2016 final. Djokovic began the tournament on a rather shaky note, dropping the opening set in his opening match to the relatively unknown American, Bjorn Frantangelo, but once the Serbian got past that sticky situation, he went through the rest of the tournament without dropping a set, including a 7-5 6-2 victory over Nadal in a marquee semi-final.

However, the Serbian goes into the 2017 tournament with plenty of question marks around him. Djokovic sustained his Indian Wells form up until the French Open last year, winning the Miami title and a significant first Roland Garros crown in Paris, but the Serbian's fortunes would take a dramatic tumble after that. The French Open was Djokovic's sixth title in a routinely outstanding first half of the season, but he would win just one more title - the Rogers Cup- in the rest of the year. The lowest moments of that slump were a shock third round loss to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon, and a first round exit to Juan Martin del Potro at the Rio Olympics- a result which left the Serbian in tears. Unfortunately for Djokovic, his slump co-incided with Andy Murray's stunning surge, and a combination of both events eventually led to an exchange in ranking positions between the two men, as Murray replaced Djokovic on top of the world.

Not much has changed for Djokovic in 2017- although he did begin the year by beating Murray in the Qatar Open final. While he showed typical grit and resilience in overcoming Murray, he was largely unconvincing through the week in Doha, notably needing to save five match points against Fernando Verdasco in the semi-finals. He wouldn't be so fortunate at the Australian Open, as he suffered a shock second round defeat to Denis Istomin- a player ranked outside the top 100 at the time.

Djokovic's next assignment was to guide Serbia into the Davis Cup quarter finals, but even that threatened to go wrong as he trailed young Russian Daniil Medvedev by a set and a break before taking control of the situation, and winning when his opponent retired with cramps in the fourth set. Djokovic required treatment on his shoulder during the match, and it turned out to be a quite serious problem, with the Serbian expected to be out of action until Indian Wells. However, having made a sooner-than-expected recovery, Djokovic accepted a late wildcard to Acapulco, where he suffered a quarter final loss to Nick Kyrgios. Kyrgios was brilliant on the night, particularly on serve, but one cannot help but feel that a Novak Djokovic on top form would have managed more than the one break point against the strong-serving Australian. Equally surprising was Kyrgios' conversion rate on second serve which stood at an amazing 75% against a man widely regarded as the best returner in the sport- probably of all time. On a more positive note, Djokovic did well to battle past Martin Klizan and Juan Martin del Potro in a difficult opening to his Acapulco campaign. The body language was generally positive, and there was that old refusal to lose, particularly against del Potro- signs that bode well for his return to Indian Wells. Perhaps a trip to one of his most successful hunting grounds will spark a return to his brilliant best?

While Djokovic generally enjoys life in Southern California, world number one, Andy Murray has never been comfortable at the venue. Apart from his final in 2009, Murray’s best at Indian Wells has been the quarter finals. He didn’t even make it that far in 2016, falling 6-4 6-4 to Federico Delbonis in the third round. Given his form in the second half of 2016, the Scot would have probably gone in as the favourite for the 2017 title, but that will not necessarily be the case, even though he finally picked up his first title of the season in Dubai last week. Murray is still not playing as well as he did at the back-end of last season, but he will hope that a first title of the season sparks another run of form and results as he approaches a very important period of the season. He had the good fortune of a disintegrating Dubai draw- no fault of the world number one, of course. Even with that, he was quite fortunate to get past Philipp Kohlschreiber in the quarter finals, battling through seven match points in an epic second set tie break before running away with the final set. He followed that up with comfortable victories against Lucas Pouille and Fernando Verdasco- again, without really hitting top form. An unconvincing year has already seen him suffer a three-set loss to Djokovic in the Doha final, and a shocking four-set loss to Mischa Zverev in the fourth round of the Australian Open. His dodgy start to the year, and his poor record in California suggest it may be another struggle in the desert for the Brit.

Roger Federer missed the 2016 tournament because of the freak knee injury he sustained just after the Australian Open, and he would go on to miss the entire second half of the season, but what a stunning return he made in 2017. The great Swiss took out four top ten players- Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and great rival, Rafael Nadal in a wonderful run to the Australian Open title in his first official tournament since a semi-final loss to Milos Raonic at Wimbledon. Not even the great Federer, who always has high expectations of himself could have envisaged such a successful return from his long lay off. The Swiss did not play again until Dubai, where he suffered one of the most confusing losses of his career against Russian qualifier, Evgeny Donskoy in the second round. Federer failed to convert three match points in the second set tie break, then failed to serve out the third set at 5-3, before blowing a 5-1 lead in the ensuing tie break. He basically snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. That will probably be binned as one of those very bad days in the office; for the lack of a more logical explanation for such dramatic capitulation.

Federer won three of his four titles between 2004 and 2006, with the only other one coming in 2012, when he defeated John Isner in the final. The Swiss might not have won the title since 2012, but he always puts himself in a position to strike, notably losing to Djokovic in 2014 and 2015, both in three sets. After ending his long Grand Slam drought in Melbourne, the great man will attempt to terminate his five-year wait for a fifth Indian Wells title.

Rafael Nadal would have been very disappointed not to beat Federer in that Australian Open final. He looked good for the win when he broke early in the final set, but found himself the receiving end of a barrage of awesome stroke-making from his Swiss rival. Still, it was a superb return to action, and form for Nadal, who shut down his 2016 early to recover from a lingering wrist problem. He looked pretty sharp in his first competitive event of the season, despite falling to Milos Raonic in the quarter finals, and he confirmed his return to relevance with his run in Melbourne. Nadal backed that up with another run to the final in Acapulco, where he again suffered disappointment in a straight-sets loss to Sam Querrey. He would no doubt be gutted with his final failures, but if he keeps putting himself in those positions, he is destined to get over the line at some point. With three Indian Wells titles in the bag, the 30-year-old Spaniard knows his way around the Californian desert.

There are a number of players outside the traditional Big 4 who have been in excellent form in recent weeks. Grigor Dimitrov has undergone a remarkable resurgence under coach Dani Vallverdu, with the Bulgarian seemingly on an inexorable quest for the top ten. From looking lost at number 40 in the middle of last year, Dimitrov is playing some of the best tennis in his career. He's one of three players with multiple titles this year (the others being Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Jack Sock)- with his successes in Brisbane and Sofia, and was desperately unlucky not to beat Nadal in their epic Australian Open semi-final. His momentum was halted slightly in a quarter-final loss to David Goffin in Rotterdam. The rest wouldn't hurt, no? Dimitrov has never done well at Indian Wells. It is quite surprising to note that he has never been beyond the second round. Will this be the year to correct that?

Another multiple titlist, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga claimed back-to-back titles in Rotterdam and Marseille to surge back into the top 10. Tsonga's ball-striking ability is well known, and with confidence and momentum coursing through his veins, he will be extremely dangerous at the BNP Paribas Open.

Special mention also goes to David Goffin, who made two consecutive ATP finals in Sofia and Rotterdam. The Belgian reached the Indian Wells semi-finals last season, and he will have genuine designs on a repeat performance this season. Juan Martin del Potro, semi-finalist in his first tournament of the season at Delray Beach, remains the chief of dangerous floaters.

Milos Raonic cannot be overlooked, as he looks to build on the gains of last year’s final. However, having pulled out of the Delray Beach final, his fitness is a concern. Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka will also abhor hopes of breaking the Big 4's hold on the Indian Wells title, despite not being in the best of forms of late. Wawrinka failed to cross the opening round in Dubai, while things didn't exactly go according to plan for Nishikori on the Latin american clay. After losing to Alexandr Dolgopolov in the Buenos Aires final, the Japanese suffered a first round loss to Thomaz Bellucci in Rio.

Can three-time defending champion, Novak Djokovic find some form and fend off the advances of a packed field, or will we have a new champion in 2017? These burning questions will be answered when the first Masters 1000 event of 2017 takes place at Indian Wells from 6-19 March. 

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Indian Wells Masters 2017 tournament preview: Novak Djokovic bids for sixth title at the BNP Paribas Open, 6-19 March

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