There’s a new sheriff in town. In December, Oracle co-founder/CEO Larry Ellison bought the BNP Paribas Open from an ownership group headed by Charlie Pasarell and Ray Moore, quashing rumors that the combined ATP/WTA event — which each year pulls in more fans than any other tournament outside of the Slams might be headed to China or the Middle East. A miracle worker of sorts, the billionaire sportsman just brought the America’s Cup back to U.S. shores for the first time in a decade and a half. But bringing Venus and Serena back to the desert may just be too much to ask.
ROGER FEDERER: Swiss hasn’t won IW since ‘06, but will come in as the no-brainer favorite, having subdued Murray in Melbourne for record 16th Slam. Mr. Perfect is obvious perfect pick.
RAFAEL NADAL: Many thought Rafa would be sidelined until start of clay-court campaign (given knee problems that forced him to retire in Melbourne). But defending champ says he’s ready/willing/able. And if world No. 3 is up and walking, you can’t count him out.
ANDY MURRAY: ‘09 runner-up will have to peel himself off pavement in a hurry (after his reality-check defeat to Fed at the AO) if he wants to rediscover the from-anywhere-on-the-court range that helped him become the first-ever Brit No. 2. Knock against the Scot is that he’s too passive come crunch time. Time to step it up, take some risks and pull the trigger.
NIKOLAY DAVYDENKO: Outside of Mr. Federer, hard to find anyone who’s playing more inspired tennis than the Russian, who’s won two of his last three encounters with the Swiss and closed out ‘09 by beating both Roger AND Rafa en route to winning year-end ATP Tour Finals.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Just when it began to look as if the Serb had found some consistency, he looked vulnerable at AO, where stomach issues held him back against J.W. Tsonga in the quarters.
JUAN MARTIN DEL POTRO: Outside of inspired run at ATP Finals in London, towering Argentine’s post-USO run has been, well, uninspiring. IW would be a nice stage upon which to reassert his punishing 6-foot-6 game.
ON THE EDGE: Andy Roddick, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Marin Cilic, Robin Soderling, Fernando Verdasco.
JUSTINE HENIN: With both Venus and Serena out of the picture, the un-retired Belgian basher suddenly looks like a favorite. Hasn’t played IW since ‘06, but jumped back into Slam form at the AO by reaching the final and is playing with a renewed sense of calm and purpose. Can we call an unranked seven-time Slam champ a dangerous floater?
DINARA SAFINA: Critics seemed to get into likeable Russian’s head in ‘09, and Marat’s kid sis has been in a virtual tailspin ever since. That is when she’s been healthy enough to play. Back injury kept former No. 1 out of Brisbane and Dubai, and it’s hard to imagine she’ll arrive in desert match-ready.
KIM CLIJSTERS: Belgian’s victorious USO comeback still brings smiles, but the tour’s favorite mom was brought down to earth at the AO via a 6-0, 6-1 trouncing by Nadia Petrova. Can the 26-year-old still stomach the week-to-week highs and lows in second career?
VERA ZVONAREVA: Defending champ’s run to IW title was (and remains) biggest achievement of her career. But meltdown-prone Muscovite, who ended her ‘09 campaign with arthroscopic surgery, has had trouble staying healthy.
VICTORIA AZARENKA: Is a breakthrough season in the works for the Belarusian baseliner, who, after parting ways with longtime coach Antonio Van Grichen reached her third Slam quarterfinal in Melbourne and clearly has the stuff to take the next step?
ELENA DEMENTIEVA: Clock is ticking for Slamless 28-year-old. Kicked off ‘09 in impressive fashion, pocketing titles in Sydney and Paris. Long-legged Russian and Olympic gold medalist would love nothing more than to extend her winning streak at the BNP.
ON THE EDGE: Svetlana Kuznetsova, Caroline Wozniacki, Yanina Wickmayer, Maria Sharapova, Nadia Petrova, Jelena Jankovic.