Desert Warfare: BNP Paribas Open Preview

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59911392THE MEN

Ivan Ljubicic took us by surprise last year when the 30-year-old Croat took out Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick en route to the BNP Paribas Open title. Not bad, for a follicly challenged old man. But don’t hold your breath is you’re waiting for a repeat. No longer a one-Slam wonder, Djokovic is making a push for No. 1 after convincing Davis Cup and Aussie Open triumphs. A year ago, we were busy inking Roger Federer‘s eulogy. But despite revealing the occasional chink in his armor, the three-time BNP champ seems almost as hungry as ever. And, yes, there are some question marks when it comes to Nadal’s health; he was hampered by a left hamstring injury in Melbourne, where he saw his push for the “Rafa Slam” cut short in the quarters. But the Spaniard says he’s on the mend, and has already committed to play Davis Cup in March. The Nadal-Federer-Djokovic triumvirate, which has accounted for six of the last seven BNP titles, will be tough to penetrate.

Andy Murray arrives for the American hard-court swing with a chip on his shoulder after dropping to 0-3 in Slam finals. A BNP quarterfinalist last year, he’s been mercilessly picked apart by the critics (James Lawton unapologetically said the Djokovic-Murray AO final pitted a “finished sportsman against someone who more than anything resembled, well, a rather screwed-up adolescent”), and it will be interesting to see if the Scot comes out of the gate in more of an attack mode. In the words of Pete Sampras, “To win against Djokovic, Federer — these guys aren’t going to miss. He needs to find a way to be more aggressive. He’s a little bit too passive.”

Outside of the top four, challenges could come from streaking Swede Robin Soderling, who’s already pocketed two titles this year and reached the BNP semis in ’10; the tirelessly retrieving Spaniard David Ferrer, who downed Nadal in reaching the AO semis; Czech Tomas Berdych, who finally busted through to reach his first Slam final last year; or ’10 BNP finalist and recent Memphis winner Roddick, who, at 28, is well aware that the clock is ticking. And don’t look now, but there’s an intriguing 22-and-under global youth movement consisting of Croat Marin Cilic, AO quarterfinalist Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine, Lithuanian Richard Berankis, Bulgarian Grigor Dmitrov and Canadian Milos Raonic. The best young North American on the radar, the 20-year-old Raonic not only has a devastating serve, he can move and has a sharp volley.

THE WOMEN

Was it really a decade ago that boos descended upon Serena Williams in Indian Wells? The 13-time Slam champ hasn’t set foot in the desert since, nor has her sister Venus. Without them, the BNP women’s field tends to have a wide-open feel. In the past 10 years, there have been seven different titlists, with only Kim Clijsters (’03, ’05) and Daniela Hantuchova (’02, ’07) having doubled up.

Mama Clijsters has won the last two Slams, and in doing so has cemented her spot as one of the greatest hard-courters of all time. Never mind her recent loss to Czech Petra Kvitova in the Paris final, the newly crowned No. 1 is moving and striking the ball as well as in any point in her career and will come in as the favorite, her biggest challenge perhaps coming from the woman she briefly supplanted atop the WTA rankings — Caroline Wozniacki. The big-hitting Dane plays a mean hard-court game herself (the 20-year-old has reached the U.S. Open semis or better the last two years) and reached the BNP final last year, falling to Serb Jelena Jankovic 6-2, 6-4. But her considerable groundies have yet to translate into Slam titles, and she never really fullt embraced her top-of-the-world ranking.

The ’09 Indian Wells champ Vera Zvonareva finished at No. 2 in ’10 after reaching consecutive Slam finals, but as she showed against Clijsters in Flushing Meadows (where she lost 6-2, 6-1), she still has some work to do. The Russian’s win over Wozniacki in Qatar is a step in the right direction.  Elsewhere, defending BNP champ Jankovic has yet to get out of the second round this year; China’s Li Na is riding a confidence high after her groundbreaking run in Melbourne; 30-year-old Francesca Schiavone‘s Italian Renaissance continues (though she’s never played her best tennis in I-Wells); Sam Stosur is trying to find her footing a year after becoming the first Aussie woman to crack the top five in a quarter century; Belarusian Victoria Azarenka hasn’t been right after her frightening on-court collapse at the U.S. Open; ’10 BNP semifinalist Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland is poised for a breakthrough; three-time Slam champ Maria Sharapova (she of the repaired shoulder) has benched coach Michael Joyce and turned to Thomas Hogstedt as she tries to navigate her way back to the top; and the revolving door continues to spin for Ana Ivanovic, who has quietly crept back into the top 20 despite parting ways with yet another coach, Antonio Van Grichen.

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