The 2017 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells is in the books, and despite upsets throughout on the men’s side, the final ended up featuring two elite players–Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka–squaring off, with Federer coming out on top in two competitive sets. With the first Masters 1000 tournament out of the way, and the next coming up in Miami, here is a look at what we learned.
Roger Federer is ATP Comeback Player of the Year and has Solved the Rafa Riddle
Coming off of back problems that sidelined him halfway through 2016, most experts expected Roger Federer to play competitive tennis, but few expected him to have both a Grand Slam and a Masters title in hand before April. The two premier events of the season thus far, the Australian Open, and Indian Wells, were won by Federer, who beat two of his major rivals, Wawrinka, and Rafael Nadal to take the title in the California desert. The Swiss legend now has five career IW titles at the age of 35, taking his first title in IW since 2012, and his first Masters title since the summer of 2015.
Besides making a push for a renewed top 5 ranking and a World Tour Finals spot, Federer is a lock for comeback player of the year at this point, and if healthy, is a major contender for at least Wimbledon and the US Open, along with the rest of the remaining Masters 1000 tournaments. In both of his major triumphs this year, Federer outwitted Nadal, who normally has a matchup edge against him. The Swiss Maestro has done it by improving his backhand, resulting in Nadal’s shots towards his backhand having less success, at least on hard courts. Federer is aging like a fine wine, and is far from done despite having accomplished so much already in his career. Whatever Federer has lost physically since his prime, he’s made up in tactical knowledge and decision making improvements with age.
The Shaky Form of Djokovic and Murray Will Open Up the Next Two Grand Slams (French Open and Wimbledon)
Both Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are injured with elbow problems. Djokovic limped into the end of the 2016, and his results have not perked up since. The Serbian #1 is going to have to fight to hold onto world #2 after suffering his third loss of the season at IW (two of them coming at the hands of Nick Kyrgios). Djokovic has been pushed to competitive matches half the time this season (seven of fourteen) and is clearly missing a gear.
Murray at 12-3 isn’t playing terribly, but he’s suffered two losses at the hands of non top 20 players, and nearly suffered a third in Dubai, despite winning the title there. The world #1 has never played well in the California desert, but regardless, his elbow injury is a concern, and he has a lot of points to defend this upcoming clay court season.
Simply put, neither the world #1 or world #2 are safe bets to capture any titles this clay court season, and the French Open, and possibly Wimbledon look up for grabs, at least more so than previous slams. Veterans like Federer, Nadal, Wawrinka, and Juan Martin Del Potro have to like their chances more than recent memory, but also non-slam champions such as young guns Nick Kyrgios (at Wimbledon), and Dominic Thiem or Alexander Zverev (at the French Open), have to be thinking about a first Grand Slam victory as well. Even Gael Monfils and Grigor Dimitrov may have a shot at a first slam, especially Dimitrov after his strong play in Melbourne.
Should Djokovic and/or Murray slip up early at the Summer Slams, we should be in for a very interesting draw with everything to play. Of course they have found form in the past after a run of poor results, so any talk about them losing early is speculative at this point.
The Young Guns Are Finally Able to Match Up With the ATP’s Best
Whether on clay, grass, or hard courts, the ATP young guns are finally rising, and matching up consistently at the tour level with the ATP’s best. 23 year old Dominic Thiem, in his final year as a young gun, is in the top 10, having won a tour title already, and consistently posted wins to move to 17-7 on the year. Thiem pushed eventual finalist Stan Wawrinka to a third set tiebreak in Indian Wells and has been winning the matches he’s supposed to at the highest level. Only deeper runs in the Grand Slams and Masters are separating him from the game’s elite.
Nick Kyrgios remains maddeningly frustrating at times with his up and down results, but he’s shown his peak ability twice this season, serving his way to wins against the normally rock solid Djokovic in consecutive tournaments. If Kyrgios can keep his head on straight and play at his highest level for a string of matches, there is little doubt the charismatic Australian will be a Grand Slam champion. At age 21, he still has time to develop, especially mentally.
Alexander Zverev, 19, has already pushed Rafael Nadal to five sets this year, and won a tour title in Montpellier thanks to wins over Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Zverev fell to Kyrgios at IW, but his all-court game is a threat in the tournaments to come, and he has a mental focus well beyond his years. Fellow teenager Casper Ruud also has a tour semifinal this season (Sao Paulo).
20 year old Karen Khachanov is the future of Russian tennis and nearly scored a top 15 win against David Goffin at Indian Wells. 21 year old Japanese player Yoshihito Nishioka was a lucky loser in the California desert, but he pulled off an upset against top 15 player Tomas Berdych, then was ahead against Stan Wawrinka in the third of their night match, only to succumb under the pressure of serving the match out (twice). The undersized Nishioka is going to have a harder time than the players above at finding success, but he’s quick on his feet and puts a lot of balls in play.
All in all, with more than 10% of the top 100 now made up of players under the age of 23, the young guns are finally coming to challenge the rest of the tour, after a few years of dry spell.
Jack Sock is the Clear American #1 and a Genuine World Tour Finals Contender
Now 15-3 on the season with two titles, and a semifinal in Indian Wells under his belt, Jack Sock is the clear American #1, and will contend for both the World Tour Finals, and the year end Top 10 rankings, with the North American hard court season still off in the horizon. Sock,age 24, has developed his fitness, and built his game around his forehand. Beyond his personal improvements, which have lead to wins over Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov just in the last week, Sock has been able to expand his edge on his fellow Americans, as John Isner has struggled, and the likes of Sam Querrey, Steve Johnson, Donald Young, Ryan Harrison, Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe remain mired either below an elite level, or struggling with inconsistency.
Sock is a consistent top player, and should win most of his matches against non-top 5 players.
Battling Pablo Carreno Busta is a Threat on Hard Courts
After three years of losing records at the ATP level on hard courts, Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta has leapfrogged many of his countryman on the surface, and is now an actual threat off of clay. PCB, now 25, made headlines for his incredible 94 match wins in 2013 (at all levels), and is now on the cusp of the top 20, having reached the semifinals in Indian Wells. Carreno Busta doesn’t have powerful weapons, but he battles hard for every point and wears his opponents down. Last year PCB won two hard court titles en route to a 20-12 record on the surface, this year he’s won at least one match at all of the hard court tournaments he’s entered. Keep an eye on this Spanish battler in the months to come to see if he can reach the top 15 once the clay court season hits.
Kei Nishikori’s Arrested Development
Since reaching the US Open final in 2014, Kei Nishikori has had some good results, but he hasn’t reached another slam final, has just one slam semifinal, and has failed to win any major titles (Masters 1000 level). Now 27, Nishikori is making tons of money as the Japanese #1, and remains in the top 5, but his career is stuck in arrested development.
Nishikori has won just one title since 2016, he’s lost six straight finals, and suffered relatively pedestrian defeats in both Melbourne and IW thus far. With his limited stature and physical issues, the window is not likely to last forever on Nishikori’s prime career, and unless his results markedly improve in the next 12-18 months, we may be looking back on Kei’s career as what could have been, rather than what was. Nishikori’s serve in particular has let him down in recent years, and he’s lacked the punch needed to take down the game’s elite players, or really any opponent with good serving and significant power. His star power is a bonus for the sport, but if Nishikori was from say, the Czech Republic, the assessment of his career thus far would likely be much harsher. You simply can’t count on Kei to win big matches against the game’s best right now.