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Who's fit enough to survive Indian Wells?

3/9/2010

The crown jewels of the winter season are back, leading off with Indian Wells, and so are the big stars. Roger Federer, once again the undisputed men's No. 1, makes his first appearance since the Australian Open, as does Rafael Nadal, third in the rankings and defending plenty of points prior to Roland Garros. Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin will be on offer, too, with the former looking to prove a point following an early, embarrassing loss in Melbourne.

Keep an eye out for these five storylines in the California desert.

Battle of the (un)fittest

Who'll win the men's title? It could be a case of the last man standing.

Half the top 10 is banged up. Federer has just recovered from a lung infection, Rafa's perennially wobbly knees meant an enforced absence post Melbourne, Andy Murray complained of a sore back, hip, groin and knee in Dubai, Nikolay Davydenko is nursing a sore wrist, and Andy Roddick's shoulder wasn't 100 percent at recent stops in San Jose and Memphis.

U.S. Open champ Juan Martin del Potro's momentum was quashed by a bum wrist, and he's out altogether.

Heck, we're only into the third month of the season.

Federer had his first hit in 2.5 weeks Saturday, so he'll hope to ease into the tournament. The slow hard courts of Indian Wells haven't been kind to the Fed Express the previous three years. Guillermo Canas knocked the Swiss out in the second round in 2007, Murray downed him comfortably in last year's semifinals, and Mardy Fish pulled off a shocker in the 2008 semifinals. That season, though, Federer was working his way back from another illness, mono.

Nadal should have skipped Indian Wells and Miami this year to save the knees, some have suggested. You can understand why. He may be the defending champion and only 23, but it's clear he now needs to take such preventive measures to prolong his career. So what if his ranking dips slightly.

The Belgian reaction

After losing to Serena Williams in the Aussie Open final, Henin vowed to work on her fitness because she "suffered a lot" during the fortnight. Faithful coach Carlos Rodriguez also singled out the serve for work.

In the third tournament of her comeback, Henin, a wild card, has a real chance to excel, given the continuing absence of the Williams sisters and Dinara Safina's withdrawal (the back, still). The more she plays, the more Henin's majestic all-court game figures to come together.

Somewhat surprisingly, this is only Henin's fifth visit to Indian Wells, and first since 2006.

Clijsters' only action since a crushing 6-0, 6-1 defeat to volatile Russian Nadia Petrova in Melbourne came in the form of last week's Billie Jean King Cup, an exhibition, at Madison Square Garden.

Clijsters enjoys Indian Wells, winning 14 straight, excluding a walkover loss to American Laura Granville in 2004. Forced to qualify in 2005, her last appearance, thanks to a wrist injury that sent her ranking tumbling, Clijsters beat five seeded players en route to the title, including then No. 1 Lindsay Davenport.

Henin has a nice path to the quarterfinals and possibly a rematch with Elena Dementieva, while Clijsters faces a potentially tricky third-round foe in Alisa Kleybanova.

Serena and Venus will be particularly missed, since they're a combined 24-2 in 2010.

Murray's charm offensive?

It hasn't been the best five or so weeks for Murray, starting with a convincing and demoralizing loss to Federer in the Australian Open final. He could be excused for falling to Federer in the 2008 U.S. Open final, given organizers did the Scot few favors, and it marked his debut in a major final, but many expected the 22-year-old to triumph Down Under.

Murray then drew stinging criticism from a tournament director for withdrawing late from Marseille, and further got into trouble for admitting he toyed with his game in a second-round loss in Dubai to Janko Tipsarevic, treating the clash more like a practice session. (We can only hope Murray continues to be his honest, open self in press conferences, unlike the ultra guarded Tim Henman.)

Murray reached the final in 2009 and needs another extended stay this year to make up for the ugly Melbourne ending.

Sharapova and the rest of the Russian women

Last year Maria Sharapova played in Indian Wells, but only in doubles as her rehab from a serious shoulder injury continued. She enters the 2010 tournament on a modest roll, winning the Cellular South Cup in Memphis in late February.

Wanting matches after an unexpected first-round loss at the Australian Open, Sharapova played five and didn't drop a set. Mind you, the 22-year-old didn't have to face a player in the top 65. Still, Sharapova won more than 80 percent of points behind the first serve against Swede Sofia Arvidsson in the finale, a good sign for her. She wants to extend the run into a big tournament. Sharapova's opener could be against Jelena Dokic, a stiff test.

Another Russian, Svetlana Kuznetsova, is the top seed due to Serena's no-show and Safina's injury. Kuznetsova has twice reached the final in Indian Wells, although when she's the favorite on paper, she rarely delivers. Dementieva can't do much worse than last year. Burned out, the Dementieva of old returned, hitting 14 double faults in a second-round loss.

Kleybanova, armed with a huge game, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, a surprise semifinalist in 2009, won their first titles the past two weeks in Malaysia and Mexico, respectively.

The other Argentine

Del Potro is out, but another Argentine, David Nalbandian, is in.

Nalbandian is on the mend from hip surgery, ranked 139th, while fellow veterans Lleyton Hewitt and Tommy Haas sidelined because of hip injuries.

Nalbandian, benefitting from a wild card, remains one of the most talented pros on the circuit and a serious threat to the top five -- when healthy and committed.

He proved yet again how much he loves the Davis Cup, bouncing back from a leg injury to bail out the visitors in Sweden this past weekend and showed ample guts in winning a second-round match in Buenos Aires in February despite the leg troubling him.

If only he could exhibit that kind of heart year-round.