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Thursday, March 6, 2014
Desert should spawn familiar results

By Matt Wilansky


You know what they say across tennis circles: Every once in a while an Ivan Ljubicic comes along. Never did that maxim seem more appropriate than in the desert of California four years ago.

Ljubicic was a gifted player who reached as high as No. 3 in the world. But he wasn’t exactly a guy who regularly turned lemons into lemonade, if you know what we mean. But the Croatian’s title at Indian Wells in 2010, which included wins over Rafael Nadal in the semis and Andy Roddick in the final, was possibly his career moment.

Not only that, it kind of came out of nowhere, at least when you look at the recent line of Indian Wells winners. You may have heard of the last three: Nadal in 2013, Roger Federer in 2012 and Novak Djokovic in 2011.

And before Ljubicic in 2010, in descending order, were Nadal, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Federer, Federer, Lleyton Hewitt, Hewitt and Andre Agassi -- players who won a combined 46 majors. Not bad, eh? The recent history in California is pretty clear: Only the elite players have mastered the biggest tournament on the tennis calendar after the Aussie Open. Unless you’re Ljubicic, of course.

Life has been more than comfortable for the Big Four, as if you didn’t know. And it probably won’t come as much of a surprise that in the past 34 Masters 1000 events, they’ve won 32. If you’re doing the math at home, that’s a pretty favorable ratio. But not as absolute as last year’s results in last season's Masters events, which were swept by Nadal (five), Djokovic (three) and Andy Murray (one).

And why should anything change this year? After all, Nadal is your world No. 1 and well-rested. Djokovic whiffed in Dubai -- but his loss came against a rejuvenated Roger Federer. And even though Djokovic hasn’t yet won a title this season, he’s still very much the dynamic player he has always been -- at least there’s little indication he won’t turn things around.

The only major concern is for Murray, who has a middling 12-4 record in 2014 and who is just a few months removed from minor back surgery. He hasn’t advanced past the semifinals this season.

The majors, of course, are what we all pay attention to, but the nine Masters Series on the ATP calendar are eminently important, especially when you consider the guys who have triumphed the most in any season dating to 2006 (with the exception of 2007) have ended the year ranked No. 1 in the world.

The bottom line is that Indian Wells, if nothing else, is a catalyst for the top players to set the tone, to give someone momentum heading into Miami, then the taxing clay season in April. And though Ljubicic, who was one of the game’s premier workhorses, was a wonderful story and won a lucrative tourney he was deserving of, the desert in California is (news flash!) all about the Big Four and which member masters the year’s first Master.