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Friday, March 9, 2012
Dream desert final inevitable?

The big question hovering in the air while the Indian Wells draws gets pared to a manageable 32 players by Monday is whether the lengthy proceedings will end with Novak versus Rafa XXXI.

It's a better draw and bigger story than ever, even though No. 1 Novak Djokovic has won their past seven dust-ups.

It's also a particularly interesting question because, whether the "dream final" happens, and how it turns out, will probably give us a pretty accurate forecast for the upcoming heart of the tennis season -- that period that begins with Indian Wells and Miami and continues through the U.S. Open.

So let's look at why the clash might -- or might not -- come to pass.

On the "might" side:

• Although No. 4 Andy Murray scotched Djokovic's hopes of recreating his near-perfect first half, let's not forget that it remains the only match Djokovic has lost this year. The No. 1 from Serbia didn't look like the player we'd grown accustomed to seeing for the better part of a year now, but everyone is entitled to have a bad day now and then -- especially when his opponent is having a great one, as Murray did in that Dubai semi.

• No. 2 Rafael Nadal comes into Indian Wells fresh, well-rested and off what he suggested was a highly targeted training regimen with one goal: Figure out how to beat Djokovic.

This doesn't mean that Nadal will stroll out on the stadium court at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and start playing with his dominant right hand and/or serving and volleying like a regular Pat Rafter. What "changes" Nadal has made are more likely to be subtle matters of shot selection and/or tactics.

• By again putting Nadal and No. 3 Roger Federer in the same half of the draw, the tennis gods have voted for XXXI; Nadal has pretty much had Federer's number lately, while Federer has been a greater threat than Nadal to Djokovic. Federer is 1-2 in Grand Slam matches against Djokovic over the past five majors, while Nadal is 0-3.

• Djokovic and Nadal have outstanding records at Indian Wells. Nadal is 31-5; Djokovic is 22-4. Both men have won the title twice, but Djokovic has a 2-1 edge on Nadal in those desert shootouts. But here's something interesting: Djokovic is 1-0 against Federer at Indian Wells, while Nadal never has played the No. 3 there.

Now, to the "might not" ...

• Djokovic's gluttonous run may be over, which means he may not feel nearly as motivated, or pressured, to prove himself the best player in the world week after week -- especially now that he bounced back from his struggles at the end of 2011 to reassert his dominance at the Grand Slams via his win in Australia.

With five of the ATP's best and most effective servers (ace-machine and No. 7 seed Tomas Berdych, No. 8 Mardy Fish, No. 11 John Isner, No. 30 Andy Roddick and No. 29 Kevin Anderson) in his half of the draw, along with Murray, task No. 1 for Djokovic will be to just get the danged ball back and see what develops from there.

• Nadal may be fresh, but he may also be soft and lacking the match toughness that playing Dubai provided to some of his rivals. But Nadal has blown off playing ATP tournaments between the end of the Australian Open and Indian Wells for years now, with no apparent ill effects. Still, will five matches be adequate preparation for meeting Djokovic again?

Granted, every draw looks easy -- or impossible -- at the outset and often ends up anything but. Still, when the most dangerous guy en route to the semifinals looks to be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and your quarterfinal opponent is projected to be your countryman and Davis Cup pal (Feliciano Lopez), you have to figure that Nadal has clear sailing until the very end -- which is the only part of the tournament that counts for a player of his status.

• Federer has been playing great and freely talking about what a difference it makes to be brimful of confidence. He's also said that one big difference in his game this year is that he's been much better at making a transition from playing defense to offense. Nadal, or anyone else, writes off Federer at his peril.

We also know how leery Rafa is of big servers, and if Milos Raonic somehow gets past Federer, a semi against Nadal isn't inconceivable. The other roadblock in Rafa's path to the final would be No. 9 seed Juan Martin del Potro.

The Roman numerals XXXI look grand, but they aren't exactly chiseled in stone at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden just yet.