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Friday, March 8, 2013
Is Roger Federer ready for desert defense?


Since the Australian Open, the pros have been either traipsing all over the world in quest of ranking points and cash or putting their feet up and marking time until the next big event. Now that next big event is here: the Indian Wells combined event, a Masters 1000 for the ATP men and a Premier event for the women.

Everyone who is anyone is playing, with the exception of Venus and Serena Williams, who still haven't forgiven the tournament for the troubles they had there in 2001. Their personal boycott is principled, but it hasn't appreciably hurt the tournament. And the Maria Sharapovas, Victoria Azarenkas and Daniela Hantuchovas (all former champions) are probably endlessly thankful for the sisters' providing them with the opportunity to win so big an event.

With the exception of Sharapova, the No. 2 seed, the elite players won't swing into action until at least the weekend. So let's take a look at what's at stake for them in the first major clash since the Australian Open:

ATP No. 1 Novak Djokovic: At stake? Nothing. This guy is playing with house money. He won the first Grand Slam of the year, scooped up an easy W in Davis Cup and picked up the title (along with half-a-million bucks in prize money, plus a hefty appearance fee) in Dubai just about a week ago. He's 26-5 in the desert near Palm Springs and has won this tournament twice (2008 and 2011).

WTA No. 2 Victoria Azarenka: With No. 1 Serena out of the picture, what does the top seed have to worry about? She's 3-1 against Sharapova in their past four meetings, and that lone Sharapova win was in Istanbul on the day after Azarenka clinched the year-end ranking for 2012.

ATP No. 2 Roger Federer: He has nothing to prove to anyone, but his losses to Julien Benneteau in the quarters of Rotterdam and to Tomas Berdych in the semis at Dubai have jump-started the recurring theory that Federer's days as the equal of Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal are over.

All this wouldn't be so alarming -- if you didn't see the Dubai final, and how easily Djokovic handled the same Berdych who had manhandled Federer a day earlier. The all-time Grand Slam singles champion's situation isn't desperate, but Federer needs to make a statement -- and he might have to get by Nadal in the quarterfinals to do so.

WTA No. 3 Sharapova: The challenge is simple: Show that when it really counts, you can still win big events. Sharapova hasn't won a tournament since she mastered Sara Errani (then a lowly No. 21 seed) in the French Open final last year.

ATP No. 3 Andy Murray: He hasn't played a tournament since the Australian Open; let's hope he still remembers which side of the notch to start serving from -- and how to compete on the hard courts that are his best surface.

WTA No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska: Did we see Aga having a pity party with ATP No. 4 David Ferrer (he's keeping that seat warm for his pal Rafa)? Both of them have been marvelously consistent, but each one still gets crushed by one or more of the top players with dispiriting regularity in big matches.

ATP No. 5 Rafael Nadal: His return after a seven-month injury timeout has been an unqualified success; he has won two titles and is 12-1 on the year. But those wins were in lesser events, and on red clay.

Still, this is Rafa -- he has won the title twice, but he doesn't need to win or even do particularly well, given his ongoing prowess on clay. This is his first major event in seven months, and the first hard-court event for the "King of Clay" in almost a year. If he leaves Indian Wells after losing fair and square in any round without pain in his knees, it will be as valuable for him as a win in the final.

WTA No. 6 Angelique Kerber: Off to a disappointing start this year (she's 3-3 since the start of the Australian Open), she needs to show she can keep her place within striking distance of the top. The hard courts suit her game.

ATP No. 6 Tomas Berdych: Once again, the whole world is watching to see whether Berdych can join the elite big four this year. Windy and cool conditions that sometimes plague Indian Wells would hurt his chances.

WTA No. 7 Petra Kvitova: It seems like forever that we've been waiting for the tall, rangy Czech southpaw to dial in that big game again (she won Wimbledon in 2011). She finally showed signs of accomplishing that last week in Dubai, taking the title with consecutive wins over No. 3 seed Radwanska, No. 8 Caroline Wozniacki and No. 5 Errani. Is she really back, and if so -- watch out!

ATP No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro: He's still looking for traction in the late stages of big events but seems stuck just below the elite class he appeared to join with that upset of Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open final. His real company these days is Berdych and No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

WTA No. 8 Sara Errani: It's all gravy for the 5-foot-4 25-year-old now that she has amply backed up that terrific French Open of last year (l. to Sharapova in the final).

ATP No. 9 Janko Tipsarevic: He's treading water, trying to stay buoyant in the top 10 despite losing three straight first-rounders since he had to retire with injury in his fourth-round match with No. 10 seed Nicolas Almagro at the Australian Open.

WTA No. 9 Samantha Stosur: She's 4-4 since the Australian Open and doesn't look like a contender anymore.

ATP No. 10 Richard Gasquet: He's flashy but too erratic to pose much of a threat.

WTA No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki: She continues to struggle, and can't be any more happy than her golfing boyfriend, Rory McIlroy.

Tee 'em up, everyone.