Tennis' version of March Madness

Does it seem like the tennis season all but disappears following the initial high of the Australian Open? That the months following the first Grand Slam act only as an overture until the French Open arrives in late May?

While that perception is understandable, the reality is the results in between the first two Grand Slams have a significant impact on the season.

A majority of the top-notch players assemble for the month of March as the Masters Series gets under way. It starts this week in the desert of Indian Wells, Calif., for the Pacific Life Open (March 5-18), followed by the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla. (March 19-April 1).

The Masters Series is comprised of Tier I events, assuring the participation of the world's elite players. They are mandatory for the men; a no-show results in zero ranking points, which will adversely affect a player's year-end ranking. Unlike other non-Grand Slam events, participants are not afforded the luxury of early-round dismissals without consequences. The year-end race consists of the accumulation of the following: points from the four Grand Slams, the nine Masters Series events and the best five other tournament results.

And once again, No. 1 Roger Federer will be the headlining act. The Swiss is coming off another title run in Dubai, his seventh straight championship. With a title at Indian Wells -- which would be his fourth straight Pacific Life title -- Federer's match win streak would reach 47, breaking Guillermo Vilas' Open era record of 46 straight wins set 30 years ago (Federer's current streak is at 41).

In 2006, Federer became the first player to win back-to-back Indian Wells and Miami titles in successive years. Federer has won a total of 12 Masters Series tournaments, five shy of Andre Agassi's record. During Federer's three-year odyssey hovering above the rest of the field, he has been victorious in 11 of 18 Masters Series events he's entered.

Federer isn't the only defending champion. The women's No. 1 player, Maria Sharapova, will take to the court for only the second time since being manhandled by Serena Williams in the Australian Open final. The Russian will have the benefit of a watered-down field in Indian Wells -- Sharapova and No. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova are the only top-five players in the draw.

The apex of the next month for the women will come at the Sony Ericsson Open -- the proclaimed fifth major and only mandatory non-Grand Slam event -- when all the top players are expected to participate. However, competing in consecutive Masters Series events has proven to be an arduous task for many.

Williams, who has not played since winning the Australian Open, is slated to make her return at the Sony Ericsson Open. Now ranked 15th in the world, Williams is a three-time champion at this event. She last won this tournament in 2004 after an eight-month layoff to mend a surgically repaired knee.

Last year, Sharapova won Indian Wells and then reached the final in Miami (losing to Svetlana Kuznetsova), becoming just the fifth player to reach both finals in the same year. Her early-season success was a sign of things to come: She went 15-1 in the U.S. hard-court season, capped off by winning the U.S. Open.

Following the two largest springtime North American tournaments, the Masters Series takes a brief hiatus before resuming in mid-April. In all, seven more of these Tier I events are on tap.

So while many fans are patiently waiting for the next Grand Slam, the players are not. The Masters Series evokes plenty of excitement, keeps the competitors' juices flowing and, just as importantly, will shape the outcome of the season for many players.

Matt Wilansky is a general editor who contributes frequently to the tennis page.