Updated: March 6, 2012, 2:20 PM ET

A lot on the line for Djokovic, Azarenka

Garber By Greg Garber
ESPN.com
Archive

A year ago this time, Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka had yet to ascend to their No. 1 thrones.

Heading into the welcome strain of March Madness that is Indian Wells and Miami, they were ranked No. 3 and No. 9, respectively, among their peers. And then they really took off.

Djokovic won all 12 of his matches on North American hard courts, beating No. 1 Rafael Nadal in both finals and No. 2 Roger Federer in the semifinals in Indian Wells. The Serb left with two coveted ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles and a 24-0 record for the season that would eventually reach a spectacular 43-0.

Azarenka came in with a middling 6-4 record but reached the quarterfinals at Indian Wells before retiring at 0-3 with a hip injury to eventual champion Caroline Wozniacki. In Miami, Azarenka took down No. 2 Kim Clijsters, No. 3 Vera Zvonareva and No. 13 Maria Sharapova in her last three matches, dropping a total of only 14 games.

Now Djokovic and Azarenka find themselves No. 1 and looking sharp off triumphs at the Australian Open. Azarenka is a Djokovic-like 17-0 to start the season, with three titles. That's the best start among women since Sharapova opened the 2008 at 18-0. Azarenka has a way to go before she reaches truly historic territory. Steffi Graf won her first 45 matches in 1987 and a decade later Martina Hingis went 37-0.

Djokovic started the season 10-0 but fell to Andy Murray last week in the semifinals at Dubai. He looked tired and wasn't moving particularly well. Still, the desert air seems to complement his game.

There is some pressure on both of them to perform; Djokovic is defending 2,000 points but still has a significant cushion on Nadal. Azarenka, defending 1,250 points, is being pressed by Sharapova and Petra Kvitova, who is defending only 85 points. Azarenka is guaranteed to remain No. 1 at least through Miami, which would run her modest total to nine weeks. She is the eighth different No. 1 seed at Indian Wells in the past eight years.

Djokovic, based on the form of Federer, Murray and Nadal, likely will have a tougher time defending. Federer, the hottest player coming in, defeated Murray in last week's Dubai final and has won two titles in three weeks.

"There is no substitute to confidence," Federer said. "The end of last year was exceptional, so it's nice to also win a tournament outdoors now. That gives me hope that I can carry it over to Indian Wells and Miami."

Serena and Venus Williams continue their boycott of Indian Wells, but injuries will prevent only three other marquee players from appearing: No. 10 Andrea Petkovic, No. 29 Robin Soderling and No. 36 Clijsters.

Tennis Channel has early round coverage of both events. ESPN2 will televise a men's quarterfinal match and women's semifinal from Indian Wells on March 16, with the remaining matches on ABC March 17-18. ESPN2 has quarter and semifinal coverage from Miami on March 28-30, and CBS will televise both finals. ESPN3 carries the event from March 10-16.

5 Questions With …

Justin Gimelstob

The barking puppy in the background was no match for Justin Gimelstob as he spoke from his Florida home. In fact, the former pro's voice and face will be virtually everywhere this coming season. Not only is he a player representative on the ATP's board of directors, but he's also an analyst for Tennis Channel -- he'll be working Indian Wells and Miami this month. Gimelstob, 35, also contributes to the "ATP World Tour Uncovered," a syndicated television series seen in 140 countries, and will be part of NBC's Olympic tennis coverage later this year and U.S. Open broadcasts on CBS. Looking for some insight into the unstable political climate in the men's game, ESPN.com tracked down Gimelstob earlier this week.

ESPN.com: The United States Tennis Association recently said it would likely move the U.S. Open men's final to a Monday, creating a much-needed day of rest between the semifinals and final. Your thoughts?

Justin Gimelstob: I think they're actively betting that this would be a compromise the players are comfortable with. Believe me, I absolutely understand the priorities and importance of television. But when you play the first round over three days, it notoriously backs up in the second week. I would say if Wimbledon can finish its event in 13 days, there's no reason the U.S. Open can't finish in 14 days.

ESPN.com: What's the mood on the men's side as the players gather in Indian Wells?

JG: We'll be having a board meeting of the council and the players will be talking. [New ATP executive chairman and president] Brad [Drewett] has been meeting with the top players, getting the pulse, which is a good thing. With all the players in America for the next month, a lot of dynamics will reveal themselves. The reality is when you have [tournament] ownership and talent, there are always going to be challenges. Ownership always wants more play for less; talent always wants to play less for more. With all of the entities involved -- the Grand Slams, the ITF, men's and women's tennis -- it's complicated.

ESPN.com: With concern about their cut of prize money at the Slams, is a players' strike possible?

JG: The only ones that can answer that question are the players themselves. My job as a player representative is to work hard and give them the right information. Let me just say that these two tournaments -- Indian Wells and Miami -- are both excellent events and run very well. Larry Ellison has done a terrific job in Indian Wells, with $1 million going to both winners this year. At the same time, that these two tournaments occupy such exclusive real estate -- one month ties up a lot of opportunities for a lot of players -- might be something that deserves to be looked at. We still have to address concerns about the U.S. Open and the prize money at the Grand Slams. We've had a few months for everyone to cool down, but I don't expect a lot of short days.

ESPN.com: How do you see events unfolding on the court with respect to the men?

JG: Well, first it should be noted that Federer has more points than anyone since the U.S. Open. As far as his tennis skills go, he's been great. The reality is he's going to be more successful in the best-of-three format. The Grand Slams, with best-of-five, are going to test him physically. The top four guys are clearly a cut above. It's interesting because of the matchups. Roger is a tough one for Djokovic and Djokovic is brutal for Rafa. The others are all pick 'ems. I was hitting with Mardy Fish earlier today and I have to say the level of tennis we're seeing is absolutely amazing. It looks very easy from the air-conditioned broadcast booth. The physicality, the level of the shots. Rafa and Djokovic are out there bludgeoning each other for six hours. There's a lot of intricate dynamics with those guys that comes down to a shot here or there, the smallest level of minutia. This month will offer some really fun, unique storylines.

ESPN.com: How about the women?

JG: I think the [Victoria] Azarenka story is a nice one. Being No. 1, can she consolidate and build on that? Petra Kvitova is a great talent. Can she take the next steps? And then you look at the Williams sisters and that brings a Q-factor and a certain energy level. And you have Maria Sharapova, who is making it to the later stages of tournaments. I have so much respect for the way she competes and gets the most out of her physical gifts.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Comments

You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?