A date in the desert

Back in the day, when ships sailed to the far side of the world, they sometimes encountered The Doldrums.

It was a strange seam between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, a windless, low-pressure area near the equator that left sails hanging, sometimes for days. The nautical term entered our language and has come to mean listless and stagnant -- an apt description for the mild tennis hangover that follows the Australian Open every year.

But on the last day of February, we were jolted out of those doldrums when Roger Federer, down a set and facing break points in the second, managed to rally and beat Novak Djokovic in Dubai. A loss in that match -- a certainty in many minds -- would have given Federer a 16-16 head-to-head record against Djokovic, leaving perhaps the Greatest Player of All Time with a non-winning record against Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Djokovic.

Instead of that pivot point to oblivion, though, we have ... well, what do we have here, really? Fed is not Ded just yet.

March is upon us and, for American fans of tennis, this back-to-back blockbuster is as good as it gets: The BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells followed by the Sony Open Tennis in Miami.

Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob is already fired up.

"It's a monthlong tennis extravaganza in America, two very special tournaments that we'll be covering," he said. "There's a lot of storylines to savor. Looking forward to it."

Brad Gilbert, ESPN analyst and former coach to Murray and Andre Agassi, likes the unsettled nature of the men's game, where Stanislas Wawrinka is the freshly feted Australian Open champion.

"You know what?" Gilbert asked. "For the first time in umpteen years, just like in hockey, we have a line change. Stan the Man shook it up. It's nice to see a little variety. It reminds you of how it used to be.

"Now you're going to get completely different matchups in quarterfinals. Anyone can play anyone -- and beat them. It puts a lot more intrigue into the draw. If Stan can win, maybe somebody else can win, too."

On that optimistic note, let's move to the top-ranked players as they contemplate lacing them up for Indian Wells. Here, in the racket-spinning tradition of "Up or Down?," we assess their current status:


No. 1 Rafael Nadal

It was only a year ago that Rafa, on the wings of his triumphant return from a seven-month sabbatical, won the title at Indian Wells. He backed it up with the rare North American sweep in the fall, winning Montreal, Cincinnati and the US Open. Rafa had an eventful Australian Open, reaching the final but going quietly there to Wawrinka when his back imploded. If the results from Rio are any indication, Nadal will be fine for Indian Wells. He won the title and has the second-best record in professional tennis, 16-1.


No. 2 Novak Djokovic

This should be interesting. In 2011, Djokovic won three of the four majors. You wondered if he was going to play the Federer card and collect a bunch of Grand Slams in a short period of time. In the past nine, he's come away with only two. He lost to Wawrinka in the quarterfinals Down Under. And then last week, he fell to Federer, ending a three-match win streak. "I thought he'd win the tournament in Australia," Gilbert said. "I expect he'll bounce back and win one of three remaining majors this year." Djokovic has been an Indian Wells champion twice, in 2008 and 2011.


No. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka

After his astonishing breakthrough performance in Melbourne, the 28-year-old Swiss player has been quiet. The only thing on his plate was a singles victory in a Davis Cup win over Serbia. He should be fresh and ready to go. "Wawrinka might be the most interesting guy," Gilbert said. "Maybe after his big year last year you think maybe there's going to be a little bit of a drop-off. And then he wins a major. I did not see that coming. Curious to see what he's got." Said Gimelstob: "That's the storyline we've been craving: Can someone else break through at very highest level? It's an interesting dynamic once you achieve something so significant and reach that milestone. It will be interesting to see how he handles it emotionally. I would be surprised if he doesn't have good results in Indian Wells and Miami."


No. 4 David Ferrer

The 31-year-old Spaniard is coming off his best year ever, but he won't take the court at Indian Wells after sustaining a thigh injury last week. His ranking rose to a career-high No. 3 and he got to the finals of the French Open. What sometimes gets lost is his consistent excellence on hard courts. He made the semifinals at the Australian Open and the quarters at the US Open. This year, he went out in the quarters at Melbourne to Tomas Berdych. Last week in Acapulco, he lost to Kevin Anderson in the quarterfinals. For whatever reason, though, Indian Wells does not agree with him. Ferrer's departed in the second round in three of the past four years.

Del Potro

No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro

This doesn't look good. Del Potro has been nursing an injury to his left wrist that leaves him unable to strike a proper backhand. He was the No. 2 seed last week in Dubai -- and was forced to retire from his first match against Somdev Devvarman. It's remarkably similar to the right wrist injury that required surgery and essentially knocked him out for a year. The lanky Argentine was an Indian Wells finalist a year ago, but might not make it to the line this week.


No. 6 Tomas Berdych

A few weeks ago, Berdych buzzed through the formidable field in Rotterdam, beating Jerzy Janowicz, Ernests Gulbis and Marin Cilic in succession to take the title. At the age of 28, he too, is playing some of his best tennis. A year ago at Indian Wells, he reached a career-best semifinal.


No. 7 Andy Murray

Perhaps there are more questions surrounding Murray's game than anyone else's. After undergoing back surgery and missing the last two months of the season, he's been spotty, losing to Federer in the Aussie quarters and to Cilic in the quarters at Rotterdam. He played fast and loose last week in Acapulco, escaping a 6-1 first-set hole in the quarters against Gilles Simon, but losing consecutive tiebreakers and falling to Grigor Dimitrov in the semifinals. His ranking is down to No. 7. Said Gimelstob: "Historically, he's played well in one of those two events every year. I'll be surprised if he's not in the hunt for both titles."


No. 8 Roger Federer

Low and behold, a healthy body (the back ... is back), a new coach (Stefan Edberg) and newly aggressive attitude (serving and volleying!) has Federer looking like, well, he's 28 again. He's a four-time champion at Indian Wells, winning as recently as 2012. "Roger looks sharper and fresher and is already more dynamic in 2014 than he was in 2013," Gimelstob said. "Beating Djokovic, who he hasn't beaten in a while, was impressive. Roger has shown he's back in the conversation, and deservedly so."