Commentary

Who can break up the big four?

Updated: March 7, 2012, 1:02 PM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

Novak Djokovic is the man of the last year on the tennis tour. But Roger Federer is the man of the moment.

Federer made it back-to-back tournament wins when he triumphed in Dubai for his first outdoor title in 14 months. A lethargic Djokovic, meanwhile, crashed out in the semis, so there won't be another 41-0 start to a season.

Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Federer -- who is without a Masters crown outdoors since Cincinnati in 2010 -- highlight the Indian Wells draw.

Here's a desert breakdown:

First quarter: Which Nole shows up?

Watching proceedings in Dubai, you couldn't help but admire Federer. In his heyday, he seemed to be on autopilot. Nothing, and no one, could derail him. Tournament after tournament he'd show up, do his business with minimal fuss and walk away the champ. There was no poor body language.

Djokovic, however, can't say the same after his display in Dubai. He toiled in the early rounds before Andy Murray put him out of his misery. To his credit, Djokovic always has been great at postmatch handshakes, but his extended smile at the end of their semi suggested the match didn't really mean much to him.

Will he pick it up in slower Indian Wells, where his win over Nadal last year was arguably the turning point of his 2011 season?

His quarter of the bracket is tame.

Potential third-round opponent Kevin Anderson has beaten Djokovic in the U.S. before (Miami), and Anderson won the Delray Beach title last week to hit a career high 30th in the rankings. But Djokovic hasn't conceded a set in their past three encounters.

The only seed that could give Djokovic trouble, if he isn't in the mood, is Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals.

Andy Roddick likely gained some confidence by downing Federer at MSG, even if it was only an exhibition. But after a first-round bye, Roddick could land Ivo Karlovic. Not someone the American would have chosen.

Prediction: Djokovic

Second quarter: Murray, Mardy and Izzy

Murray's win over Djokovic had to give the Brit a boost: There's no post-Australian Open swoon this year.

But by this time we should know better than to believe such a win will somehow take Murray to another level at the Slams. Further, the overriding memory for at least a few in the Dubai semis will be Murray almost blowing it in the second set when Djokovic wanted to get off the court.

Murray's third-round match figures to be interesting. He might face American Ryan Harrison, who pushed him hard at the Australian Open, or Viktor Troicki, who pushed him even harder at last year's French Open, ultimately blowing a two-set advantage.

Looming in the fourth round is Stanislas Wawrinka, who usually plays Murray close.

It's time for John Isner, who should flourish on a slow hard court, to pick his game up as he approaches the top 10. Likewise, it's time for Mardy Fish to get started in 2012 as he attempts to keep his place in the top 10. If the Davis Cup teammates don't meet in the fourth round, they'll be highly annoyed. Their mini-section is gentle.

How about Isner and Murray battling again on a U.S. hard court?

Prediction: Isner

Third quarter: Roger and Delpo again?

Federer's quarter is stacked with in-form players.

David Ferrer -- how can anyone not like the tenacious Spaniard? -- is 18-1 this year, Juan Martin del Potro comes in at 16-4, and Jurgen Melzer won a title in Memphis last month.

But does the trio present much danger to Federer? Nah.

Del Potro has lost his three matches against Federer since January -- and lost all seven sets. Del Potro was closer in Dubai, although the conditions were much quicker than in Indian Wells.

Ferrer, eliminated in his Indian Wells opener in 2010 and 2011, is a big, fat 0-for-12 against Federer, while Melzer's lone win against Federer came on clay.

No, Federer's sternest early test may well come in the third round, where he'll most likely confront Canadian Milos Raonic for the first time.

If Ferrer and del Potro progress as expected, they would battle in a blockbuster fourth-round pairing. Bring that one on. They slugged it out for five hours in the Davis Cup final in December, with Ferrer prevailing at home.

Prediction: Federer

Fourth quarter: The return of Rafa

Don't expect Nadal to suffer a hangover after losing to Djokovic in their marathon Australian Open final. He has had a month off (pre-planned) to rest up and train.

And away from the clay courts, Indian Wells must be one of his preferred tournaments: In his past five visits, Nadal has won twice, reached another final and been in two other semis. The slow hard courts are to his liking, and Nadal adapts well when the wind is a factor.

Nadal's first two matches are likely versus left-handers -- Alejandro Falla and a back-in-form Jarkko Nieminen -- which will please him. Nadal owns the best record (since 1973) against lefties, going 60-5, according to the ATP. A nice way to ease into the tournament.

Feliciano Lopez, also in this quarter, inflicted two of those defeats on Nadal, but one was on carpet back in 2003. A fatigued Nadal fell to Lopez on grass in the wake of the 2010 French Open.

All signs thus point to a maiden Nadal versus Federer tussle in Indian Wells.

Donald Young's 2011 ignited when he upset Murray in Indian Wells. But Young, another left-hander, has disappointed in the past two months, going 2-5. He has third-round points to defend and a tricky opener, playing a resurgent Steve Darcis. Prediction: Nadal

Semifinals: Isner def. Djokovic, Nadal def. Federer

Final: Nadal def. Isner

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.