This time last year, Naomi Osaka was a relatively unknown 20-year-old with a quirky, uneasy-in-the-spotlight personality and a world ranking in the mid-40s. Few, if any, guessed that the Japanese-Haitian-American had the stuff to dispatch the likes of Maria Sharapova, Karolina Pliskova and Simona Halep — current/former No. 1s all —en route to the Indian Wells title, the biggest of her young career.
Novak Djokovic, meanwhile, was a lost soul with both an abbreviated service motion and abbreviated confidence. The Serb, attempting to work his way back into relevance after a trying stretch that included elbow surgery, would suffer a stunning 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-1, second-round loss at the hands of an all-but-unknown qualifier. So out of sorts was Djokovic against Japan’s Taro Daniel that he said it felt like his first-ever match on the pro tour.
Fast forward 12 months and Osaka boasts International Tennis Hall of Fame-worthy credentials, having survived her emotion-charged US Open final against Serena Williams, and winning her second straight major at the Australian Open. And Djokovic is back to being the most dominant player in the game, having rebounded from his Indian Wells setback to claim Wimbledon, the US Open and the Aussie Open in succession. No wonder he was named Comeback Player of the Year.
Both players sit atop the rankings at No. 1. Both arrive in the desert as tournament favorites.
Makes you wonder what we’re in for this year. BNPParibasOpen.com looks ahead at 10 things to keep an eye on at the 2019 BNP Paribas Open.
Naomi’s new-look team: Naomi Osaka’s public-eye dismissal of Sascha Bajin, who had helped guide her to her to the biggest titles of her career and the WTA Tour’s top ranking, caught us all off guard. We may never know exactly what prompted the abrupt change, but we’ll soon get a look at her new team. Osaka will make her debut with new coach Jermaine Jenkins at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. (Jenkins is Venus Williams’ former hitting partner.)
Speaking of coaching changes…: Since she last played in Southern California, Simona Halep saw her tenure with Darren Cahill come to a halt. The uber-coach/broadcaster wanted to spend more time with his family, and therefore ended the relationship. After consecutive year-end No. 1 finishes, the Romanian briefly hired Belgian Thierry Van Cleemput as Cahill’s replacement, but is, for the moment, a solo act. She returns to Indian Wells with bittersweet memories. A titlist here in 2015, Halep simply fell flat against Naomi Osaka in the semis here last year, wilting 6-3, 6-0. She’s had some mixed-bag results in 2019, highlighted by a run to the Doha final.
Greco-roamin’: Perhaps no one comes into the fortnight hotter than Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 20-year-old Greek sensation whose free-flowing game (and free-flowing locks) have made him one of the tour’s most popular draws. Tsitsipas stunned Roger Federer in reaching his first Grand Slam semi in Melbourne, captured his first ATP title in Marseille, and last week reached the final in Dubai, where Federer exacted some revenge. He’ll make his Top-10 debut this week in the desert.
Striving for six: Roger Federer (37) and Novak Djokovic (31) are co-leaders atop the BNP Paribas Open’s all-time honor rolls with a record five singles championships each. Will either of them step up to break the stalemate in 2019?
Time warp: To think that Serena Williams first won this tournament as a 17-year-old. Two decades later she’s the most decorated player in the Open Era, chasing only the all-time numbers of Margaret Court. Alexis Olympia’s mom remains a force, no matter how infrequently she plays these days. But her 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 loss to Karolina Pliskova earlier this year in Melbourne, where she held a match point up 5-1 in the third, was jarring. She hasn’t raised the trophy here in 18 years. Can the world No. 10 become the oldest player ever to win a singles title in Indian Wells?
Who’ll be the next young gun to make their move in the desert?: There was a real youth uprising in the Coachella Valley last year, a future-is-now revolt led by 16-year-old Amanda Anisimova (who shocked two-time Slam champ Petra Kvitova), 17-year-old Felix Auger Aliassime (who scalped countryman Vasek Pospisil), 19-year-old Caroline Dolehide (who powered past Dominika Cibulkova), and a pair of 20-year-olds, Naomi Osaka and Daria Kasatkina (who reached the women’s final). Will another youngster or two make their move in 2019?
How will Rafa’s body hold up?: We haven’t seen a whole lot of Rafael Nadal in 2019. After a dominant run to the Australian Open final, in which the Mallorcan didn’t concede a set, he was blown out in the final by a zoning Novak Djokovic. It marked the first time he didn’t win a set in a major final, his 25th. After an injury layoff, he returned to the court last week in Acapulco, only to fall to Nick Kyrgios in the Round of 16 in a three-set thriller. Having sat out the 2018 BNP Paribas Open with a hip injury, the 32-year-old will return to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, where he’s won three titles (2007, 2009, 2013).
Vika back in Top 50: It was a feel-good moment when two-time champion Victoria Azarenka returned to Indian Wells in 2018, a new mom who had been through some tough times. The Belarusian, 29, was reduced to tears earlier this year following a first-round loss to Laura Siegmund at the Australian Open, telling reporters, “I’ve been through a lot of things in my life and sometimes I wonder why I go through them, but I think they’re going to make me stronger.” The two-time Slam champ and former No. 1, now ranked No. 48, is coming off a doubles title in Acapulco, and hopes to regain her footing on the singles court here at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
American men: John Isner, now 33 and a husband/father, continues to lead the charge for the US more than a decade removed from his college days at the University of Georgia. Ranked just inside the Top 10 at No. 9, he may just be the home country’s best chance on the men’s side at the BNP Paribas Open. But there are others who could make a push here, too. No. 51 Sam Querrey reached the BNP quarterfinals last year; No. 35 Frances Tiafoe ventured into his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open (where he defeated Grigor Dimitrov); 21-year-old Reilly Opelka (all 6-foot-11 of him) recently captured his first ATP title in New York; former NCAA champ Mackenzie McDonald upset reigning I-Wells titlist Juan Martin del Potro in the Delray Beach quarters; and No. 46 Taylor Fritz traditionally plays some of his best tennis on these courts.
In the Nick of time: No one’s ever doubted his on-court abilities. But tennis fans have been patiently waiting for a breakthrough from Nick Kyrgios both on the ATP Masters 1000 and Grand Slam level. The good news? The wildly talented Aussie, 23, arrives on the heels of the Acapulco title, his first since winning Brisbane last year. Kyrgios suddenly seems more than motivated by those who question his focus. His successive three-set wins over Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and John Isner, and his straight-sets dispatching of Alexander Zverev in the final, should serve him well on the Southern California hard courts.