A star was born in the form of 5-foot-11 Naomi Osaka. New moms Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka made warm-welcome returns to their livelihood. Thirty-somethings Rafa and Roger continued to defy Father Time. More than a decade into her career, Caroline Wozniacki finally realized her Grand Slam dreams. But Novak Djokovic’s self-guided reinvention may have been tennis’ biggest story of 2018.
This was a guy, after all, who at the beginning of the year looked more lost on a tennis court than a GPS-less driver on LA’s circumvoluted freeways. He was convincingly bounced from the Indian Wells draw by a qualifier ranked outside the Top 100. But the surgically-compromised Serb sure rediscovered his mojo by the summer, reeling off consecutive Slams at the All England Club and BJK Tennis Center. Earlier this year in Melbourne, the 31-year-old eclipsed Pistol Pete Sampras with Slam No. 15. So dialed in was Nole in the Aussie Open final that he somehow made Rafa look all but pedestrian. And that’s no easy feat.
For many tennis fans, his performance against Nadal — a straight-sets, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 triumph — had whiffs of religiosity.
“Every professional athlete wants to be in the zone, where everything flows so effortlessly and you are executing automatically everything you are intending to execute,” observed Djokovic during his title run. “You don’t need to think too much. I guess you’re driven by some force that takes you over and you feel divine, you feel like you’re in a different dimension.”
Djokovic will begin his pursuit of a record sixth BNP Paribas Open title this week at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Unlike last year, he comes in as the clear-cut favorite, although, as we discovered at Tuesday’s draw party, his road to the title tilt is strewn with obstacles (think Nick Kyrgios, Gael Monfils, Borna Coric, Dominic Thiem, et al): BNPParibasOpen.com breaks down the men’s draw:
Top seed Djokovic sits atop the draw of a tournament he has all but owned. The five-time champ reeled off three straight titles here between 2014 and 2016, and is once again playing the kind of tennis that often separates him from the pack. The Serb’s first real test could come in the third round against the enigmatic Kyrgios, who’s coming off a successful title run in Acapulco. The lay of the land only gets tougher from there. Also landing in the top quadrant were No. 8-ranked Thiem, 2018 semifinalist Coric, No. 19 Monfils, and towering young American Reilly Opelka, who in February captured his first ATP Tour title in New York.
Our pick: Novak Djokovic
Germany’s Alexander Zverev and South African Kevin Anderson bookend what might just be the most talent-riddled quarter of the draw, one that’s populated by the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Alex de Minaur, 2018 semifinalist Milos Raonic, Roberto Bautista Agut, 2018 quarterfinalist Sam Querrey and the fast-rising Stafanos Tsitsipas, who on the heels of his maiden ATP title is making his Top-10 debut at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. A mouth-watering third-round clash between Zverev and the shotmaker Dimitrov would surely be a crowd pleaser. Zverev, the reigning ATP Finals titlist, is coming off a runner-up finish in Acapulco, but it might just be the Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas — an upset winner over Roger Federer at the Australian Open — who takes the quarter.
Our pick: Stefanos Tsitsipas
Like Djokovic, Roger Federer is seeking a record sixth title at the BNP Paribas Open. He sure had his chances to hit that number last year, with three championship points on his racquet against Juan Martin del Potro. But Delpo erased all three to capture his first-ever Masters 1000 crown, leaving Federer to wonder what might have been. Is a third consecutive final in the cards for the 20-time Slam champ, now 37? The Swiss likely won’t get too far ahead of himself given the competition. Among the potential early challenges could be a 2017 final redux against compatriot Stan Wawrinka, this time in the third round. Lurking elsewhere are No. 7 Kei Nishikori, No. 11 Marin Cilic, Americans Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz, and Canadian wunderkind Denis Shapovalov.
Our pick: Roger Federer
A three-time champion in the desert (2007, 2009, 2013), Rafael Nadal is the man to beat in the bottom quarter. If the seedings stand, we’re in for a Nadal vs. John Isner quarterfinal. But lots would have to go right for them to get there. Isner, who last year claimed the I-Wells doubles title with Jack Sock and went on to capture his first Masters 1000 title in Miami, would have to navigate potential matchups with 2017 semifinalist Pablo Carreno Busta, 2010 Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych or Russia’s Karen Khachanov. For his part, the 17-time major titlist Nadal would have to survive the likes of No. 15 Daniil Medvedev, No. 21 David Goffin, No. 26 Diego Schwartzman or motivated American and former UCLA star Mackenzie McDonald.
Our pick: Rafael Nadal
First-Rounders to Watch:
Tomas Berdych vs. Feliciano Lopez
Taylor Fritz vs. Steve Johnson
Mackenzie McDonald vs. Joao Sousa