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Serious Tennis Begins at Indian Wells; Rafael Nadal's Golden Opportunity

As I started following the Masters Series at Indian Wells, I realized that I had hardly followed any tennis since the Australian Open. In fact, barring the exhibition match between Pete Sampras and Fernando Verdasco at San Jose Open, I had not watched any tennis, live or recorded. The month long break without any significant tennis right after a Grand Slam works wonders in diverting your attention to other aspects of life, and easily succeeds in getting back your attention once top-level tennis comes back to the arena. This is when you wish that the French Open and Wimbledon were farther apart, with at least a Masters Series tournament on grass in between. Sometimes a break from the game is exactly the catalyst needed to spring up the popularity of the same.

Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi had a serious confrontation at Indian Wells

The focus now shifts to the Californian desert in Indian Wells, where one of the tennis’ most prestigious tournament is being held. The anticipation of the tournament was huge as the four greatest players of the last two decades – Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – entered the tennis court for an exhibition, but the enjoyment was cut short as things started to get heated between Sampras and Agassi.

Enough has already been discussed on the issue; Agassi has even come up with a public apology towards Sampras, but the damage has been done. The crowd was uncomfortable throughout the match after Agassi started the attack, and Sampras responded, and it has left a big scar on the two most celebrated champions of the last decade. Agassi may not have intended it personally, and Sampras may not be at fault given his more serious and introvert character, but it does not matter in the end.

But, as Steve Tignor once said, sports fans may never forgive, but they like to forget and move on, and this is the beauty of any sport – not forgiveness, but forgetfulness. And this is how tennis moved on at Indian Wells as if nothing had happened. The departure of the Australian Open semi-finalist, and tournament favorite, Marin Cilic in the very first round was surprising, the return of Super Mario Ancic to competitive tennis was heartening especially after he fought back after squandering a 5-0 lead in the second set, while the usual hiccups faced by Novak Djokovic – he saved three match points against Phillip Kohlschreiber before scrambling through in the end – was exasperating.

But the marquee news is that of the return on Rafael Nadal after his retirement during the quarters at Melbourne. He has eased through his first two matches, hitting fast and deep, and moving nicely, although he has hardly been put under pressure till now. Nevertheless, the signs are encouraging as the Spaniard is looking confident – much more than he looked at Melbourne – and eager to prove himself. In fact, this tournament has provided him the ideal platform to come back into form and gain valuable confidence before the start of the clay season. His three main tormentors over the last 10 months – Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro and Nikolay Davydenko – are already out of the tournament due to different reasons. Andy Murray who blasted him off in Australia is in the other half featuring Roger Federer.

With the departure of all the big hitters from his half of the draw, and only Djokovic to contend with, Nadal has been given the very opportunity that he may has beenlooking for to end his 10 month title drought. The slow, extremely hot and windy conditions are tailor made for his style of play, and this is one surface where he may be expected to dominate Federer even when he is out of practice and start his march towards the important dirtball season.

It is up to Rafael Nadal to grab the opportunity to make most out of it.

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