Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are to fight for the Indian Wells title on Sunday. And quite a scrap it should be, too. With Rafael Nadal, who won three of the North American Hard Court ATP 1000 events last season, out the way, both players have a chance to accomplish two things: first, another victory at the game’s biggest event outside the slams; second, 1000 ranking points, and a chance to gain on current leader Rafael Nadal.
The Indian Wells title is the most important thing that Federer and Djokovic will fight for today. Both men have won here before: Federer four times, Djokovic twice. And it is a title well worth having on the resume. Indian Wells has grown into what is nicknamed the “fifth slam.” It has the most prize money of the ATP 1000 events, the biggest stadium in the U.S outside of Arthur Ashe and one of the strongest draws. Another title would lift both men up the all-time ATP 1000 events list, where Federer currently stands third with 21 titles, and Djokovic is seventh with 16. Another win would move either man up the board and closer to the leader, Nadal with 26.
The winner would also get closer to Nadal in the rankings. Nadal is sitting at the top with 14,085 points but as the defending champion at Indian Wells, he will lose points after his third round exit. Djokovic is in second place with 10,260. And Federer is eighth with 4,625. Whoever takes the title will gain points, with Djokovic going out in last year’s semis and Federer losing in the quarters.
But more than anything, for either man, the title would bring confidence. For Federer, it would bring another boost to what is becoming a revived career. After his flat 2013 season in which he failed to make a Slam final and dropped to eighth in the rankings, Federer has managed to breathe life back into his career. His straight set wins over Anderson and then Dolgopolov in the last two rounds of Indian Wells show just how in-form he is. Making good decisions, such as adding Edberg to his team, strengthening his serve and volley game, recovering from his back injury, and adjusting to a larger racket have all combined to push Federer back into contention at the very top once more. A Brisbane final, an Australian Open semi-final, and a title in Dubai would be nicely crowned with an Indian Wells title.
That crown would sit pretty on Federer’s head before the clay season starts, and would be worth a few wins against nervy opponents in early rounds. And, most relevantly for the seven times champion, it would look even better come Wimbledon. An Indian Wells title would set him up nicely confidence-wise and remind the rest of the tour that the slump was over and Federer was back. And Wimbledon is where his opponents would prefer he did anything but believe in himself.
Meanwhile, for Djokovic, an Indian Wells title would kick-start a so far titleless year. Usually by now Djokovic has an Australian Open title in his trophy cabinet but not this year. Surprisingly too, as after his stellar end to 2013, many thought he would come out of the gates in 2014 firing. But a loss to Wawrinka in Melbourne and to Federer in Dubai, players he was beating in 2013, have meant this season has been fruitless. And his patchy play at this week’s Indian Wells does not look to be up to the standard needed to get past an in-form Federer. Sets lost to Gonzalez, ranked 91, Cilic and Isner all suggest a player struggling with his game, but more so, with his mind. Perhaps he is adjusting to his new coach Boris Becker, or perhaps his opponents have just gotten better. Whatever the problem is he can go some way towards fixing it if he can dig deep and find a way to win the title, just as he dug so deep so often in 2011.
Federer and Djokovic will not just be fighting for the Indian Wells title. There is also the small matter of the head to head between them. Federer leads 17-15, and took their last encounter in Dubai. Before that, he had not beaten Djokovic since 2012 in Cincinnati. The history between the two has been filled with drama both on the court and off it, and this latest installment could be another one to savor. With a lot on the line, you can bet both will going for the lines as these two rivals look to improve both their ATP 1000 title count and their numbers in the rankings. The title and the points will serve as a nice little reminder to the rest of the tour, a certain Spaniard in particular, that they are still factors to be reckoned with.
Commentary by Christian Deverille