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March Madness: The tennis version

Tennis Indian Wells Key Biscayne

College basketball is not the only sport with madness in March. The world’s finest tennis players are in the states for the two biggest events in the sport outside of the Grand Slams. Indian Wells, California and Key Biscayne, Florida always serve as beautiful backdrops for tennis this time of year.

However, two prestigious events back-to-back with no week off in between make it one of the toughest stretches on the tennis calendar. There is no shortage of storylines worth keeping an eye on in the next few weeks.

The WTA’s big 3 are hopefully back

When they are happy and healthy, Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova are still the three best female tennis players in the world. The inconsistency at the top of the game while this trio has spent much of the last two and a half years on the sidelines has only reaffirmed that notion. They have 30 major singles titles and numerous Olympic medals between them.

Tennis Indian Wells Key Biscayne
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Pregnancy, motherhood, injuries, suspension and a child custody dispute have not allowed these three incredible athletes to compete at the same event since January, 2016. That is scheduled to change next week in Indian Wells.

Williams will play her first official event as a mother. She has had this tournament scheduled as her comeback event ever since choosing not to defend her Australian Open title at the start of the year. She will spend the next few days playing one last exhibition event in New York before flying to the California dessert.

Azarenka returned to play two events after giving birth last year, but was then forced out of action again by a custody dispute that became very public and personal at times.

Apparently, things are straightened out enough for the Belarusian to compete for a third title at this event. She has become a master of the last-minute withdrawal in recent months. However, her social media shows her traveling to the event. So, there is more optimism than pessimism that Azarenka will answer the bell this time around.

Sharapova is fast approaching the one-year mark on her comeback from suspension. There have been some flashes of brilliance from the Russian, but also lots of setbacks.

She finds herself ranked just 41st in the world. She has said nothing publicly since losing her first-round match in Doha and withdrawing from Dubai with an arm injury that has been a lingering problem since late 2015. However, Sharapova remains on the entry list in Indian Wells for now. There is some question as to whether her name will actually show up on Monday’s draw.

Expectations should start out low for these three in Indian Wells. Each of them are still dealing with significant issues that will affect their game on the court.

However, they are also three of the fiercest competitors ladies tennis has ever seen. It would be foolish to put anything past them. It will just be great for the sport to have all three of them competing at the same time again. Hopefully, it does indeed happen next week in Indian Wells.

Interestingly, they will all be unseeded. That means they could play top seeds like Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki and Garbiñe Muguruza very early on, or even each other in the first round. For that reason, more than any other, Monday’s draw will be fascinating.

No Nadal

The injury bug continues to bite one of the game’s biggest stars. Since winning the US Open last year, Rafael Nadal has more withdrawals and retirements than match wins.

The 16-time major winner withdrew from a mid-level event in Acapulco this week, citing a recurrence of the hip injury that forced him to retire in the Australian Open quarterfinals. He followed that up by announcing his withdrawal from Indian Wells and Miami/Key Biscayne Friday.

Tennis Indian Wells Key Biscayne
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The good news for Nadal and his fans is that the knee issues that have plagued his entire career seem to be under control at the moment. The bad news is another body part is now an issue.

The Spaniard will not attempt to return to the tour until the clay court season. The 10-time French Open champion has almost always been able to dominate on clay regardless of his health or form heading into that part of the calendar.

Even if that turns out to be the case again this year, Nadal is now 31 years old and has always produced the most physically demanding style of tennis the sport has ever seen. One has to begin wondering how much more his body can take and how much more his mind is willing to take.

Does anyone have anything for Federer?

With American tennis going through a changing of the guard in 2018 from familiar names like John Isner and Sam Querrey to fresh faces like Frances Tiafoe and top contenders like Nadal and Stan Wawrinka sitting out the entire month, the answer to the above question is probably no.

If you are rooting against Federer defending his 2017 titles from these two events, your best hope is Juan Martin del Potro. The big-hitting Argentine finally seems healthy enough to play well every week after over half of a decade of wrist issues. He has overpowered Federer on big stages before, including last year’s US Open. He will also play for the Acapulco title before heading to Indian Wells.

It is foolish to completely discount Novak Djokovic, but the Serb underwent another procedure on his elbow a few weeks ago and is still finding his way this year.

With Federer undefeated on the year and firmly entrenched at the top ranking spot, the rest of the field has their work cut out for them this month and beyond.


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