Rafael Nadal is the bookmakers' favourites to win the the first ATP Masters Series event of 2014, the BNP Paribas Open, more commonly known by its location of Indian Wells.
The Masters Series events are to tennis what the Champions League is to football – the chance for fans to see the very best play each other. Aside from the four Grand Slam tournaments - the Australian, French and US Opens and Wimbledon, it’s the only time fans get to see all of the ATP’s top stars in one event.
There are nine Masters Series events during the course of the season, and the first of those kicks off on Thursday, March 6th at Indian Wells in California, where world No. 1 Nadal will look to defend the title he won so sensationally last year.
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In case readers forget, after an eight month injury enforced layoff, Nadal successfully returned to action on the relative safety of South American clay courts last February. When it was announced that he would be competing on the hard courts at Indian Wells, many speculated that it was too much too soon, and there were doubts if the Spaniard’s fragile knees would cope with the brutality of hard courts.
We needn’t have worried; playing a revamped – more aggressive brand of his usual baseline game masterminded by his uncle Toni, Nadal looked sensational as he ripped through the tournament, clobbering Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych in straight sets along the way and defeating a shell-shocked Juan Martin Del Potro in the final.
As much as anything, it was his win in Indian Wells that laid down a marker that he wasn’t just back, Nadal was going to be the man to beat in 2013. It proved to be the case, as the Majorcan would run away with the season, winning no less than 10 ATP events including the French and US opens as well as five Masters Series titles.
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The signs are already there that the 27-year-old Nadal is going to be the man to beat again this year. He has started 2014 well, winning his opening tournament of the season in Doha, and reaching the final of the Australian Open playing incredible tennis along the way until a back injury hampered him in the final which he lost to Stanislas Wawrinka in four sets.
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Nadal returned to action last week at the inaugural Rio Open in Brazil, and despite being pushed hard in his semifinal against the unheralded Pablo Andujar who had double match-point against him in the final-set tiebreaker, Nadal was at his destructive best in the final , dispatching Ukrainian shot maker Alexandr Dolgopolov in straight sets.
Although the usual suspects of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka – making his first tournament appearance since Melbourne – will all be gunning for his title, the fastest draw in Indian Wells looks likely to remain Rafael Nadal.