No Rafael Nadal.
No Andy Murray.
No Stan Wawrinka.
No clue about how well many other ATP notables will play.
The Indian Wells ATP tournament contains very little sizzle, probably the least amount of buzz since the beginning of the Golden Era of men’s tennis.
Since 2004, a member of the Big Three has won this tournament every year but once (Ivan Ljubicic in 2010). In 13 of the past 14 tournaments, one of tennis’s big dogs has walked away with a desert trophy, but in most those situations, the champion had to go through another member of the Big Three or Murray or Wawrinka to capture the title.
The current injury-obliterated state of the ATP won’t allow for that unless Djokovic is able to play well, and get in Roger Federer’s way. Given Djokovic’s lack of consistent rhythm and preparation — an unavoidable consequence of injury problems — it is hard to see that intersection occurring in the coming weeks.
This tournament might surprise us all and become a sensational 10-day thrill ride, but it is likely that it will become one of two fairly recognizable creatures: 1) A tournament in which Federer wins; 2) a tournament in which the point total will feel twice as large as the quality of the field. Such was the case last week in Dubai, when Roberto Bautista Agut forged a wonderful accomplishment (I say that sincerely — one of the worker bees of tennis was rewarded for his professionalism and fighting qualities), but scored 500 points for beating a 250-level field.
Given this depleted landscape in the desert of Southern California, what really is the big, overarching story heading into the ATP half of the BNP Paribas Open?
One can certainly debate the matter, but for me, it’s the contingent of American tennis players, led by Jack Sock.
The pressure is on the Americans — especially Sock — to deliver the goods at this event.
It is well known that American male tennis players develop a strong serve and a powerful forehand, with the hard courts of Southern California being one of the most fertile breeding grounds for bread-and-butter, 1-2-punch tennis. It is therefore thematically appropriate that Southern California should host a tournament where Americans urgently need to bounce back after a miserable start to 2018.
American players have enjoyed brief moments of quality in the first two months of 2018. Sam Querrey made the final of the New York Open. Frances Tiafoe won the Delray Beach Open. Jared Donaldson made the Acapulco semifinals. Tennys Sandgren reached the fourth round at the Australian Open. Ernesto Escobedo picked up a few notable match wins. Yet, no American player has announced himself as a regular weekly threat, and with so many points waiting to be claimed in these next four weeks in the United States — before the kryptonite of American tennis, red clay, becomes the ATP’s centerpiece surface for 2.5 months — the red-light urgency could not be any greater for Stars and Stripes ballstrikers.
Leading this contingent is — far and away — Jack Sock.
No player faces more pressure in Indian Wells than Sock, who has semifinal points to defend and — after winning the Bercy Masters and making the ATP Finals semifinal round last autumn — has become a target on the ATP Tour. Sock has stumbled out of the gate in 2018, reminded as many players often are in the weeks after they forge an unprecedented and special achievement that the locker room is paying greater attention. Sock’s rise at the end of 2017 guaranteed that he wouldn’t fly under the radar in 2018, and that competitive scrutiny from the rest of the tour knocked him back in January and February.
Indian Wells — with weather conditions more forgiving than often-humid Miami — is the location where Sock has to simultaneously make a move against a depleted field, and also defend his points position in the rankings. It is true that Sock is not terrible on clay (though that is a relatively low bar to assign to him or any other American player), but it is also true that Sock is still not likely to make a killing in a European spring.
If the WTA half of Indian Wells offers very few instances in which players urgently need to deliver a good result, the ATP is different, and Jack Sock is the No. 1 seed on the list of “players who need to win a pile of matches.”
At this website, publisher and podcast host Saqib Ali has discussed the development of men’s tennis players with guest — and former major semifinalist — Tim Mayotte. In that 30-minute interview, which can be found in the Podcasts section of this site’s pages, Mayotte pointed to the deficient development of backhand technique and body rotation among U.S. players, Sock representing a foremost example.
Sock is not merely the current example of a player who is struggling in the months following significant accomplishments. He is also a foremost example of a player who needs to develop his other tools and shots to merely sustain his higher place on tour. Not developing added weapons — or phrased differently, failing to minimize his weaknesses — will lead to a drop in rankings and the predictable (and fundamentally accurate) view that Bercy was more a fluke than an indicator.
Where is American men’s tennis headed? Ask Jack Sock and his compatriots during — and after — the 2018 BNP Paribas Open.
We will see if the Yanks offer good answers after a very slow start to the current tennis season.