Djokovic and Nadal return, Gauff carries U.S. flag at Indian Wells

March 5, 2024 5:42 am

[Source: Reuters]

Novak Djokovic returns to Indian Wells for the first time in five years seeking a record sixth title while Coco Gauff looks to become the first U.S. woman to win the tournament since Serena Williams in 2001 when main-draw action begins on Wednesday.

The Serbian winner of 24 Grand Slam titles hasn’t competed at the BNP Paribas Open since 2019 due to U.S. travel restrictions related to COVID-19. But he has looked relaxed in Southern California the past few weeks, catching Lakers and LA Galaxy games and training at UCLA.

Feeling no pressure could make Djokovic even more lethal, said Paul Annacone, who coached Roger Federer and Pete Sampras and is a commentator with Tennis Channel.

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“With some people you can say relaxation can lead to complacency but not for him, not with his personality and his desire to compete,” Annacone told Reuters.

“Relaxation for Novak should lead to more joy, which should mean more fun. And joy and fun with that great talent tends to equal winning.”

Also back after missing last year’s event is Nadal, who has 22 Grand Slam titles and three Indian Wells crowns.

The Spaniard has suggested that his career might be coming to a close and said he just wants to negotiate the desert event “unscathed” so he stays healthy for the clay court season.

Nadal returned to competition in Brisbane in January after almost a year sidelined with a hip flexor injury, but had to miss the Australian Open with another muscle tear.

Meanwhile, the next generation continues to make inroads.

A successful title defence for Carlos Alcaraz would provide a huge boost in confidence for Nadal’s 20-year-old compatriot.

“To go back-to-back would be spectacular,” Annacone said.

A title at the event sometimes nicknamed the “fifth Slam” would be confirmation that 22-year-old Italian Jannik Sinner’s maiden Grand Slam title in Australia in January was no fluke.

Russian hard-court specialist Daniil Medvedev, dangerous Dane Holger Rune and American 2022 champion Taylor Fritz are among the other men who should prove tough to beat.

On the women’s side, defending champion Elena Rybakina comes to the desert full of confidence after winning Abu Dhabi last month.

“It’s going to be playing quick through the air, the courts tend to be gritty, which will work with her great serve and power tennis,” Annacone said.

There was something of a Big Three developing in the women’s game with Rybakina, world number one and 2022 champion Iga Swiatek and reigning two-time

Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka separating themselves from the pack.

But U.S. Open champion Gauff and world number five Jessica Pegula would love to break up the party with a title to end a long drought for American women at Indian Wells.

Former world number one Naomi Osaka is still trying to recover the form that took her to four Grand Slam titles after a maternity break.

The Japanese fell in the first round of the Australian Open in Abu Dhabi and lost to Karolina Pliskova in the Qatar Open quarter-finals.

“There isn’t a big sample size yet but when you’re that great and you’re still that young, there’s no reason she shouldn’t get back to her top gear,” Annacone said.

“She just has to get some more reps.”