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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 March 2019

Indian Wells talking points: Naomi Osaka enters more new territory and which Nick Kyrgios will turn up?

The best of the WTA and ATP Tours are in California for the first 1000-level tournaments of the 2019 season

Nick Kyrgios adopted the role of pantomime villain in Mexico while producing exhilarating tennis en route to the title. Getty Images
Nick Kyrgios adopted the role of pantomime villain in Mexico while producing exhilarating tennis en route to the title. Getty Images

Which Kyrgios will turn up?

Last week, the best of the ATP Tour were either in Dubai or Mexico competing in 500-level tournaments ahead of the season’s first Masters 1000. History was made in Dubai as Roger Federer became just the second man – behind Jimmy Connors – to win 100 ATP Tour titles. Cue much fanfare and inpouring of tributes praising the greatest and most popular player in tennis history. As usual, the 37-year-old Swiss arrives at Indian Wells a leading contender.

Over in Mexico, a more divisive champion was crowned. Nick Kyrgios, comparable to Federer in talent but not so much in temperament, produced his sparkling best in Acapulco to win his first title since 2017. But this being Kyrgios, it was not achieved without incident. He was subjected to jeers from the crowd throughout the week – which he appeared to revel in – and was told he “lacks respect” by beaten second round opponent Rafael Nadal.

Hate him, love him, or love to hate him, 23-year-old Kyrgios is pure box office and when he is balancing his pantomime villain persona with something that resembles his best tennis, he is quite simply the most exhilarating player in the men’s game.

Unfortunately, this irresistible combination doesn’t happen enough as encouraging spells of form are often followed by long stretches where Kyrgios appears disinterested and unmotivated.

Responding to Nadal’s comments, Kyrgios said “he doesn’t know the journey I’ve been through”, suggesting other factors could have been at play during his recent slump that saw him slide from a career high No 13 in the rankings to No 72 before Mexico.

Back up to No 33, Kyrgios should arrive at Indian Wells riding a wave of momentum, and if he’s dialed-in he could well be a leading contender, even with top seed Novak Djokovic likely waiting in the third round. But if pre-Mexico Kyrgios turns up, he might not even get that far.

However it works out for Kyrgios in California, it certainly won’t be boring.

More new territory for Osaka

Naomi Osaka on the practice courts at Indian Wells as she prepares to defend a WTA Tour title for the first time in her career. Reuters
Naomi Osaka on the practice courts at Indian Wells as she prepares to defend a WTA Tour title for the first time in her career. Reuters

Naomi Osaka solidified her status as the latest star of women’s tennis in January when she clinched the Australian Open title and reached the top of the world rankings.

The softly-spoken 21-year-old was then the main attraction in a lineup of stars in Dubai, but her first tournament after Melbourne ended in early disappointment – losing her opening match in the second round to world No 67 Kristina Mladenovic.

In an emotional news conference after the defeat, Osaka admitted that she was still not comfortable in her new position as the WTA Tour’s leading light, while the Japanese star also had to contend with persistent questions regarding her split from coach Sascha Bajin.

Given her rapid rise, Osaka appears to be entering new territory on a regular basis, and even more awaits her at Indian Wells as she attempts for the first time to defend a title.

It was at the Premier Mandatory event 12 months ago that Osaka provided the first glimpse of her enormous potential, but while she claimed her first career title amid few expectations, her subsequent success – including her first grand slam title at the US Open – means the landscape has shifted significantly.

Osaka is discovering that there is no substitute for experience, but if she can focus solely on her tennis this week and ignore any external pressures, there is no reason why she cannot successfully defend her title.

Even if another early exit beckons, it should be viewed as another step on her learning curve and any overreaction should be kept to a minimum. Osaka is far too talented for a few bad results to have any lasting impact.

If anyone can, it’s Serena

Serena Williams has not competed since the Australian Open but is sure to be a leading contender at Indian Wells. Reuters
Serena Williams has not competed since the Australian Open but is sure to be a leading contender at Indian Wells. Reuters

Serena Williams remains the biggest draw in the women’s game and much of the spotlight will be on the 37-year-old American when she competes in her first tournament since reaching the Australian Open quarter-finals.

Now up to world No 10 despite a selective schedule since her return after giving birth in September 2017, Williams will be reminded just how competitive the women’s game has become in recent years.

Williams is a two-time winner at Indian Wells having only competed at the event six times – a result of her and sister Venus’ 14-year boycott of the tournament after claims they were subjected to racist abuse in 2001.

For Williams to win a third title, though, she will have to do it the hard way. After a first-round bye, Williams will likely face two-time grand slam champion Victoria Azarenka, who defeated the American in the 2016 final.

If the draw then goes to seeding, Williams could then come up against former world No 1 Garbine Muguruza, top-ranked American Sloane Stephens, world No 2 Simona Halep, before Osaka – and a US Open final rematch – in the title decider.

It looks a tall order for a player who has not played competitively for six weeks, but if anyone is up to the task, it’s a 23-time grand slam champion who’s spent a cumulative 319 weeks at the top of the rankings.

Updated: March 7, 2019 08:53 AM

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