Indian Wells preview: Djokovic absence opens up men's draw, Swiatek looks to defy history

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Novak Djokovic's absence from the Indian Wells Open has caused a stir in US politics, and on the tennis court it is hugely significant, too.

Sport was given a jolt three years ago when Indian Wells organisers cancelled the event on the eve of action getting under way, citing one local case of COVID-19.

At that point, on March 8, 2020, there had been more than 500 confirmed cases across the United States, with 21 deaths. Soon enough, events across the globe were being postponed or scrubbed.

Coronavirus travel restrictions prevented the unvaccinated Djokovic from taking part last year, and they will keep him away again this time, despite calls from two Florida senators for the jab requirement to be lifted by President Biden to allow the Serbian into the country.

With the world number one sidelined, Daniil Medvedev and Carlos Alcaraz look likely challengers for the men's title. There have been surprise champions in recent times, with Cameron Norrie winning in 2021 and Taylor Fritz carrying off the title 12 months ago, so it would be hasty to rule out something similar.

In the women's event, there has not been a successful title defence since Martina Navratilova won in 1990 and 1991. That can partly be attributed to Serena and Venus Williams boycotting for over a decade at the peak of their powers after complaining of facing racial abuse, and in their absence no player stepped up to dominate.

Iga Swiatek triumphed in Indian Wells and Miami last season, racking up the 'Sunshine Double', and she starts as a strong favourite again, but defeat in the recent Dubai final to Barbora Krejcikova showed the 21-year-old rankings leader will not have everything her way this season.

First-round action gets under way on Wednesday, after two days of qualifying, and here Stats Perform, with Opta data, looks at what lies ahead.

After Norrie and Fritz, could there be another shock men's winner?

Djokovic has won a joint-record five Indian Wells titles, but he last featured in 2019, when he lost to Philipp Kohlschreiber in round three.

Rafael Nadal is also absent this time with a hip injury, and with Roger Federer retired this will be the second Indian Wells main draw since 2000, after 2021, to feature none of the ATP Big Three.

The Big Three was a Big Four at one point, though, and Andy Murray will be competing. It is one of the two Masters 1000 tournaments Murray has never won, along with Monte Carlo, having triumphed at the other seven. Murray has the most match wins at Indian Wells among all men competing this time, having 28 to his name, two more than John Isner who sits next on the list.

No ATP player has a better win percentage at Indian Wells than Djokovic (84.7 per cent), who has won 50 of his 59 matches, while the now-retired Federer has appeared in the most finals (nine), also winning five times, so there is no doubt the field is missing its long-time classiest acts.

Fritz last year became the first men's champion aged under 25 years old since Djokovic in 2011, and he was also the first American to take the men's title since Andre Agassi beat Pete Sampras in the 2001 final.

Medvedev has won three consecutive tournaments in the lead-up this year, tearing to titles in Rotterdam, Doha and Dubai, but the Russian has a disappointing record at Indian Wells, having yet to reach the quarter-finals in five visits.

Just four players this century, including Alcaraz last year, have reached the semi-final stage before turning 20, with Nadal, Djokovic and Murray the other three. Alcaraz is still only 19 but a shade older than Boris Becker when he was a 19-year-old champion in 1987, the youngest men's winner.

Who else might come through? It feels like a free-for-all and Felix Auger-Aliassime will be hoping for a breakthrough tournament, with the Canadian being the only member of the current ATP top 10 to have never reached a final at ATP 1000 level. It has to happen sooner rather than later, surely.

Swiatek bids to lift curse of women's champions

Ever since Navratilova's two in a row, being a back-to-back champion at Indian Wells has been beyond all singles players on the WTA side.

Indeed, the only players to reach the final the year after their title run have been Lindsay Davenport (champion 1997, runner-up 1998) and Ana Ivanovic (champion 2008, runner-up 2009).

Nine women have won twice at Indian Wells, but none have managed three or more titles. The nine are: Steffi Graf, Mary Joe Fernandez, Navratilova, Daniela Hantuchova, Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka, Davenport and Maria Sharapova.

A Swiatek victory would make it a club of 10, but there is a club of one when it comes to players who have captured two titles without dropping a set in either trophy run. Sharapova is the only player to pull off that feat, with her 2006 and 2013 glory runs.

Among all women, Davenport has reached the most finals (six) and won the most matches (47), with Azarenka having the most wins among active WTA players (34).

Navratilova remains the oldest champion, having won aged 34 in 1991, while Martina Hingis and Serena Williams won as 17-year-olds in 1998 and 1999.

Shocks can happen: Bianca Andreescu took the title as a wildcard in 2019, while Jenny Byrne reached the final as a qualifier in 1989, the first year the women's event was staged.

If there is to be a teenage women's finalist this time, maybe it will be Coco Gauff. The American turns 19 midway through the tournament, on March 13, and has yet to reach a WTA 1000 final, although she got to the French Open title match last year, where Swiatek inflicted a heavy defeat.

Perhaps Aryna Sabalenka can reprise her Australian Open form, having won a first major in Melbourne. But Sabalenka's record in Indian Wells is a rough one, with the Belarusian yet to go past the fourth round.

Strap in for a thrill ride. They all want to stop Swiatek, but if any player can defy history it might just be the Pole.