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Tennis-Nadal is the man to beat, Osaka’s eyes return to glory at Indian Wells

FILE PHOTO: ATP 500 - Abierto Mexicano
FILE PHOTO: Tennis – ATP 500 – Abierto Mexicano – The Fairmont Acapulco Princess, Acapulco, Mexico – February 26, 2022 Spain’s Rafael Nadal in the final against Britain’s Cameron Norrie REUTERS/Henry Romero

March 9, 2022

By Rory Carroll

INDIAN WELLS (Reuters) – Red-hot Rafa Nadal will be the man to beat when Indian Wells gets underway this week, while Naomi Osaka will look to begin her climb back to the top of the tennis world in the tournament that hers career started.

Nadal’s season was cut short last year with a foot injury, but the Spaniard has shot out of the gates in 2022 and won the Australian Open in January for a 21st place.

He then went on to win his fourth title in Acapulco last month and is unbeaten in 15 games this season.

“Rafa Nadal is now 35 years old and has never had a start to the season like this,” tournament director and former Indian Wells player Tommy Haas said on a recent podcast.

“He’s the guy to beat here, there’s no doubt about that. And he’s obviously enjoying it here a lot,” Haas said of Nadal, who has won the Masters 1000 tournament three times.

As a bonus, Nadal will be staying in the Southern California desert at tournament owner and billionaire Larry Ellison’s private resort, Porcupine Creek Golf Club.

“He can play 18 to 36 holes of golf every day if he wants,” Haas said.

“He likes it there and wants to stay as long as he can. If he’s healthy, watch out.”

His Serbian rival Novak Djokovic was included in the tournament draw on Tuesday despite continuing to refuse to take the COVID-19 vaccine that would bar the world number two from entering the country.

“Novak Djokovic is on the list of tournament participants and will therefore be included in the draw today,” the tournament organizers wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

“We are currently in communication with his team; However, it has not been specified if he will attend the event by obtaining CDC approval to enter the country.”

Switzerland’s Roger Federer will not take part in the tournament as he is still recovering from knee surgery while a squad of rising stars are bent on toppling Nadal.

Chief among them are Daniil Medvedev, who is entering a tournament as a world number one for the first time, and Andrey Rublev, who won a title in Dubai last month.

Both players hail from Russia, but they will not compete under their country’s name or flag, a decision made by tennis authorities following the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

“There are many guys knocking on the door but Nadal has to be the favourite,” said Haas.

OSAKA’S RETURN

On the women’s side, the chance knocks on Naomi Osaka, who announced herself as a 20-year-old in 2018 with a triumph at the WTA 1000 event.

From there, she won four Grand Slams, became the highest-paid female athlete in the world, and sparked a conversation about mental health in sport.

But absence from the spot after last year’s US Open has meant her world rankings have plummeted and the former world number one is now number 78 and unseeded at the tournament.

“I’ve heard she’s in a wonderful place, a much better place than last year, and is looking forward to getting back out there and competing,” three-time Grand Slam champion Lindsay Davenport told Reuters .

Osaka, who fell in the third round at the Australian Open, meets an in-form Sloane Stephens in a first-round blockbuster on Wednesday.

“It’s a really tough start and Osaka has to be ready to go,” Davenport said.

“I think she was a bit disappointed with how Australia went and that she’s quite motivated but it’s going to take a lot of work.”

Davenport predicted a big year for Osaka, saying their powerful game translates well to grass.

“If I were on her team my focus would be to make her believe she could win Wimbledon.”

Osaka needn’t worry about taking on world no. 1 Ash Barty or American Danielle Collins after both players pulled out of Indian Wells through injury.

The tournament, officially named the BNP Paribas Open, returns to its March date on the calendar after being canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and rescheduled to last October.

Full stands are expected at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden for what is sometimes referred to as the sport’s “fifth major.”

(Reporting by Rory Carroll; Additional reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Toby Davis and Richard Pullin)

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