The Sony Open is right around the corner, and South Florida tennis fans can get a good idea of who is hot and who’s not by paying attention to the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif.
That tournament began Wednesday and features many of the players who will play in Key Biscayne later this month, minus Serena and Venus Williams, who have boycotted the event since believing they were mistreated by fans there in 2001.
The men’s side is loaded with Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Juan Martin del Potro. Each enters March with a story line. Nadal is ranked No. 1 in the world and is the defending champion. Federer has slipped to No. 8, but has played well this year with four wins over top-10 players and a title last week in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He beat Djokovic and Berdych there — not an easy task.
Murray is working his way back from back surgery. Del Potro is struggling with an injured left wrist. Wawrinka moved up to No. 3 with his Australian Open title and is finally emerging from the huge shadow of his Swiss countryman, Federer.
Djokovic might be under the most pressure, as he has not lived up to expectations in 2014. He ended 2013 on a 24-match win streak, and hired Boris Becker as a coach, but is 0-2 against top-10 players this year and has not yet reached a final. It is the first time since 2006 he reached March without a title.
With Williams out, the women’s title is completely up for grabs. Maria Sharapova always has a shot, as does Victoria Azarenka, known to hit her stride this time of year. Then there’s Li Na, determined to build on her Australian Open title.
One of the Americans to watch is charismatic Sloane Stephens of Coral Springs, who was much-hyped after her shocking win over Williams in the 2013 Australian Open quarterfinals. Since then, she hasn’t had many noteworthy matches and has been eliminated in the first or second round of many of the tournaments she entered.
She is ranked No. 18 and reached the Round of 16 at the Australian Open in January, but hasn’t won a set since. Stephens, who turns 21 in March, suffered first-round losses to No. 128 Petra Cetkovska and No. 28 Lucie Safarova in Doha, Qatar, and Dubai. She has been bothered by an injured left wrist, and recently hired Paul Annacone, who used to coach Pete Sampras.
Stephens, known for her candor, told USA Today that she is having to adjust to the pressures of being a big-time player, and that the public often forgets that athletes are human beings.
“I think people forget that there’s a normal life that you have to live outside of being on the tennis court all the time,” she said. “I'm a regular 20-year-old girl. I sometimes need to, like, talk to Paul about my boy problems or I need to talk to Andrew about how stupid my best friend is.”
The Sony Open runs March 17-30 at the Crandon Park Tennis Center in Key Biscayne. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SonyOpenTennis.com or by phone at 305-442-3367. Williams plays her first match March 20, Djokovic on March 21 and Nadal on March 22.