Rafael Nadal hopes for 'unscathed' return from injury: Indian Wells talking points

The first joint Masters 1000 tournament of the season gets underway in California on Wednesday

Rafael Nadal has hinted this could be his last visit to Indian Wells. AFP
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For the first time since January's Australian Open, the men's and women's tennis tours will be in the same place at the same time for the Indian Wells Masters.

In the weeks following the first Grand Slam of the season, players dispersed across the globe, many making their way to the Middle East, others heading to Europe and South America, but now they are all together again in the Californian desert.

Here are some of the biggest talking points ahead of the tournament starting on Wednesday.

Health the top priority for Nadal

Rafael Nadal returns from his latest injury setback this week, but the Spaniard doesn't sound too hopeful, describing his preparation for Indian Wells simply as "bad", while insisting his only aim is to leave the tournament "unscathed". Nadal, 37, ended his 12-month hip injury layoff at the Brisbane International in January, but another muscle injury has kept him on the sidelines since.

"I don’t know what level I’ll be at in Indian Wells, but it is the least important thing today. For me, it is important to spend a few days in Indian Wells and train with professionals," he said. "The preparation for Indian Wells has been bad and for Brisbane had been good. I hope to play a set between this Sunday’s match and the three days I have left before the debut."

Nadal, who played an exhibition match against Carlos Alcaraz in Las Vegas on Sunday, also reiterated that this could be his final season, and therefore his last visit to Indian Wells.

"For me, the priority is to try to get out of Indian Wells unscathed," the 2017 champion said. "Whatever has to be left, leave it in the clay season, which may or may not be the last, I have not decided 100 per cent. At the moment things are going that way."

Djokovic targets history on return

Novak Djokovic has not played since his dominance at the Australian Open was emphatically ended in the semi-finals by eventual champion Jannik Sinner. The Serbian world No 1 was carrying a wrist injury throughout his time down under but should have sufficiently recovered for Indian Wells, where he is level with Roger Federer for most men's singles titles on five.

Djokovic, 36, was denied the chance to become this tournament's most successful player last year as the United States was still operating under Covid-19 entry rules. With those rules now relaxed to allow unvaccinated visitors, Djokovic will once again be the man to beat in the Californian desert, despite his lack of recent matches.

All eyes on Sinner

Regarded by his peers as the best player in the world at present, Sinner will be under plenty of scrutiny at Indian Wells. The Italian has won all 12 of his matches in 2024, collecting his first major title at the Australian Open before backing it up last week in Rotterdam.

It will be the first time the world No 3 has had to deal with this level of pressure at a big tournament since winning in Melbourne, so it will be interesting to see how he handles it all. Given his impressive talent and temperament, it will be a surprise if Sinner doesn't enjoy another deep run at Indian Wells, where last year he made the semi-finals.

Defending champions nursing fitness issues

Carlos Alcaraz and Elena Rybakina are both at Indian Wells to defend their titles, although they arrive in California contending with a few fitness issues. Spanish world No 2 Alcaraz was forced to withdraw just two games into the Rio de Janeiro Open two weeks ago after suffering an ankle injury, while Rybakina retired ahead of her Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships quarter-final with illness.

Rybakina, in particular, has been very busy since her surprise second-round defeat at the Australian Open, playing the full Middle East swing which involved winning the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open title at the start of February, reaching the Qatar Open final and making the Dubai quarters, in three successive weeks.

How well both players have recovered from their recent setbacks will go a long way to determining the success of their title defences.

Osaka back where it started

It was at Indian Wells in 2018 when Naomi Osaka first announced herself to the world. Then a 20-year-old rising prospect on the WTA Tour, Osaka beat fellow youngster Daria Kasatkina in the final. Later that year, the Japanese player captured her first Grand Slam title at the US Open to become arguably the biggest star in the women's game.

Much has changed in the six years since that maiden triumph, with plenty of highs and lows in Osaka's life and career. Time spent as world No 1 and three more major titles have been achieved, as well as highly publicised struggles with mental health problems. Then, of course, came the most life-changing of changes when Osaka became a mother last year.

Now back competing on the tour, Osaka has shown signs of progress, despite a succession of difficult early-round opponents, and a return to a happy stomping ground could be the environment she needs to take another significant step forward.

Naomi Osaka says her level is improving ahead of Mubadala Open

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Updated: March 05, 2024, 2:49 AM