A month on from a historic Australian Open singles title, Novak Djokovic and his vaccination status are back in the headlines.
The Serb remains unvaccinated against Covid-19, and has maintained a resolute stance of being able to choose what is best for his own body. He has also maintained that he accepts the cost of his decision – the inability to script more history in the sport he has dominated for the better part of a decade. And ahead of the Indian Wells and Miami Masters, two of the biggest non-Slam tennis events in terms of both prize money and prestige, that decision has come in his way again.
Djokovic’s attempts to play in the US, where entry of unvaccinated foreigners is restricted, ultimately failed, and ahead of Sunday’s Indian Wells draw, which kicks off on Wednesday, Djokovic withdrew.
According to New York Times, the five-time Indian Wells champion’s team lobbied with connections that were close to the administration, and applied for a special exemption, with one of the parameters being that his presence in the US could be of ‘national interest’ given the crowds and attention he would draw at the events. Public calls for him to be allowed to play were made by current and former players, senators from Florida, and even the official social accounts of the US Open and Miami Open.
The desire to play is understandable. In good form, and after recovering from the hamstring injury he was nursing through his Australian Open triumph, he would have been the overwhelming favourite in both Indian Wells and Miami. Djokovic completed the ‘Sunshine Double’ consecutively between 2014 and 2016.
His loss is the latest blow to the events after Rafael Nadal withdrew with a hip injury, and further dents the sport’s battle to attract attention and star power after the retirements of Roger Federer and Serena Williams last year
Ready to step up
So, it is Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz, who became an overnight sensation last year after winning two Masters 1000 titles and the US Open to become the first teenager in men’s tennis history to become a year-end World No. 1, to attract interest and eyeballs. His charismatic presence and playing style tend to be a crowd-puller wherever he goes.
The 19-year-old could take back the top spot of the rankings from Djokovic with titles in both Indian Wells and Miami, but the thigh injury that kept him out of the Australian Open is at the risk of resurfacing.
In Djokovic’s absence, the only man to beat him this season in the semifinal in Dubai, Daniil Medvedev is set to be the tournament favourite. Medvedev has won 3 successive titles, and has the likes of Casper Ruud and Alexander Zverev in his way, neither of whom are in very good form.
Stefanos Tsitsipas is in with a shot to become World No. 1, but will need a very good run in America. At Indian Wells, he will have Frances Tiafoe, Andrey Rublev, and potentially Medvedev on his way to the final, all hard tasks to navigate. Tiafoe leads a strong American contingent, including defending champion Taylor Fritz, and upstart Ben Shelton.
It is, however, hard to look past Alcaraz (if fit) and Medvedev in California, who could set up a blockbuster final.
Swiatek leading the way
Like the Australian Open, the more closely-fought draw is likely to be in the women’s field, led by the ever-dominant Iga Swiatek. This time last year, the Pole was in the midst of a 37-match winning streak that gave her an unassailable lead atop the WTA rankings.
The World No. 1 has shown similar form, winning in Doha and reaching the final at the WTA 1000 event in Dubai a few weeks ago. She is the one to catch again, and has some potentially tricky early matches against former Slam champions Emma Raducanu and Bianca Andreescu.
Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka will be the biggest challenger, and the second seed may have her work cut out with potential early fixtures against Donna Vekic and Dubai champion Barbora Krejcikova. Elena Rybakina and Ons Jabeur, the most recent Major finalists, will also be in the conversation.