by: Ben Stevens

If there’s one bad thing about Grand Slam tennis, it’s that it invariably leaves you wanting more. And while we can only get the real deal four times a year, thankfully there’s some almost-as-good-ness in the coming weeks, starting with Indian Wells. The so-called “fifth slam” (which for my money, will always be the IPTL) gives us nearly two weeks of non-stop tennis action, and provides plenty in the way of excitement and intrigue, which means that naturally, we have questions. What are we hoping to see answered at the 2017 BNP Paribas Open? Read on to find out.

Serena Williams is set to lose her No. 1 ranking by not playing in Indian Wells and Miami.

Who steps up in place of Serena?

She may have only ended her boycott of Indian Wells two years ago, but there’s no denying Serena Williams was the biggest draw on the women’s side. Coming off her record-breaking 23rd major title in Melbourne, expectations would’ve been high for her to continue her dominance, alas now there’s a void to be filled. It certainly adds more intrigue to a field that realistically, is usually at the mercy of a motivated, healthy Serena, with no clear favourite in her stead.

Can Djokovic get his season back on track?

Despite starting his year with an impressive win over Andy Murray in the Doha final, Novak Djokovic’s season since has been more underwhelming than Suicide Squad. It’s not that he had to win the Australian Open, or go further in Acapulco, it’s just that in those losses he’s seemed completely devoid of answers. You’d like to think IW could be an opportunity to turn it around, but with Federer, Nadal, Kyrgios, Zverev and Del Potro sharing his quarter, that’s much easier said than done.

Nadal will be eager to record a win over Federer.

All ago for Fedal XXXVI?

Speaking of which, after not getting a Federer-Nadal matchup in over a year, are we about to get our second in as many months? Only Fernando Verdasco and Steve Johnson/Kevin Anderson stand in the way of it happening, meaning realistically, we are. The two have played twice before at IW – in 2012 and ’13 – taking one apiece. Considering not just their rivalry but the unfortunate reality that both are in the twilight of their careers, every tennis fan should be rooting for this to happen – and that includes Johnson, Anderson and Verdasco.

Can Angie Kerber earn her new no. 1 ranking?

If the men’s 2016 Aussie Open champ has endured a lacklustre 2017, the women’s hasn’t been much better. A semifinal loss to Elina Svitolina in Dubai two weeks ago being the best result of her season, Kerber has looked less like the world-beating player who legitimately took number one from Serena, and more like a Wozniacki/Jankovic-esque flash-in-the-pan regressing back to the mean. The funny thing is, she gets the no. 1 back thanks to Serena’s withdrawal, but more than any other player (men’s or women’s), she needs a big scalp to kick-start her season.

How many gratuitous shots of Larry Ellison will we get?

With the possible exception of Wimbledon’s Evil Colonel Sanders, there is perhaps no more prominent mainstay at a tennis tournament than Larry Ellison. The world’s seventh-richest man is the tournament’s owner, and tends to camp out front-and-centre in the VIP section for its duration. If I had to put an over/under on the amount of times the camera zooms in catch one of his three facial expressions, it’d have to be at least 60.5. I’m taking the over.

Alex Zverev could face Nick Kyrgios in round three.

Is it time for the next gen to make a move?

What’s the opposite of a silver lining? I’ve got no idea, but if there was a negative worth taking away from the feel-good triumphs of Serena and Fed in Melbourne, it’s that the stars that have carried the game for so long can’t be expected to do it much longer. Perhaps IW is the tournament where one of the young guns makes a serious run at a big title. On the women’s side, much has been made of 17-year-old American Cici Bellis, but also keep an eye on Ana Konjuh and Daria Kasatkina, who look ready to make some serious noise. The men’s is much more simple: hopefully Zverev, Kyrgios and Kyrgios’ head show up, in which case, anything’s possible.

Who are the dark-horses?

With Sam Querrey taking out Nadal in the Acapulco finals last week, we’ve been served a timely reminder that on their day, anybody can pull off the upset. And sure, we probably can’t expect another shock of Querrey-ian proportions, but there’s still a few names skating under the radar. She may be the fourth seed, but Simona Halep comes in with very little hype, and knows how to win here, while AO quarterfinalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has a nice draw to the semis. Likewise Tomas Berdych could be in for a bit of a run should Stan Wawrinka continue his form from Dubai, and Jack Sock could boost local hopes should he get past Grigor Dimitrov in the third.

Will Rafa murder Bernard Tomic?

Undoubtedly the most important question of the tournament, Nadal is set to play with Tomic in a doubles partnership between the game’s hardest fighter and its worst meteorologist. How Tomic managed to rope Nadal into this is anyone’s guess, but it should make for a fascinating watch. Assuming Tomic gets up to his usual not-giving-a-toss tricks, does Rafa bludgeon him with his racquet, or try something more subtle, like decapitating him with a serve? Maybe something truly crazy will happen, and they’ll actually play well together, but let’s not get too ridiculous.

You can follow Ben Stevens on Twitter @_benstevens.


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