Storylines to watch as Djokovic, Nadal and Osaka all take the court at Indian Wells

Novak Djokovic makes his return after a five-year absence. Rafael Nadal and Venus Williams kick off their latest comeback bids. The game’s biggest names look to collect their latest hardware. The 2024 BNP Paribas Open — better known as Indian Wells — is upon us, and it is loaded with star power and potential blockbuster matches.

The desert showdown, held in Indian Wells, California, is often referred to as the year’s fifth major, and with jam-packed draws and the men’s and women’s singles champions each earning $1.1 million, this could be a tournament to remember.

The main draw of the ATP Masters 1000 and WTA 1000 event — which features 96 players in each of the singles draws and 32 teams in the respective doubles draws — gets underway on Wednesday. Here are the players and storylines you need to know before the competition starts.

What a difference a half-decade makes

When Djokovic last played at Indian Wells, he was the owner of just 15 major titles — five behind Roger Federer, who, at the time, was the record holder for most major titles by a male player.

Five years later, Djokovic makes his long-awaited return to the American hard-court spring series boasting 24 major titles — tied with Margaret Court for the most in history — and having long since surpassed Federer for the most weeks at No. 1. So, yes, it’s been awhile since Djokovic has played in the California desert and a lot has changed.

Djokovic has been absent since 2019, mostly because of the pandemic and related travel restrictions, and he returns as the event’s top seed, in search of his sixth title. But while he has firmly cemented himself at the top of the GOAT conversation since his last appearance, Djokovic has not played a match since he was upset by Jannik Sinner in the semifinals at the Australian Open in January. While the loss surely still stings and will provide even more motivation for a man who is never short of it, the result in Melbourne further showed young players that he is not invincible. And, in a best-of-three-sets format, anything is possible.

Djokovic remains a favorite to hoist the trophy, but it won’t be easy. He received a first-round bye, and will play either Aleksandar Vukic or a qualifier in his opener. He could potentially face Hubert Hurkacz or Casper Ruud in the quarterfinals before a possible showdown against Daniil Medvedev or Holger Rune (or Nadal!) in the semifinals.

Rafa’s (latest) return

After several weeks of speculation about when Nadal would be back, the 22-time major champion is slated to make his return to competition this week.

He missed most of the 2023 season with a hip injury and played in three matches in Brisbane to open the 2024 season before being sidelined yet again. Nadal had initially planned to play at last month’s event in Doha but ultimately he said he was simply “not ready to compete.”

Since then, he has been spotted practicing on the courts at Indian Wells, and even played an exhibition over the weekend against Carlos Alcaraz in Las Vegas. Nadal lost the match, 3-6, 6-4 (14-12), but showed few signs of discomfort or pain throughout, and said his level during the broadcast was “much better than expected.”

Currently ranked No. 652, the 37-year-old is slated to open play on Thursday night against Milos Raonic, and if he wins, will next face Rune, the current world No. 7, in the second round.

Nadal, who previously said the 2024 season would likely be his last on tour, is a three-time champion at Indian Wells, but most recently won the title in 2013. He reached the final in 2022 but lost to Taylor Fritz, and was struggling with pain in his ribs and difficulty breathing throughout the match. It was later revealed he had a stress fracture to the rib that sidelined him for six weeks.

Now, two years later, Nadal is back and seemingly healthy. While in some ways it’s surprising to see him return ahead of the clay season, Indian Wells could provide an important gauge for where his game currently stands against his competition. There remain many questions surrounding the former world No. 1, but a few wins would certainly silence — at least temporarily — many of them.

And, if he does indeed retire after the season, Nadal might not be the only icon playing in his final Indian Wells. Three-time major champion Andy Murray hinted last week that he was entering the “last few months” of his career and would likely not be playing beyond the summer.

The defending champs

Elena Rybakina and Alcaraz won the singles titles in 2023 — and both will be back and hoping to go back-to-back.

Rybakina, currently ranked No. 4, has had yet another strong season so far. She won the titles in Brisbane and Abu Dhabi and reached the final in Doha. The winner of seven career titles, Rybakina has never successfully defended at a tournament so far but will try to reverse that trend in the desert.

The 2022 Wimbledon champion hasn’t had the best luck with her health over the past year and needed to withdraw from Dubai ahead of the quarterfinals with a stomach illness, but she appears to be fully recovered and ready for battle. She will first face the winner of the first-round clash between Paula Badosa and Ashlyn Krueger.

Alcaraz, the world No. 2, has struggled somewhat — by his standards, that is — since his scorching-hot first half of 2023, which saw him also win the title at Wimbledon, as well as Argentina, Barcelona, Madrid and Queen’s Club. He hasn’t won a tournament since his triumph at the All England Club.

The 20-year-old has played in just three tournaments so far in 2024 and had to retire in the third game of his opening-round match in Rio last month after suffering an ankle injury. However, he appeared to be pain-free during his exhibition match against Nadal on Sunday, and looks ready for his opening match against Luca Van Assche or Matteo Arnaldi.

Will the rich get richer?

Women’s tennis has seen the emergence of a small group of players who have dominated as of late. While Jasmine Paolini won her first 1000-level title last month at Dubai, a group of top-ranked players — including No. 1 Iga Swiatek, No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka and No. 3 Coco Gauff — have collected most of the big titles over the past two years. Will that trend continue at Indian Wells?

Swiatek won her third straight Doha title last month, then reached the semifinals in Dubai. She was the Indian Wells champion in 2022, reached the semis last season, and is more than poised for a lengthy stay this time around.

Sabalenka won her second consecutive Australian Open in January, and while she was upset in her opening-round match in her only tournament since, she reached the final at Indian Wells last season and is arguably the most consistent player on tour.

Gauff, who turns 20 next week, has proven herself to be one of the best on the hard court, after winning the 2023 US Open and reaching the semis at the 2024 Australian Open. She will be looking for her second title of the season on the surface, and will have the vocal support of the home crowd on her side.

On the men’s side, Sinner will find himself the center of attention in the first Masters 1000 tournament since he won his maiden major title in Melbourne in January. Since his breakthrough victory, the 22-year-old and current world No. 3 won the title in Rotterdam in his lone event since. He reached the semifinals at Indian Wells in 2023 — and could certainly take it a step (or two) further in 2024.

Venus is back

Nadal isn’t the only superstar making a return to competition at the tournament this week. Venus Williams — yes, the seven-time major champion and former world No. 1 — will be making her 2024 season debut at Indian Wells. The 43-year-old last played at the US Open in September and lost in the first round. Since then, she has frequently posted training and practice footage on social media and was announced as a wild card in February.

Williams has a complicated history at the tournament. She and sister Serena boycotted the event for 14 years after experiencing racial taunts and boos during Serena’s final against Kim Clijsters in 2001. Serena revealed she was still traumatized by the ordeal during a 2021 interview.

Serena made her return to Indian Wells in 2015, with Williams following the next year. Since then, Williams has played four times, reaching the semifinals in 2018 and the quarterfinals twice, including during her last appearance in 2019. She is slated to open play against a qualifier and, if she wins, would face Veronika Kudermetova in the second round. Williams defeated Kudermetova in Cincinnati in August, for her first win over a top-20 opponent in four years.

Currently ranked No. 487, Williams also received a wild card for entry at Miami later this month.

Caroline Wozniacki, who returned after a three-year retirement from the sport in August, also received wild cards to both events. Emma Raducanu, Amanda Anisimova, Karolina Pliskova and 2021 tournament champion Badosa are among the other wild-card entrants at Indian Wells.

Can Osaka build on what she started in Doha?

Naomi Osaka, the four-time major champion and 2018 Indian Wells winner, made her return from maternity leave in January and has compiled a 3-4 record in four tournaments. Though she lost in the first round at the Australian Open and Abu Dhabi, she arrives at the BNP Paribas Open coming off a quarterfinal appearance in Doha.

During the 1000-level event last month, Osaka defeated Caroline Garcia (who had beaten her in Melbourne in January) and Petra Martic in straight sets. She advanced to the quarters via a walkover, and while she ultimately lost to fellow former No. 1 Pliskova 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), she proved she is still capable of playing high-level tennis.

Now, after spending the past few weeks practicing at her home just a few hours away, Osaka will look to bring her newfound momentum and rediscovered confidence to Indian Wells. Osaka told ESPN in December that she was expecting to bring her daughter Shai with her to the tournament and will likely have a number of family and close friends in attendance. Could that support help propel her to the best result of her comeback so far? Stay tuned.

The power couple

On Saturday, Alex de Minaur successfully defended his title at the Mexican Open with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Ruud in the final. Hours later, he was on a flight to San Diego to watch his girlfriend Katie Boulter play in the biggest final of her career.

And on Sunday, with de Minaur in the stands, Boulter hoisted the San Diego Open trophy — her first 500-level title and second overall — with a comeback win over Marta Kostyuk 5-7, 6-2, 6-2.

Now de Minaur and Boulter arrive in Indian Wells on a hot streak. The No. 10-ranked de Minaur and No. 27-ranked Boulter will both be seeking their first 1000-level titles — and trying to adorably embarrass each other at the same time.

The Saudi question

On Wednesday, the ATP announced it had agreed to a five-year partnership with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which includes naming rights to the rankings, as well as courtside branding at various events including Indian Wells.

While the WTA has been rumored to also be in talks with the country about hosting its year-end WTA Finals, the organization has yet to formally announce any such plan and said there was “no new update at this time” in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The debate surrounding the involvement of PIF has become a hot-button issue in tennis over the past year. Some in the sport, including Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, have spoken out against it, and have urged the WTA not to partner with the country, citing its treatment of women and those in the LGBTQIA+ community. Others, such as Ons Jabeur, have encouraged engagement in hopes of helping create social change.

Nadal was announced as an ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation in January. Alongside others, including Djokovic, Alcaraz and Sinner, he will be participating in an exhibition event in October in Riyadh.

It will undoubtedly be a major talking point during player news conferences throughout the tournament and will be getting a lot of attention in the near future.

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