The vaccination status of five-time former champion Novak Djokovic had made it a certainty that his participation in the two biggest ATP tournaments in the calendar, the Indian Wells and Miami Masters, would not be possible.
The USA’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was clear on entry for overseas travellers: “You must be fully vaccinated…”
And as Djokovic was not, and did not fit any of the exemption categories, his life-size cut-out already graced the tournament’s “We miss you” wall long before the draw.
Yet he remained on the start list, and the men’s draw on Tuesday was accompanied by an explanation from the tournament:
“Novak Djokovic is on the tournament entry list, and therefore is placed into the draw. We are currently in communication with his team; however, it has not been determined if he will participate in the event by getting CDC approval to enter the country.”
And so he was slotted into line 128 of the 96-man draw, the No2 seed, having conceded the No1 ranking a fortnight ago after a quarter-final lost at his only tournament of the year so far, Dubai. That ended a streak of 132 weeks, and a record-breaking 361 weeks in total, though he could reclaim the No1 ranking after Indian Wells if the new No1, Daniil Medvedev, did not make the quarter-finals.
It should be remembered at this juncture, however, that the Covid pandemic is not the only disaster to be have grave impacts around the world. Since becoming No1, Russian Medvedev is among the players unable to compete under his own flag following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. It seems inevitable that this will bring its own pressures, on top of any attempt to remain world No1 in Indian Wells.
But as anticipated, Djokovic would indeed play no part in this tournament or its sister event in Miami later in March. Less than 24 hours after the draw was made, he wrote on his Instagram Story:
“While I was automatically listed in the @bnpparibasopen and @MiamiOpen draw, I knew, given the entry requirements to the US, it would be unlikely I’d be able to travel there. But as international Covid regulations are always being amended, I wanted to wait to see if anything would change. The CDC has confirmed today that regulations are not changing which means I will not be playing in the US. I know my fans are looking forward to seeing me play again, and I hope to be back playing for them on the tour soon.”
That announcement, and the one-day delay in making it, impacted not just himself but a sequence of other players.
First, the formerly unseeded Grigor Dimitrov was promoted to No33 seed to replace Djokovic in line 128, where he will enjoy a bye and almost twice the prize money without playing a point. There, he will have a second-round meet with Jordan Thompson or David Goffin, which could take him to a potential second match, in Round 3, against wild card Andy Murray.
Grigor Dimitrov (Photo: Marianne Bevis)
And what of line 93 where Dimitrov was originally drawn? That is now qualifier Mikhail Kukushkin, ranked 154, and certainly on paper an easier opening opponent for Tommy Paul. The winner plays No3 seed Alexander Zverev, who is also playing in less-than-perfect circumstances. After being thrown out of Acapulco following his attack on the umpire’s chair, Zverev was heavily fined and put on probation for the rest of the year. He now has to be squeaky clean, and may find himself on the receiving end of less-than-welcome crowds if his reception in the Davis Cup in Brazil is anything to go by.
He would, of course, have filled that bottom line in the draw had Djokovic withdrawn earlier, though he may not have fared any better in his early opposition. However, world No5 Stefanos Tsitsipas would have topped his own quarter if promoted to No4, rather than being the second ranked man to Medvedev in the top quarter.
As it is, he will face some tough hurdles if he is to reach the quarters at all: Karen Khachanov is his first seed, followed by defending champion Cameron Norrie, with the likes of teenage star Carlos Alcaraz, Gael Monfils and Roberto Bautista Agut as alternatives to Medvedev—who has to come through that set of men to reach his important quarter-final slot.
And in this section too is a man whose fortunes have blown hot and cold since before the tournament got underway with the qualifying rounds. Joao Sousa was the next man lined up for the main draw, if a space became available, but eventually the Portuguese had to play in qualifying. He negotiated the first round after almost three hours, but lost the second in two tie-breakers.
Fortunately, it was enough to see Sousa pick up the lucky loser slot, where he plays Round 1 against Pedro Martinez. Less fortunately, if successful, Sousa will then play Norrie in Round 2, and in an eighth that has an unseeded Fabio Fognini, the Doha runner-up Nikoloz Basilashvili, and Tsitsipas.
Other players who might also have rued the delayed Djokovic news is the newest member of the top 10, Felix Auger-Aliassime, seeded No9 after an outstanding start to 2022 that saw him win the ATP Cup with Denis Shapovalov and then Rotterdam. He can expect to face a higher seed in the shape of Matteo Berrettini in the fourth round in Indian Wells, but had he enjoyed a seeding of No8, he would have postponed a higher ranked opponent until the quarter-finals.
Reilly Opelka, seeded 17, is scheduled to meet Shapovalov, No13, in the third round, but if he had been seeded 16, he would delay a higher seed until Round 4.
Such is the domino effect of Djokovic’s decision to hold on for one more day. In the end, it may have no impact at all: There are plenty of players in the draw who will hope to out-perform higher-ranked players. Norrie did just that in San Diego and then Indian Wells last October. And witness Auger-Aliassime in Rotterdam, Alexander Bublik in Montpellier, and the even younger Alcaraz in Rio.
At least things will be clear from the outset in Miami.
Other things to follow in the men’s draw
Nadal is 15-0 this season, with three titles that include the Australian Open, and all won on hard-courts. He is three-time champion at Indian Wells, and could draw level with Djokovic again in the tally of Masters titles. He has 36, Djokovic a record 37.
Medvedev is playing as world No1 for the first time, and needs to reach the quarters in Indian Wells if he is to stay there. He has four Masters titles but has never gone beyond the fourth round in the desert Masters.
Andrey Rublev, who like Medvedev will carry plenty of emotional baggage following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, built a stunning opening to 2022, a 14-2 run with two titles, plus a doubles victory, and is now the highest ranked player in the bottom quarter, No7. He has five ATP500 titles but is yet to win a Masters.
Youth may have its day: Alcaraz, age 18, became the youngest 500 champion in Rio last month; 20-year-old Jannik Sinner won four titles in 2021; a couple of 21-year-old Americans will be dangerous—Jenson Brooksby and Sebastian Korda; and of course, young Canadian stars Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime have both made Major semis, and gone deep in a couple of Masters, so are close to a big breakthrough at this level.
· Wild card Andy Murray drew a qualifier for his opener, and it happens to be Taro Daniel—for the third time this year. The Japanese beat the Briton after qualifying for the Australian Open, and Murray reversed the result in Doha.
· Liam Broady became the fourth British man in the main draw via qualifying, and will play Miomir Kecmanovic in Round 1, with the winner taking on No24 seed Marin Cilic.
· Dan Evans, No27 seed, has an unenviable draw, with Nadal lined up for his second match.
Source: Sport Review