Tennis's Fab Four reunited again at Indian Wells after travelling on long and winding road
It has been nine months since the Fab Four last performed together but Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal will finally share the same stage again this week. Since they last appeared together in the same tournament, at Wimbledon last summer, the game's four biggest names have taken widely different routes to the Indian Wells Masters, where the top seeds will enter the fray next weekend.
If Djokovic has been the one to strengthen his position at the top of the world rankings over that period – his victory in the Dubai Duty Free Championships here on Saturday night extended his run since last year's US Open to five titles from six tournaments played – there can be no doubt that Nadal has had to ride the roughest road.
Nevertheless, the 26-year-old Spaniard has had his most encouraging week yet since suffering the knee injury that kept him out of the game for seven months. Having reached the final in his first comeback tournament and won his second, Nadal produced his best performance yet to take the Mexican Open title in Acapulco on Saturday.
After beating Nicolas Almagro, the world No 12, in the semi-finals, Nadal crushed David Ferrer, the man who has replaced him at No 4 in the world rankings, 6-0, 6-2 in the final in just over an hour. Ferrer had won his previous 19 matches at the event.
Such is Nadal's renewed confidence in his knees that he confirmed after his victory that he would appear in Indian Wells. Having played his first three comeback tournaments on clay but still reported continuing pain in his left knee, Nadal had been expected by many to continue competing on his favourite surface all the way through to the French Open in May. However, he has decided to play on the less forgiving hard courts at Indian Wells, which is followed immediately by the Miami Masters, which is played on a similar surface.
"My heart tells me I should continue competing, that I need to move on to the next tournament," Nadal said after his victory over Ferrer, who is one of the world's best clay-court players. "I played almost perfectly. My knee responded well all week."
Indian Wells will see Murray make his first reappearance since the Australian Open following a spell training in Florida with his coach, Ivan Lendl. Federer has kept busy since Melbourne, though he failed to reach the final either in Rotterdam or here. He plans to make Indian Wells his last tournament before returning at the clay-court Madrid Masters following a seven-week break.
Djokovic, meanwhile, continued his remarkable run with a series of crushing straight-sets wins here, culminating in a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Tomas Berdych in the final to earn his fourth Dubai title. Although there were periods when he was forced on to the back foot by Berdych, who had beaten Federer in the semi-finals, Djokovic served particularly well and was quick to punish his mistakes.
Since losing to Murray in the US Open final in September, Djokovic has lost just once, at the Paris Masters, where he was clearly distracted by his father's serious illness. Since then he has won 18 matches in a row.
As a master of the outdoor hard courts, this happens to be one of his favourite periods of the year. "This is one of the fastest hard courts that you can experience throughout the year on the tour," Djokovic said in the wake of his 36th career title. "I haven't always been a player who loves to play on super-fast surfaces, but I'm happy because during the week I can also work on my aggression, coming into the net, using my serve better. That's what I have done in this tournament and over the years.
"I have been trying to work on a few things that can give me more variety in my game, and I can use that in the tournaments to come. I also like playing Indian Wells and Miami. I've won a lot of times there, at each event."
Djokovic took the opportunity to press the case for Dubai to be elevated to the level of the nine current Masters Series events. Dubai is one of the middle-ranked "World Tour 500" tournaments, but is regularly voted the players' favourite event in its category. Both Djokovic and Berdych believe it deserves to be raised in status.
"You have always at least four or five players from the top 10 coming here and always entertaining weeks of tennis with the women's and men's events back-to-back," Djokovic said. "They have over 100,000 people coming to watch. I think these facts say enough about the quality of the tournament that they're organising.
"I was actually talking with Tomas on court about it. I don't know a single player who has played here and has a negative feeling about the tournament. On the contrary, everybody wishes that this tournament is played for a bit longer, like Indian Wells and Miami are. I think it deserves that."
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