Five storylines to watch at Indian Wells as tennis season winds down

Leylah Fernandez, of Canada, reacts during a match against Naomi Osaka, of Japan, at the third round of the US Open tennis championships, Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

It has been a long and arduous wait, but the BNP Paribas Open makes its return to Indian Wells, Calif., this week as the top men’s and women’s players have arrived in the scenic desert.

This year's event is in a different week of the tennis schedule.

Normally played in March, Indian Wells cancelled its 2020 edition due to the pandemic and found a place in the final block of the 2021 season.

With the four Grand Slams in the rear-view mirror, it is the biggest tournament left for the players, and for that reason contains a deep, talented field.

Here are five storylines to follow from the BNP Paribas Open.

Raducanu and Fernandez set to shine

Less than a month ago, she became the youngest U.S. Open champion since Serena Williams.

Now, she is the toast of Britain.

Eighteen-year-old Emma Raducanu has undergone a meteoric rise to superstardom since her Slam win, with appearances at the Met Gala, London Fashion Week, and also putting to pen paper on a few major new sponsorship deals, including luxury car maker Aston Martin and jewellers Tiffany & Co.

She is now set to play her first event since her improbable and historic victory at Flushing Meadows in September.

The expectations are understandably high; Raducanu bulldozed the field at the U.S. Open, coming through qualifying with three wins, before capturing seven more, all without dropping a set.

Despite the incredible result, Raducanu is very much a new face on the WTA circuit. It will be the first WTA 1000 tournament of her career, and she has still yet to win a main draw match on the tour.

Montreal’s Leylah Fernandez has undergone a similar jolt in popularity, after her run to the final of the U.S. Open that warmed the hearts of so many tennis fans.

Fernandez also turned heads at the Met Gala in New York City, and recently inked a significant endorsement deal with Flair Airlines.

The 19-year-old has more experience on tour than Raducanu, and won her first WTA title earlier this season in Monterrey, Mexico.

She should be brimming with confidence after her run at Flushing Meadows that featured wins over three top-10 players and two multiple-Slam champions.

Bianca set to defend her title

It may feel like eons ago that we saw Bianca Andreescu deep in the third set of the 2019 BNP Paribas Open final, getting an inspiring coaching pep talk from Sylvain Bruneau, and then stunning Angelique Kerber for the biggest win of her career.

Much has changed from that point, with the native of Mississauga, Ont., now employing new coach Sven Groeneveld, and currently searching for regular match play and results.

Andreescu has shown glimpses of her greatness in 2021, particularly in March with a run to the finas in Miami. It’s been a patchy second half, though

After an incomplete clay season and struggles on the grass, Andreescu reached the round of 16 at the U.S. Open before falling to eventual semi-finalist Maria Sakkari.

She most recently played at the Chicago Fall Tennis Classic last week, losing in straight sets to Shelby Rogers in her opener.

Since this is a title defence, Andreescu has 1,000 ranking points at stake for the tournament; most important for her though is finding some consistency.

She will either face American Alison Riske or qualifier in her opening match.

Medvedev leads the men’s field

World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev will be men’s favourite in the desert, as the lean, lanky Russian is still only one month removed from his maiden slam win at the U.S. Open.

Medvedev was near flawless at Flushing Meadows, losing just one set across seven matches. He displayed more hard-court brilliance at the Laver Cup in Boston, delivering a 6-4, 6-0 win over Canadian Denis Shapovalov.

He has a tour-leading 48 wins and carries an .878 winning percentage on the hard court surface this season. Medvedev knows how to get the most out of his agile six-foot-six frame. With his big serving, elite return game, and remarkable defensive prowess, there are few weaknesses to exploit.

Felix and Denis lead the Canadian charge

The men’s field will feature three Canadians for the 2021 installment of the BNP Paribas Open as Felix Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov, and Vasek Pospisil are all in the tournament.

Montreal's Auger-Aliassime arrives in the best form of the three and continues to reach milestones in his young tennis career.

He achieved his two best slam results in succession this season, with a berth to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, and a maiden semifinal at the U.S. Open.

The impressive year also has him in the thick of the race to Turin, with a chance to qualify for the season-ending Nitto ATP Finals.

Auger-Aliassime is currently 11th in the points race -- the top eight players will qualify.

When Auger-Aliassime is at his best, he can impose his athletic game style effectively against almost any opponent.

Meanwhile, Shapovalov will look to bounce back

The 22-year-old bowed out earlier than expected at the U.S. Open, losing to South African Lloyd Harris in the third round.

That loss came after a shaky summer hard-court stretch that featured losses in his fist match in Toronto and Cincinnati.

Shapovalov can be aggressive to a fault, but it’s that ruthless power from the back of the court that makes him a must-watch star.

Pospisil is the veteran of the group and the 31-year-old has had an uneven season, with seven wins in 20 matches.

He’ll open in the first round against American J.J. Wolf on Thursday.

With the Big 3 out, Next Gen is knocking

For the first time since 2000, the BNP Paribas Open will not have at least one of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic.

Nadal and Federer shut down their 2021 seasons due to injury, while Djokovic is taking time off to rest and recover after a grueling U.S. Open, in which he finished runner-up.

The three all contributed to a stretch of dominance at Indian Wells, tallying 13 titles since 2004.

In their absence, a talented young generation gets another opportunity.

Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas has for the most part enjoyed a breakout season, winning a Masters 1000 in Monte Carlo, reaching the French Open final, and soaring to a career-high No. 3 in the rankings.

However, he exited Wimbledon in the first round, and lost in the third round of the U.S. Open.

Norway’s Casper Ruud is in tremendous form, leading the ATP in 2021 with five titles. Traditionally a clay-court player, last week he proved himself a versatile threat with the first hard-court title of his career, capturing the inaugural San Diego Open.

Poland's Hubert Hurkacz is another dynamic and under-the-radar threat. The soft-spoken 24-year-old has won three ATP titles this season, including a surprise victory at the Masters 1000 in Miami in March.

He also reached the Wimbledon semifinals, notching an upset win over Federer.

With the Big 3 legends on the mend, a first-time winner at Indian Wells should be hoisting a trophy in 10 days time.

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