INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Roger Federer is feeling so good, he scheduled a practice doubleheader Thursday at Indian Wells.
And the first leg, at 10 a.m., was a special treat for the fans – many of whom would rather watch the big guys practice than take in a terrific, actual match in one of the stadiums.
It doesn’t happen that often that Rafael Nadal and Federer practice side by side. But it happened on Thursday.
It was unfortunate for Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime, who was playing his first-round match at 11 a.m. inside the main stadium. Let’s just say that the number of fans just outside around Practice Courts 1 and 2 was exponential compared to those who went inside to watch one of the game’s rising stars.
Nadal was hitting with everyone’s favorite practice partner, Diego Schwartzman of Argentina.
Federer was hitting with a player who took some time to place. It was the Italian Thomas Fabbiano, another undersized player who lost in the first round of qualifying.
Two Goliaths, and two Davids
Fabbiano, age 29 and listed at 5-foot-8, is currently ranked No. 83.
And no, while he and Federer seemed to know each other, we don’t really know how that came about. They probably don’t hang out at the same restaurants.
Like two ships passing in the night
The funniest thing about these meetups on the practice court is that for the most part, the players everyone would like to think are great buddies generally ignore each other.
That’s true even when they are sitting back to back on the benches during the changeovers. It’s not like they’re gabbing like besties during water breaks.
That would be SO amazing, wouldn’t it? But they’re working. It wasn’t the time for two of the game’s giants to talk about the ousting of their CEO, Chris Kermode.
Even better? That some day, they’ll actually practice together. Obviously their practice pace and methods couldn’t be more opposed. But still, it would be a major occasion.
Or, barring that, play dubs together at Indian Wells or Madrid – or somewhere that’s not an exhibition where the main purpose is drumming up ticket sales.
The “nightcap” with Monfils
At 2 p.m., Federer was back out on the practice court with another unusual practice partner.
It was Gaël Monfils, who is having a great 2018 so far.
Now these two go way back. But we don’t recall ever seeing them practice together. Although surely it must have happened before.
On the next court were Kei Nishikori and Dominic Thiem.
So it was another nice meeting of top tennis talent in the same area code.
These are moments that happen regularly on the men’s side at Indian Wells. For the most part, the boys don’t seek refuge on some of the back practice courts (No. 8 and No. 9, notably), where the security cordons off the fans and they try not to let anyone in there.
Serena Williams, sister Venus and Maria Sharapova are fairly notorious for choosing to be back there.
It’s just one reason the men have a higher profile than the women do at a joint event like this one.
But it’s not as though anyone is going to go to the women and say, “Hey, it would be great for the WTA if you guys would practice right up there, front and centre.”
The return to the locker room from those practice courts basically takes all the players right by the big bullpen, where fans wait for autographs. It’s harder to walk right by them and not sign than it is when you leave the courts at the other end of the player’s field and stay wide of the area.
There’s another week still to go before the rest of the top players come trickling back onto the circuit, after a post-Australian Open break.
But in the meantime, the typically wacky February things are happening.
On Long Island, an unseeded 21-year-old and a 23-year-old qualifier squared off looking for their maiden Tour title.
In Rotterdam, two warhorses emerged from injury funks (one of them a wild card) to produce a display so entertaining, it’s yet another example of why there’s no rush for the current generation of 30-somethings to leave the game.
And in Buenos Aires, a local fellow named Diego Schwartzman reached both the singles and doubles finals – and won a total of five games.
Next week, with events in Marseille, Rio and Delray Beach, offers promises of similar nutsiness.
ON THE UPSWING
Kei Nishikori (JPN): No. 7 ————-> No. 6 (With his effort in Rotterdam, Nishikori slips past Roger Federer by 90 points)
Daniil Medvedev (RUS): No. 16 ————-> No. 15 (Another career high for Medvedev, who is 14-3 on the season so far).
Marco Cecchinato (ITA): No. 17 ————-> No. 16 (The Italian’s title in Buenos Aires only moved him up one spot. But it’s a new career best).
Gael Monfils (FRA): No. 33 ————-> No. 23 (The Rotterdam champion puts himself back into the seeded conversation, as he should be).
Stan Wawrinka (SUI): No. 68 ————-> No. 41 (It’s been a long road back after two knee surgeries. But Wawrinka has to be encouraged by his recent performances).
Reilly Opelka (USA): No. 89 ————-> No. 56 (A career high, a maiden Tour title. Good week on Long Island for the 21-year-old American).
WIMBLEDON – The pre-draw speculation on the men’s side of the game these days is big business.
With so many players who were at the summit not long ago having dropped in the rankings because of injuries, the early-round traps have increased exponentially.
Those traps are more than somewhat in theory, because those injured players who have taken a long time to return to form are not yet at their peak levels. At the same time, you know what they’re capable of on any given day – especially on the big stages.
Among the dangerous floaters of interest for this year’s Wimbledon were Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Gaël Monfils.
And the draw gods were not kind.
Murray vs. Paire
Murray, who as of Friday wasn’t 100 per cent decided if his surgically repaired hip was up to the rigours of best-of-five set tennis, drew the dangerous if mercurial Benoit Paire.
It seems, though, that he’ll give it a go.
Asked Andy Murray if he had made a decision on his Wimbledon participation: "I think most likely, yeah. I'll chat to my team this afternoon and also see a bit how the next couple of days go. But most likely, yeah, I will be playing."
Paire, silver hair and all, should have beaten Roger Federer in the first round in Stuttgart with a smidgen more belief and focus. That one could be enthralling.
Wawrinka vs. Dimitrov
As for Wawrinka, his return from knee surgeries has taken a whole lot longer than he would have hoped. His true ranking at the moment is a shocking No. 225.
And his draws so far during the grass-court season have not helped: Sam Querrey in the second round at Queen’s, and … Murray in the first round of Eastbourne after both took wild cards to get in more match play.
Wawrinka has been a Wimbledon quarterfinalist twice. And in 2015, he was unlucky not to go further as he lost 11-9 in the fifth set to Richard Gasquet.
His luck didn’t get better Friday,.
The draw gods decreed that he play 6 seed Grigor Dimitrov in the first round.
Not only is he 2-4 against Dimitrov in his career, he’s 0-4 in their last four meetings.
As for Monfils .. same story. The flashy Frenchman will square off with countryman Richard Gasquet in the first round. He leads that longtime rivalry 9-7.
The last two times they met came on grass, in Halle and at Eastbourne last year. They split the matches, and both were very close.
Monfils played just three non-clay tournaments this season, until he finally surfaced on grass in Antalya, Turkey this week as a wild card.
He pulled off two tough wins, and was only a few points away from a straight-sets win over No. 1 seed Adrian Mannarino before finally ceding 6-4 in the third set in the semifinals.
But … he tweaked his knee. Monfils’s knees are not great under ideal circumstances. So we’ll see what the next few days bring.
Other first-round matches to watch
 Novak Djokovic (SRB) vs. Tennys Sandgren (USA)
Whither Sandgren, who seems to have fallen off the face of the earth in recent weeks?
The American, who was a surprise quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, lost in the second round of qualifying at Wimbledon a year ago.
His fortunes have changed, as he broke into the top 50 in April.
Sandgren lost in the first round of five of the six clay-court tournaments he played this spring.
The exception was Geneva, where he posted two victories. But he hasn’t been seen since.
He had entered some events, but he hasn’t played a single point on grass while Djokovic found some of his trademark swagger – and game – as he reached the final at Queen’s Club.
The Serb couldn’t ask for a better opener. And his section of the draw is inviting, with Dominic Thiem potentially looming in the fourth round.
 Denis Shapovalov (CAN) vs. Jérémy Chardy (FRA)
For Shapovalov, the 2016 junior Wimbledon singles champion, this second grass-court season is proving a challenge.
He lost in the first round of Stuttgart to Prajnesh Gunneswaran of India, ranked No. 169. And he lost in the first round of Queen’s Club in two tiebreaks to big lefty-serving Gilles Muller.
Finally, as the No. 3 seed, he posted up a three-set victory in Eastbourne over American Jared Donaldson, only to lose to Mischa Zverev in straight sets in his next match.
His opponent, Chardy, is playing the best tennis of his life at age 31.
He’s 12-2 on grass this season with a win at the Surbiton Challenger, a loss to Gasquet in the ‘s-Hertogenbosch final and a loss to Djokovic in the Queen’s semi.
It is going to be a big challenge for Shapovalov. And he’s in an absolutely loaded little section of the draw, too.
 Kei Nishikori (JPN) vs. [Q] Christian Harrison (USA)
The former top-five player still isn’t close to the form he displayed before a wrist injury took him out for the latter part of 2018.
This will be his Wimbledon debut and while it wasn’t an ideal draw, it will at least be a matchup in which he can use his speed, and not be served off the court.
He’ll have a lot of folks rooting for him, too.
Pierre-Hugues Herbert (FRA) vs. Mischa Zverev (GER)
This one will be as close to old-school grass-court tennis as you’re likely to get, with both players willing and keen to serve-and-volley and move forward.
Potential round-of-16 matchups
 Roger Federer (SUI) vs.  Borna Coric (CRO)
 Kevin Anderson (RSA) vs.  Sam Querrey (USA)
 Marin Cilic (CRO) vs.  Milos Raonic (CAN)
 Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) vs.  John Isner (USA)
 Dominic Thiem (AUT) vs.  Novak Djokovic (SRB)
 Alexander Zverev (GER) vs.  Nick Kyrgios (AUS)
 Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) vs.  David Goffin (BEL)
 Rafael Nadal (ESP) vs.  Diego Schwartzman (ARG)
Roger Federer vs. Anderson/Querrey
Cilic /Raonic vs. Isner/Dimitrov
Zverev /Kyrgios vs. Djokovic
Nadal vs. Del Potro
Upsets and revivals
There are some highly-ranked players who have made surprisingly little noise in recent month. And you’d think some of them will not make their seeding.
Then again, when it comes Slam time, so many players will rise to the occasion.
Jack Sock, the No. 18 seed, is in the throes of a mighty slump in 2018. While you wouldn’t expect him to lose to Matteo Berrettini in the first round, this might be the tournament where he can start getting on a roll.
He has a friendly section where his power will be a plus. The highest seed in it is No. 10 David Goffin, who similarly has been rather quiet of late and played just one grass-court match coming in.
No. 28 seed Filip Krajinovic of Serbia has not played since Miami – that’s more than three months now. He has entered a lot of tournaments, and pulled out of every one and were it not Wimbledon, you probably wouldn’t expect to even see him here.
He’ll have to be careful, though. If Krajinovic is not fully fit, he could end up with a “Mischa Zverev” fine for failing to take the late withdrawal money and remaining in the draw.
No. 17 seed Lucas Pouille also is struggling this season. And in wild card Denis Kudla, he faces a player in the first round fully in form on the grass and one who loves playing on it.
Top half on Monday
As it’s tradition for the defending champion to be the first to walk out on famed Centre Court, Monday at 1 p.m., so will the rest of the top of the draw follow suit along with Federer.
Among the Monday matches to keep an eye on: Federer vs. Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic, whom he defeated in straight sets in the second round a year ago.
Monfils vs. Gasquet will be another one, along with Dimitrov vs. Wawrinka.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 20-year-old Greek player, is seeded at a major for the first time at No. 31 – in only his fifth career Grand Slam main draw. So far, he has one victory at this level, at the French Open last month against Carlos Taberner.
Two years ago, he was fighting Shapovalov for a spot in the junior boys’ final in one of the best junior boys’ matches we’ve ever seen on grass – if not the best. He was just a couple of points away from winning it, and went on to take the junior boys’ doubles title with Kenneth Raisma of Estonia, over Shapovalov and countryman Félix Auger-Aliassime in the final.
And look at them now.
Tsitsipas gets French qualifier Grégoire Barrere in the first round, and he’s in Dimitrov’s section of the draw.
So we can only guess that Monfils did his countryman a solid by flying him down to South America with him as a training partner (and ping-pong opponent) and, in the process, wangled them a wild card into the doubles.
Montpellier man in Quito
Descloix was born in Montpellier, France and raised in Montpellier, France. He also went to university in Montpellier, France and got a wild card into the qualifying of the ATP event there five times between 2010 and 2015. Descloix also teamed up with Monfils in doubles at that event on two occasions on wild cards.
As it happens, the Montpellier tournament is the same week as this event in Quito. So he was, in fact, skipping his hometown tournament for this.
It was totally worth it.
Descloix and Monfils upset the No. 1 seeds, Marcelo Demoliner and Purav Raja – solid doubles specialists, both – 14-12 in a match tiebreak in the first round. They saved match points, too.
In his last tournament, the ASLM Cannes Tournoi d’Hiver (total purse: 2,000 Euros) he lost to a guy with a 2/6 rating (a strong 5.0, in NTRP terms) named Hugo Vouillat. (To be fair, Vouillat had played at the Futures level for several years, but had stopped playing for awhile – hence his ringer’s ranking). But still.
The guy can play
This was only the second match Descloix had ever played in the main draw of an ATP Tour event, in singles or doubles. And it was the first ATP Tour event he had ever played outside his hometown Montpellier event.
And yet, he seemed unfazed, on the outside, by the fairy-tale quality of it. And despite his modest resumé, the guy can really play.
Descloix moves well, serves and volleys, has great hands. Which gives you yet another idea of just how tough and competitive it is out there, and how many really, really good tennis players will never make a living at the game.
The two earned $7,740 US for reaching the semifinals. Hopefully Monfils will let Descloix keep it all. The 90 ATP Tour rankings points would put Descloix at around No. 550 in the world as of Monday.
Monfils hardly plays any doubles. In fact, he’s played just two doubles matches in the last year and a half. And with the more than 9,000 feet of altitude in Quito, and the fact that it was his first tournament on red clay since Umag last July, it probably hurt him in the singles. But he’d probably do it all over again; he’s that kind of guy.
And there could be more.
Monfils and Descloix have a wild card into the Buenos Aires event this week. They meet No. 4 seeds Andres Molteni and Horacio Zeballos in the first round.
Another Marc Lopez?
It’s unlikely Descloix will do a Marc Lopez, and use this as a springboard to a viable doubles career. But the one thing we know about tennis is that you never know.
Lopez also had a very good friend – some guy named Rafael Nadal.
It all started back in 2009, when Nadal teamed up with Lopez in Doha (and they won it) as well as Indian Wells and Miami. Lopez was pushing 27. His singles and doubles rankings had been hanging in the 200s for awhile, and it didn’t seem as though he was going to get a break.
And then his friend did him a big solid.
Now 35, Lopez is currently ranked No. 23. But he got as high as No. 3 five years ago. He has 12 titles (including the 2016 French Open and two titles at Indian Wells). He has an Olympic gold medal. And he has banked nearly $4 million in prize money.
Any match involving Gaël Monfils is must-see TV, because you never know what you’re going to see.
But Monday in Madrid, the talented French showman blazed new territory along with amenable foil Gilles Simon.
The first set – 6-0 to Monfils – showed everything he’s capable of.
The second set – 6-0 to Simon, showed everything Monfils is also capable of.
Up 3-0 in the decider, Monfils’s left Achilles gave out on him. It’s the injury that has kept him out since Indian Wells in March. He returned last week, but lost his first match.
After a consultation with the trainer, it was clear there wasn’t much that could offer immediate relief. So he carried on.
Never over until it’s over
If it seemed a done deal, you don’t know Gilles Simon.
Monfils got to 5-2. He had two match points. He served for the match. He was broken to love. And then, the craziest scoreline you may ever see. Or, at least, the most symmetrical.
These two have tangled before, with wacky results.
Notably, their endless rallies at the Australian Open in 2013.
It wasn’t even the first time they went for that record:
Scoreline-wise, though, this one will be hard to top this season.
In the end, it was probably better that Simon won. There was every chance Monfils would withdraw from the tournament and give his next opponent a walkover. Rome is coming up. Most importantly, Monfils’s home Grand Slam, the French Open, looms.
The Frenchman did pass by the media mixed zone, but said in French that he was too irritated, and preferred not to say anything. He said the state of his Achilles/ankle was “average.”
Later, he apologized for the snub on Twitter. Gotta love it.
The Tour calendars are not quite in sync this year. So the week ranking points are earned and added from a specific tournament won’t always be the same week the points from that same tournament a year ago drop off.
For example, in 2016, the Monte Carlo Masters was held April 10-17. Those points expired with the new rankings list released today. The 1,000 points Rafael Nadal earned for winning it a year ago have fallen off his record; that resulted in a drop of two spots today, from No. 5 to No. 7.
2016 finalist Gaël Monfils dropped 600 points, and that sent his ranking from No. 11 all the way down to No. 16. Nadal will have an opportunity to earn those points back this week; Monfils, who is not playing, cannot.
Today is also the deadline for entry into the French Open, always six weeks before the start of the tournament. A few players did themselves some good last week; one, Japan’s Taro Daniel, likely took himself out of the running.
The top 104 in the rankings gain direct entry into the men’s singles draw. But that doesn’t factor in players with injury-protected rankings, who can bump players off the bottom of that list.