Indian signs point to Djokovic
Our Andy Schooler says Novak Djokovic is a worthy favourite in Indian Wells, while he also has a 125/1 outsider for you.
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He may be just 5/4 to win this week's opening Masters 1000 event of the season, but there's no getting away from the view that Novak Djokovic is a worthy favourite.
The world number one successfully defended his title at the Australian Open with only Stanislas Wawrinka really troubling him and recently added another hardcourt title in Dubai to remain unbeaten in ATP-level matches this season.
He just looks so solid on this surface. It is so difficult to get the ball past the Serb - who would have thought Rafael Nadal would be bettered in the art of defence so soon? - but the ability to hit winners is also very much there.
Djokovic famously started 2011 by going unbeaten through the first five months and he's looking in the sort of form that took him on that run.
He's now beaten potential semi-final foe Andy Murray in their last three meetings, while he also beat Roger Federer the last time they met.
As for the other member of the 'Big Four', who between them have now won a remarkable 60 of the last 72 Masters events, Djokovic has beaten Rafael Nadal in each of their last four hardcourt clashes.
The Indian Wells venue will hold no fears for the 25-year-old as it is one he has conquered twice in the past - in 2011 and 2008. He also made the final here in 2007 annd last year held match point against an inspired John Isner before losing a classic semi-final.
The thin air of the Californian desert usually helps the ball through the air - it certainly aided Isner's big serve en route to the final 12 months ago - but the speed off the court has been relatively slow in recent years. Nothing there to bother our pick.
For those looking towards Murray, second favourite at around 4/1, you have to remember his record here is very poor for a player of his quality. In seven visits he's only gone beyond the quarter-finals twice with defeats in his opening match in each of the last two seasons - to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Donald Young.
Recovering from Australian Open disappointment has proven problematic in the past and although the Scot has targeted an improvement during this Indian Wells-Miami swing it is easier said than done.
Despite the price difference, I'm happy to side with Djokovic here.
The other side of the draw certainly looks weaker.
Defending champion Federer, a four-time winner, is seeded to make the final but more than ever chinks are beginning to show in the Swiss' armour.
Beaten by Julien Benneteau in Rotterdam, he then blew three match points against Tomas Berdych in Dubai where he level fluctuated too much for my liking.
He played some top stuff at times but wasn't consistent enough to hold off Berdych's aggressive play.
Such lack of consistency has hindered Federer in best-of-five-set matches at the Slams. Now it appears to be creeping into his three-set contests. That has to be a worry for anyone considering backing him at 11/2.
Having said that, the draw has been kind with both Djokovic and Murray avoided. It has, however, thrown up a potential quarter-final with old rival Nadal, a man playing his first hardcourt tournament for almost a year.
You do have to wonder whether Nadal will make it that far, mind. Despite a strong comeback on his favoured clay over the past month, the Spaniard is sure to be at least a little tentative as he tests his dodgy knee on this surface. Certainly I couldn't touch him at 9/1.
With question marks surrounding both Federer and Nadal, there's potential for someone outside the 'Big Four' to reach the final in this section.
Not surprisingly, the bookies make the aforementioned Berdych the most likely alternative but there appears to be little value in backing him following his Dubai run - 16/1 about a player who is prone to some odd lapses hardly sets the pulse racing.
Instead I'm going to have a punt on a player who has started 2013 in fine form, Richard Gasquet.
Many doubt the mental side of his game but on the physical side there's no question he's playing some of the best tennis of his career right now.
And with ATP titles in Doha and Montpellier already banked, confidence will be surging through the Frenchman which will only help him mentally.
As already explained, he may not have to play the real cream of the crop until the final so the 125/1 chalked up looks tempting from an each-way perspective.
Admittedly Gasquet has been handed a tricky draw - Bernard Tomic is a potential first foe, while Berdych could lie in wait in the quarter-finals. However, he holds winning record against both men, with his 3-1 hardcourt record against Berdych being particularly impressive. It includes a convincing win over the Czech in Toronto last year.
Gasquet has struggled with potential semi-final foe David Ferrer in the past but the Spaniard has not been at his best so far this season and is another player who has failed to shine at this event.
All in all, for those looking for a long-odds shot, Gasquet looks worth a punt to minimum stakes.
- The tournament starts at 1900 GMT on Thursday and is being televised live in the UK on Sky Sports from Saturday.