The so-called fifth major of the tennis season begins Thursday in Indian Wells, Calif., as 16 of the world's top 20 players take to the courts in the BNP Paribas Open. Billionaire Larry Ellison bought the popular tournament last year (and changed its name from the Pacific Life Open) and a record crowd of motr than 350,000 is expected this year at the 11-day event. Busted Racquet gives you a few things to look out for at the tourney:
1. Hit for Haiti. On Friday night, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Lindsey Davenport, Justine Henin, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf will take part in a fundraiser Hatian earthquake relief. Federer first organized a "Hit For Haiti" event at the Australian Open and Ellison took over at Indian Wells, recruiting former stars to participate in one of two doubles matches Friday night. The event is sold out and will be broadcast live on The Tennis Channel.
2. Belgium rising? Tennis tournaments need to add some caveats to its seeding system. The two favorites at Indian Wells, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, are unseeded and No. 14, respectively at the tournament. This is due to the fact that both Belgians have yet to play enough tournaments in their comebacks to move up in the WTA rankings, of course. Unlike in Melbourne, though, Henin won't see a marquee match until the fourth round, when she's set to tangle with No. 4 Elena Dementieva. In that same round, Clijsters would play No. 1 Svetlana Kuznetsova. (See what I mean about this being the fifth major?) If they advance, Clijsters and Henin would meet in the final.
3. Men's surprise? Each of the big four -- Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Murray -- are getting better than 8-1 odds to win at Indian Wells. The next closest man receives 17-1. Obviously, oddsmakers consider this to be a top-heavy event. But don't be surprised if one of the "outsiders" surprises in victory. Marin Cilic or Jo-Wilifried Tsonga or Nikolay Davydenko or whoever wins between Andy Roddick and Gaels Monfils (a potential fourth round match) are all decent possibilities.
4. TV, TV, TV. The Tennis Channel will air over 90 hours of live coverage of the tournament, all in HD.
5. Predictions: That being said, we're still going with Roger Federer to win on the men's side. (We learned our lesson in Melbourne.) For the women, it's hard to go with Kim Clijsters after her Australian Open debacle, but the slower courts at Indian Wells suit her baseline game.