Every key member of the so-called Group of Death — the stacked bottom quarter of the men's draw at the BNP Paribas Open — kept his title hopes alive during a busy Sunday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
No. 2 Novak Djokovic took care of Briton Kyle Edmund, 6-4, 7-6 (5), No. 5 Rafael Nadal dispatched Guido Pella of Argentina, 6-3, 6-2, and No. 9 Roger Federer needed only 51 minutes to rout Stephane Robert of France, 6-2, 6-1. The big guns marched along to the third round in lockstep with former USC standout Steve Johnson — a three-set winner over Kevin Anderson of South Africa — No. 15 Nick Kyrgios of Australia and No. 31 Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina.
Funny, then, that it was the supposedly easy top half of the draw that produced the biggest drama to date by claiming world No. 1 Andy Murray, whose straight-sets dismissal by Canada's Vasek Pospisil on Saturday night remained a hot topic on a toasty desert Sunday.
Pospisil, who played his way into the draw as a qualifier, gave Murray fits in a 6-4, 7-6 (5) stunner. Murray has never won here in 12 appearances and lost in the third round last year.
"I don't know exactly why it is, because in practice here normally I play pretty well," Murray said late Saturday. "And then some years, some years, you know, I played well. Some years it's just, you know, it just hasn't quite happened for me. I don't know exactly why that is. I don't know if it is the conditions here or . . . I really don't know why I haven't played my best here over the years."
Nadal knows what it's like to have one sore spot, one Achilles' heel, in an otherwise spectacular career.
"It's true that in Indian Wells during his career he had some bad matches maybe, and so this happens sometimes," Nadal said of Murray. "Sometimes you don't feel comfortable in one event, and it's difficult to overcome that. Happened for me a lot of times in Cincinnati and I was not able to find the rhythm, and finally I won once [in 2013]. But when you have bad feelings in one event, sometimes it's difficult to overcome that."
Murray's feelings bubbled over into frustration against Pospisil's aggressive serve-and-volley game. Murray was upset by serve-and-volleyer Mischa Zverev in the round of 16 at this year's Australian Open, raising questions about whether Pospisil had planned his strategy here based on Zverev's success. Pospisil said he would have played that way, anyway, but he said he gained "maybe a little bit more confidence" from Zverev's example.
Sascha Zverev, Mischa's younger brother and part of the "Group of Death" here, was amused to hear his sibling credited for giving Pospisil a blueprint for the upset. Sascha Zverev, 19, advanced Sunday with a 7-6 (10), 6-3 victory over Facundo Bagnis of Argentina. Mischa Zverev is in the top half of the draw and also made it to the third round.
"I saw the match. The commentators were saying that Mischa was an inspiration for Vasek Pospisil," said Sascha Zverev, the No. 18 seed. "It's great to hear that one year ago my brother that nobody really, not that nobody cared about him, but nobody was talking about him that much, they're saying he's the inspiration to beat the world No. 1.
"I'm happy for Vasek, as well. He had a tough year last year. He's a great guy and I'm very happy that he could get that win."
Murray's loss was startling to No. 4 seed Kei Nishikori of Japan, who isn't in that fearsome quarter of the draw but is in the bottom half .
A quarterfinalist here last year, Nishikori eased into the third round with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Daniel Evans of Great Britain. "A big surprise, for sure," Nishikori said of Murray's loss. "Pospi is a good player. He has a great serve and is aggressive."
Djokovic also admired Pospisil's strategy against Murray. "Pospisil was spending a lot of time at the net, serve and volleying after first and second serve, which was [a] pretty risky tactic against one of the best returners of all time, but it worked very well," Djokovic said. "He played amazing. . . . From what I have seen he was a better player."
As the tournament goes on, the Group of Death is likely to feature some surprises, too. "If you watch Novak today or Rafa, margins are small," Federer said. "If you're not up to your best, you're struggling. You might lose. Saw it with Andy [Saturday]. It happens so quickly."
Djokovic said he doesn't have the luxury of pacing himself against his next opponent, Del Potro. "It's definitely not the draw that you like to have early in the tournament and that you wish for, but it is what it is," he said.
What's more interesting is what kind of battle that bottom quarter will become.