When I woke up this morning in Indian Wells, the wind was threatening to decapitate the palm trees on the other side of the road from my hotel. Driving to the tournament site, I could see it kicking up screens of dust that soared higher than the nearby hills.
An hour later, as the women's finalists walked onto the stadium court, the Serbian fans in the top rows were holding onto their flags for dear life. Ana Ivanovic and Vera Zvonareva did the same with their skirts and their visors. Unfortunately, they were powerless to do much with the tennis ball once it left their racquets.
The breeze blew their service tosses halfway to the net, and their ground strokes from the center of the court all the way to the alleys. It blew a plastic racquet wrapper from the court surface up and out of the arena in seconds. It took shots that must have felt good coming off the racquet and made them very bad—a few times Ivanovic's face went from happy to surprised to woeful as the ball sailed through the air—and took soft, mediocre shots and made them brilliant. It was hard to adjust because the wind wasn't blowing in any discernible direction. It was blowing everywhere.
In the end, the conditions reduced the final of the BNP Paribas Open, which had upped its women's prize money and fielded its strongest draw this year, to a test of resourcefulness rather than pure tennis skill. Zvonareva passed this test by planting herself in the middle of the baseline, facing the net, and getting the ball back any way she could.
"I was trying to put as many balls as I can in the court," was pretty much the extent of Zvonareva's explanation of her tactics afterward. That's as complicated as it can get on a day like this.
The book on playing in the wind is to take more little steps than usual to keep yourself ready for any last second gusts, send the ball down the middle of the court, and don't be afraid to hit it hard so it doesn't have as much time to get blown god knows where. Ivanovic stuck to this script, and she stuck to the attacking script she had written for herself all tournament. She couldn't pull it off. On point after point, she hit a forcing approach only to botch it in the end. Zvonareva was allowed the luxury of waiting and playing it safe. She made a specialty of a shot that on most days even a rank amateur would be ashamed to use: the slice forehand. A couple times it floated upward, crawled over the net, then hung unsteadily in the air, eventually bamboozling Ivanovic into another error. If little steps are the key to playing in the wind, that wasn't going to help the Serb; she's a long-legged strider all the way.
"I tried to get through the middle," Ivanovic said afterward. "but it was very hard to control the ball."
Ivanovic said, naturally, that she was "trilled" to reach the final again here, and she did show signs of the old sharpness, especially in her semifinal win over Pavlyuchenkova. Ivanovic says she's feeling more confident, and that her goal is to win a major, but I'm not convinced she's ready. Her confidence waxed and waned all week. And when it went south, as it did against Flavia Pennetta, she couldn't find the court with anything, and looked extremely anxious trying. Can she go seven matches without a clunker?
Ivanovic, as you might expect, was bubblier than the winner in her press conference. She said she had gotten all of her "emotions" out and composed herself before she faced us. As for Zvonareva, you would never know she was, not too long ago, a self-wounding basket case on court, prone to tear-filled mid-match meltdowns. She's all-business now, and it shows in her results: A final at the WTA championshps in 2008, a semi in Melbourne, and a Premier win in Indian Wells. Again, though, you wouldn't have known she'd just won the biggest title of her career. After 10 minutes of routine answers and little reaction from Zvonareva, she was finally asked, "What's it feel like to suddenly be $700,000 richer?"
Zvonareva didn't blink or crack a smile. "I don't know," she said, "I don't really think about it." What bothers me is that I believe her. She's done a great job of calming down and moving her game up a level. Will it take a little more of the old overt passion for her to take the next step and go toe to toe with the Williams sisters?
The winner aside, the WTA at Indian Wells was notable for it's abundance of personality in the press room, but a parallel lack of personality or individualism in the playing styles displayed on court. Yes, there was expressiveness—Ivanovic's innocent determination was balanced against Zvonareva's hunched resourcefulness today. And you can find those contrasts in every match. At the same time, the four WTA semifinalists—and almost everyone else in the draw, for that matter—pounded the ball from the baseline, wielded two-handed backhands, and approached the net only when they were blown there accidentally (the three missing stars, Venus, Serena, and Maria, fit all those categories as well).
Has the women's game been over-democratized? The dominant style of WTA play is an outgrowth of what's been taught at the Bollettieri Academy for 30 years. There's a military toughness and precision to it—Nick was an army paratropper, after all—that's undeniably effective: No one can fight the power anymore. But tennis, and women's tennis, has always been a sport of highly unique individuals. It has produced stars as varied and indelible as Steffi Graf, Evonne Goolagong, and Martina Navratilova, each of whom played, sounded, and acted nothing like the others. When you go into the military, you get stronger, harder, and fiercer. But you also have your personality erased. After talking with Cetkovska, Ivanovic, Pavlyuchenkova, Jankovic and others this week, I know there's a lot of life and a lot of unique individuals on this tour. I wish they didn't all express themselves the same way when they stepped on the court.