INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Let's just say it: Until today, it hadn’t been a great week for the WTA. The women’s tour went head to head with the men at just the wrong moment. The ATP semifinals gathered all the recent Grand Slam champions together, and the early rounds of the men’s draw showcased a potential future in the making in Milos Raonic and Ryan Harrison. Even the men's doubles, with its star players and cool new winning team, was livelier than ever.
Meanwhile, the women were learning a number of disturbing facts about their own future. That Venus Williams will be joining her sister on the sidelines for the tour’s next big mandatory tournament, in Key Biscayne; that her sister, Serena, is “depressed”; and that Kim Clijsters, the winner of the last two majors, doesn’t care about the tour’s events at all. The only consolation seemed to be the discovery that the WTA had been harboring a female Einstein among its ranks: On her way to the final, Marion Bartoli revealed that she has an IQ of 175, but that rather than do math or science or something boring like that, she never found anything she enjoyed doing more than slapping a tennis ball against a wall over and over. Now if that isn’t an endorsement for the sport . . .
But whatever the WTA’s struggles at the moment, the women's champion, Caroline Wozniacki, didn’t need to be quite so apologetic when she received her winner’s trophy, the most important of her career thus far. She wanted to make her speech quick, she said, because, “I know a lot of you are waiting to see the men’s final.”
Wozniacki should have been basking. Her win was a validation of her improved game this season—in the final, she won by subtly dictating as much as did by patiently defending. Her win was a nice turnabout from her heartbreaking defeat in the Aussie Open semifinals to Li Na after she held a match point; this time Wozniacki wobbled when she had the lead, but she didn’t fall over. And as far as the women’s tour went, her win was the best thing that happened all tournament; for one week, at least, the WTA's rankings rang true.
“Once again,” Wozniacki said afterward, “I showed that I can played great tennis, and I’ve beaten some good players this week.”
OK, good, there’s a little of the confidence, even cockiness, we expect from our No. 1's. And in truth, Wozniacki was more assertive about her abilities this week than I’ve seen her. She said that anyone who wanted to beat her had to play well, that they either had to overpower her or be willing to stay out there all day. Those were strong words coming from young Caro, who likes to be liked rather than feared.
But she backed them up, and as usual she did it with a deceptive toughness on the court. Wozniacki is best appreciated live. The stroke production that looks routine on TV is revealed to be the hard-earned product of strong legs and meticulous footwork. She plays a physical brand of tennis, but not an aggressive one—call it athletically defensive. Though “defensive” is a little unfair. Wozniacki plays with the defensive intelligence of a pool shark. It’s an axiom in that game that a good player never forces himself to take a difficult shot.
In 2011, though, Wozniacki has been constructing points proactively, with just a hint more risk, and she did that to perfection in the first set against Marion Bartoli today. She did it softly. A little hook forehand here, a nice quiet, gruntless topspin forehand safely placed down the line, a swing volley that looked like a caress, and the point was hers.
“I played very, very well, I thought,” Wozniacki said, “actually in the whole match, but the first set I felt like I had the most control. I had her running; I had her moving.”
It appeared that Wozniacki was going to run Bartoli straight back to the locker room. But the Frenchwoman made the match an entertaining one by doing the only thing she could do—trying a little bit of everything. She hit harder from the baseline. She came to the net. She hit drop shots on consecutive points. She lobbed. Most of all she carved up the court with the sharp angles that she can get with her two-handed strokes and extra-long racquet.
Not for the first time, I found myself thinking that it’s too bad we don’t see more of the wacky Bartoli and her mad-scientist father. As she noted afterward with a laugh, Dad, sitting back with his feet up the whole time, while his daughter ran herself ragged, was the sole member of her player’s box. From her painful-looking heel-toe service stance, to her strange motion, which begins with her right arm opening up like a car door, to her robotic between-point practice swings, Bartoli gives you a lot to watch, and the crowd at Indian Wells got behind her.
“It was one of the best matches I ever played from the second set on towards the end,” Bartoli said. “I think it was a great match to watch from the crowd, and I really enjoyed playing it.”
That’s the best part of sports: Just when you think the women’s game has had a week to forget, the final turns out to be the better match of the day, full of tactics, turnarounds, and crowd-pleasing surprises.
Then, after all that, Bartoli got tired. Wozniacki showed some nerves in closing it out, letting Bartoli back from 1-4 to 3-4 in the third set. There, though, she righted the ship with a fierce backhand crosscourt winner and a fist-pump. It was a little cocky, and that was a good thing. Wozniacki didn’t lose another game.
History really does repeat itself, doesn’t it? Yesterday I watched Roger Federer lose a three-set semifinal to Novak Djokovic from the same seat where I had watched him lose a very similar three-set semifinal to Andy Murray two years before. Today, from that same seat, I watched Rafael Nadal lose a final to Djokovic that bore an uncanny resemblance to a semifinal he had lost to the Serb three years earlier.
The score of their 2008 semi was 6-3, 6-2. Discounting Nadal’s opening-set win, the score of today’s final was 6-3, 6-2. Both times, Nadal started out OK. Then he started to miss, started to miss some more, started to miss shots I’d never seen him miss, started to look like he had no idea where any shot was going, and ended up looking lost and forlorn and unable to put the ball within five feet of where he aimed it. Both times, as Nadal unraveled, the Indian Wells crowd sat in increasing disbelief, calling out for the “Rafa!” they knew and loved but who had temporarily disappeared.
There was an obvious reason for Nadal’s demise, and he stated it right away after the match: His serve.
“I think I was playng my best match here,” Nadal said. “The first set I think I played really good, having the control of most of the points, and I felt well.”
Nadal had played an excellent first set, pushing Djokovic back with his forehand and frustrating him with its spin, which kept kicking too close to Djokovic’s body for comfort. Nadal hit his most impressive serve of the day—an ace out wide in the deuce court—to get to set point at 5-4, and he closed it out a minute or so later. Djokovic was chattering to himself and hanging his head. It looked like it was going to be Nadal's day.
“After that,” Nadal said, “I started to serve really bad. So I was thinking too much about the serve more than the game. The serve was the difference today in my opinion. It’s true I play less intense after the first set, but I think everything is because of the serve.”
Not quite everything. There was the matter of his opponent and his ability, for the second straight day, to beat an all-time great without playing his absolute best. At the most fundamental level, he was steadier than both Federer and Nadal. It’s a fact that he noted early in the tournament. After demolishing Ernests Gulbis, Djokovic chalked up his win to the dullest but most crucial aspect of the game: hitting balls in.
Djokovic did all he needed to do today, as he had yesterday. Recognizing that Nadal wasn’t feeling the ball from his backhand side, he pounded that shot, just as he has pounded Federer’s the last two times they’ve played. Djokovic moved Nadal out wide with his crosscourt forehand, he got returns back in the court, and, as he has been all year, he made first serves when he needed them. Djokovic closed the match with four first serves and a love hold. And unlike against Federer yesterday, he showed no nerves at the end. He didn’t get tentative or safe with the lead. Of course, it also helped that Nadal seemed to be trying to hit his forehands into the alley rather than the court.
Djokovic chalked it up to confidence again. “We’re talking about the momentum in tennis,” he said. “It was just the question of momentum. I managed to hold that very important game at 5-3 [in the second set] and I was on a roll. I am playing with a lot of confidence. I’m feeling the ball well on the court. So it will not stop here, definitely.”
Djokovic has won a total of 19 straight matches, and is undefeated in 2011. He just beat the two best players of this era by playing solid tennis, not stratospheric tennis. Right now, he’s the guy who’s coming up with the big serve, who’s moving his opponents where he wants them, who’s holding steady in the third set, who's venting his anger and not letting it hurt his game. As Nadal said afterward, Djokovic put himself in the best position of anyone to finish the season at the top. And now he’s followed up a Grand Slam win with not only a Masters title, but a victory of the world No. 1.
All that said, I’m going to finish by restating a cautionary thought that I had at the start of this tournament. In 2008 Djokovic won the Aussie Open and Indian Wells, and didn’t win another major that year. In 2009, Nadal did the same. Djokovic sounds level-headed about where he is right now; this time he knows the perils and pitfalls that await. He’s at the top of the mountain today. It’s a nice place to be, but it also, for better or worse, comes with a view. From there, he should be able to see Miami. He should be able to see Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome, and Paris. He should be able to get a glimpse of the green lawns of Wimbledon, and maybe, way off in the distance, the hard courts of Flushing Meadows. It’s a high mountain. It’s a long season.