Indian Wells CC (Finals Sunday)

Sunday, March 18, 2012 /by

FedIWBy TennisWorld Senior Contributing Editor Andrew Burton

Morning, all.

So the WTA is a paragon of order: Azarenka and Sharapova, the top two seeds, contest the final today. Meanwhile, chaos reigns in the ATP: who'd have picked a final between the no 3 and no 11 seeds? Get your act together, lads.

Quite the day, yesterday.

We had regicide, a biblical storm in the desert, ball kids doing a synchronized "YMCA" and "The Macarena" and, as a nightcap, Fedal 28. I'm not ready to give Indian Wells the 5th Major title just yet, but it hasn't been dull.

We got underway with a terrific scrap between John Isner and Novak Djokovic. I watched most of the first set on a monitor in the press room with headphones clamped over my ears. I'd recorded an interview with KTPR's Katie Markin over the cell phone on Wednesday, and it was broadcast at 11am yesterday, just as the first match got underway.

Many of us remember the first time we heard our voice tape recorded, and we thought "do I really sound like that?" I still get over how different - how, well British - my voice sounds when I hear it played back to me. Yesterday I was struck by the verbal tics, rapid fire stammers and "ers" as I tried to respond to Katie's questions. We were on air for the full hour, including commercial breaks: the show was recorded in thre 15 minute segments. We covered a lot of ground - where the BNP Paribas Open stood in the annual calendar and why it was an important tournament, the scoring system in tennis, tennis' origins as a royal court sport (I slipped in a quick reference to Henry V for the Shakespeare buffs), some pen portraits of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, the way 2012 was developing for the WTA and ATP tours, grunting, and much more (was the GOAT a mythical beast?).

I had a lot of fun doing the interview, so thanks to Katie for asking me on. It was very cool to get a tweet from my daughter Cathleen saying she was listening to the show: after it was done, my wife Sylvia told me that when Katie had asked "could you talk about the tennis..." she'd thought "oh boy, can he!"

By the time the show finished, Isner and Djokovic were in the latter stages of set 1. Djokovic was trying to make an early break stand up, but at 5-4 Isner fought back: BP down, Djokovic challenged a baseline call, but the ball had touched the line, and the scores were level. Isner was able to get to the tiebreak: minibreaks were swapped, then Isner forced the advantage with a great return and a winning volley. Djokovic netted his return on a big second serve, and an upset was brewing.

Djokovic was holding his own service games comfortably, and whenever he got Isner's serves into play was (as you'd expect) taking most of the longer rallies. Djokovic took the only break of the second set, and the third set stayed on serve until 5-6, when Djokovic was able to fight off match point with a first serve which Isner sent just long. A decisive tiebreak: minibreaks were exchanged, Djokovic sending a forehand just wide then cleverly outwitting his opponent with a backhand volley. Isner decisively got the upper hand when he skipped to his left and drove a winning forehand return deep into the deuce corner at 2-3. Djokovic saved two match points, but he couldn't touch the third, a screaming wide ace. It was one of those days for the world no 1 - he hadn't played badly, and had a big advantage in points won over Isner (117-106). None of which helps - his opponent had taken the only point that matters.  

Djokovic was in the press room five minutes later. I remembered Federer coming to press straight from court in 2009 after Murray had prevailed in three sets. Would Djokovic treat us to the same black humor Federer had shown then? Not really: although some journalists tweeted that Djokovic looked angry as he came in - I thought he was holding his emotions in check. He acknowledged how well Isner had played, admitted to some frustration that his opponent had hit over 70% first serves (it was 74%) but told us he thought he'd played well. And he had.

So then we had a literal desert storm: sleeting rain, dark skies, high wind. Play was delayed about three and a half hours. Federer first, then Nadal, took the court to cheers from an evenly divided crowd. I thought Federer led among the older spectators, while Nadal's demographic skewed younger. Tennis exit polls, anyone?

Federer hadn't beaten Nadal in an outdoor hard court match in nearly seven years (Miami F 2005), an astonishing statistic for a player who's been so dominant on hard courts since winning the Australian Open in 2004. Since that disappointment, Nadal had recorded four victories on the surface against Federer (Dubai F 2006, Australian Open F 2009 and SF 2012, Miami SF 2011). The players took the court in challenging conditions, and they finished the match in challenging conditions, but the middle third of the contest was played in awful, ghastly conditions. A whipping, bitingly cold wind enveloped the stadium: If I'd wanted to feel warmer, I'd have stayed at home in Calgary. Conventional wisdom, and the (excellent) Tennis Channel commentators had it that Nadal's game would hold up better in the wind. OK, so surface advantage Nadal, conditions advantage Nadal: what happened?

It might sound trite, and of course (given my confessed affection for Federer's game) you have to consider the source, but there's only one answer: Federer happened. This is the sixth tournament I've attended, and yesterday was the best match I've seen him play. Nadal, in a very honest conversation with the press afterwards, reached the same conclusion.

I'm rewatching the match on the Tennis Channel in my hotel room as I write this post, and I don't think a play by play or decisive point by decisive point discussion is the way to go. So, here are he memories and impressions I had from yesterday evening.

First - hail, it was cold. Maybe the outside temperature said 60 degrees, but at the start of set 2 it felt like it was the low 40s. The press gallery, usually packed for big late stage matches (and this was the first time Nadal and Federer had met at Indian Wells) had maybe eight shivering souls (including me). From about the seventh game onwards, Federer wrapped himself in two towels at each changeover. It was prime weather for a muscle strain, but thankfully the match wasn't decided by a twinge.

Second, it was a privilege to be there. I've written in the past that live tennis is much more exciting than the televised version. It was even more so for this match - the speed, variety, skill and nerve the two men displayed were dazzling. Nadal lost the match, and he acknowledged that he lost his way in that horrid middle third (which included a very brief rain delay at 0-1, 30-15). For most of the match, though, this was toe-to-toe stuff - no, that's wrong. We don't have a cliche or short phrase in the English language which encapsulates the interplay between running, clean hitting and decision making that encompassed the fantastic rallies between the two.

Third, Federer has been criticized for failing to execute against Nadal, and for failing to stick to a winning game plan. Not last night. I was struck by how well he hit his backhand return, getting tremendous extension on the drive returns, typically punching the ball deep to the deuce side to prevent Nadal from employing his favorite tactic of running around to take control of the rally with his forehand. Federer also hit rally backhands with great power and spin, and finished off several points with a mid court clean backhand winner. The forehand will always be the shot that keeps Mirka in Prada handbags, but the backhand now buys a few goodies for the twins.

Lastly, how can you not love having Nadal at the top reaches of the tour? I've seen him go away in matches in the past against Federer, and he could be forgiven for thinking it wasn't his day yesterday when Federer got an insurance break to serve out the match at 5-2. Not a bit of it: any lioness asked to defend her cubs would be wise to look at a DVD of how Nadal played the next game. All I can say is Nadal turned his aggression dial up to 11: he broke Federer at 15, held his own serve, then scratched and clawed his way to 30-30 as Federer tried to serve out the match for the second time. An astonishing rally, the best of the match, followed: Nadal, in control, forced Federer to defend on a full sprint. Finally, Nadal got a short ball, and he drove a forehand into the net. The stadium video monitor showed a close up of Nadal's face, frozen in a gesture of astonishment. But it wasn't at the miss: in a last, agonizing twist, rain was falling again.

After the match, Federer was asked whether he'd sat in his chair and planned his next serve: by now in a goofy, giddy mood he told the interviewer that he'd decided to go down the T, but just as he'd tossed the ball in the air, he'd aim it wide instead. Like Isner's bomb six hours earlier, the ball flashed past his opponent's outstretched racquet, and the 28th match between these two great players was in the books. This time - maybe the only time - I was there.

Today's Order Of Play has three matches. Azarenka-Sharapova are up first in the WTA Final, then Isner and Federer play for the ATP title. Afterwards - with "minimal" rest (not "sufficient?") Isner will come back on court with Querrey to play the ATP Doubles Final, held over from yesterday because of the rain delays.

As always, enjoy today's tennis!

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