Just Deserts

Monday, March 17, 2014 /by
AP Photos (Top), Anita Aguilar (Bottom)
AP Photos (Top), Anita Aguilar (Bottom)

INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Tennis tournaments always come through in the end, don’t they? Sunday’s women’s final was hardly a match; but the emotion, from the surprise winner and the crushed loser, will never be forgotten. And on the men’s side, a draw that had looked ravaged early in the week finished up the way big men's draws usually do: With another classic for the Golden Era highlight reel. Before everyone moves on to do it again in Miami, and I reluctantly check out of the Holiday Inn Express here, I’ll take a minute to review the major players’ performances at the latest, and largest, BNP Paribas Open yet.

The usual caveats apply: (1) Players don't get failing grades for losing matches, and (2) I can't cover everyone. If you see someone who's missing, give us your assessment in the comments below. 

*****

Novak Djokovic

Watching him drop sets to Alejandro Gonzalez, Marin Cilic, and John Isner; lose his forehand and his backhand at different times; slam his racquet to the court in anger; and fail to serve out matches one three occasions, it was hard to remember that Nole had won the last two Masters events, and the ATP World Tour Finals, just a few months ago. It’s weird to say that a player ranked No. 2 in the world needed a win, but Djokovic needed one soon, and Indian Wells served his purposes perfectly. So did Roger Federer: It took being down a set to his rival in the final to bring out Djokovic’s best tennis. We’ll see what happens, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we looked back on his title here as a turning point in the ATP season. A+

Flavia Pennetta

The Italian is 32, she contemplated retirement a year ago, she had never won a tournament of this magnitude, and she beat a hobbled opponent in the final. Yet this was no fluke victory. Pennetta made the semifinals of the U.S. Open last fall, and the quarters at the Australian in January. And she had just beaten a healthier Agnieszka Radwanska two weeks ago in Dubai in straight sets. So she was due for a run like this, which included a gritty—literally—win over Sloane Stephens in a sandstorm in the quarters, and an upset of world No. 2 Li Na in the semis. Let’s hope it continues; Flavia, with her elegant ball-striking and infectious, but never overwrought, expressiveness, would be a very welcome addition to the later rounds at all WTA events. 

Extra credit for bringing Fabio Fognini along as your "assistant coach," and still winning. A+

Roger Federer

He didn’t hoist the champ's trophy, but the crowds he drew for his singles and doubles matches all week qualify Federer as the tournament's MVP. He got better as the rounds went on, and his first set and a half against Djokovic was the best he’s played against a top-tier opponent since 2012. But Federer couldn’t cross the finish line when he had the chance. At 3-3 in the second set, with a half-chance to break, he opted for a drop shot instead of a drive approach, and didn’t chip and charge when he had a golden opportunity to do so on a second serve. The Fedberg era has started well, but there’s more work to be done. A

Shuai Peng and Su-Wei Hsieh

You want big-match players? The Chinese-Taiwanese doubles combo improved their record in finals to 11-0 with their title here. A

Agnieszka Radwanska

She appeared ready for a big step forward with an Indian Wells title, but an injury at the last second kept her from taking it. It wasn’t fun seeing Aga hurt, or seeing her choke up in her speech afterward. But I was glad to know how much it meant to her. If she keeps going deep at Slams and Mandatories, eventually she’ll convince herself she’s meant to win them. A-

Larry Ellison

He’s revived a major tennis event, and the players rightfully pay tribute to him for it. I’m guessing most fans would as well; the Indian Wells site has expanded, while at the same time becoming more spectator friendly—most helpfully, there are more than just a few a lonely trees for shade on a hot day now. The next expansion move for the owner? Coming down to the front row more often for women’s matches. A-

Stadium 2

Ellison’s newest baby, which fits seamlessly into the grounds, is the best addition yet. I had some reservations early about its cookie-cutter octagonal design, but an afternoon spent watching Grigor Dimitrov and Ernests Gulbis go down to the wire in front of an appreciative crowd swept the doubts away. The festively civilized atmosphere reminded me of Melbourne Park, without the chanting. That’s a good thing. A-

Simona Halep

Yes, she’s for real—Top 5 real. The Romanian broke into that elite company with a semifinal run which included close wins over Lucie Safarova and Genie Bouchard. It’s the ultimate commentator’s cliché, but it’s true in her case: The next step is to get to the net more. With her hands, it could make a difference. B+

John Isner

Isner did what he does: Play well at home, and win tiebreakers. It was enough to send him back into the Top 10. Better, from a U.S. tennis perspective, was what he had said when he got there: “I want to go farther.” That’s not something we’ve heard much from the American men recently. B+

Alexandr Dolgopolov

Like Pennetta on the women’s side, it’s hard to think of a more welcome potential addition to the upper echelon of the men’s game. Dolgo has always had the flash; this year he’s added some substance. But he’s not yet the serious threat he could be, as his smiling surrender to Federer in the semis showed. B+

Jelena Jankovic

JJ continued her late-20s revival with a masterfully easy win over Caroline Wozniacki, then gave Radwanska everything she could handle in the quarters. All of this while spending half her time sprawled on the court. B+

Sloane Stephens

Aggressive play, a better attitude, some good wins, and a quarterfinal loss to the eventual champion: Was this a turning point for the young American, who made her debut with new coach Paul Annacone? There will be more defeats and bad days, but this was her best week of the year so far. B+

Ernests Gulbis
Is it a coincidence that the one match in which Gulbis didn't smash a racquet was the one he lost? Get madder, Ernests. B+

Dominic Thiem

With a third-round run and a win over Gilles Simon, Thiem was the new face—and one-handed backhand—of the tournament. Power lovers should love this young Austrian, who has yet to meet a ball he couldn't bash. B+

Marin Cilic

He played the set of his life to beat Djokovic 6-1; for a few minutes, we saw the Cilic many of us thought we would see when he arrived on tour nearly a decade ago. He hit with pace and angle, rather than with margin and safety. Then he went back to normal and lost. B

Jiri Vesely

As he showed in his snatching-defeat-from-the-jaws of victory match with Andy Murray, the young Czech has the hands. Now he needs the head. B

Camila Giorgi

It was fun, before she disappeared again, to see the young Italian take the ball on the rise and give it a ride past Maria Sharapova. B

Li Na

She reached the semis, but this wasn’t the tennis you would expect from a world No. 2 who had just won a Grand Slam. Unforced errors, double faults, blown match points, and breaks of serve were the constants in her week. B-

Milos Raonic

The Canadian said that after Stan Wawrinka won the Australian Open, everyone in or around the Top 10 asked themselves, “Why can’t that be me?” Then he went out and answered his own question by losing in straights to Dolgopolov. The Ukrainian needed to do just one thing to beat him: Return his serve. B-

Stan Wawrinka

One little problem about joining the men’s elite: You have to win all the time. Stan got his first taste of the new expectations here, and didn't meet them. C

Andy Murray

Muzz was in a funk even when he was winning. But that’s nothing new for him in the Indian Wells desert, where he has looked and played like a fish out of water for the last few years. I’ll reserve judgement on his 2014 until after Miami, which is where his winning seasons often begin. C

Rafael Nadal

The defending men’s champion didn’t have it this time; he barely beat Radek Stepanek, then lost for the first time to Dolgopolov after having a lead in a third-set tiebreaker. Does Rafa feel extra pressure being the owner’s choice? C-

Maria Sharapova

The defending women’s champion still doesn’t like shorter versions of herself: This time it was Giorgi who outblasted her. As of now, it’s too early to panic about her new coaching relationship. But if she loses early in Miami... C-

Caroline Wozniacki

Dad keeps chattering, and her ranking keeps dropping—down to No. 18 as of this week. Caro had won five straight over Jankovic, but the Serb ran her out of the stadium this time. C-

Indian Wells Radio

When I wasn’t typing, I was hitting the “seek” button on the car radio. There were, for the most part, 157 channels and nothing on. You know you’re in trouble—or officially old—when you find yourself listening to a Journey song all the way through. Maybe it was the lowered expectations, but the only few minutes of redemption came, of all places, from a Tone-Loc song—“Wild Thing” was the best thing I heard all week. I guess the sun had finally gone to my head. F

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