INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—The setting was pristine, as always, but the tennis on Monday was messy, sometimes ugly, and often surprising. How many times have two defending champions gone out in back-to-back matches this early? I’ll get to the biggest upset of the afternoon, Rafael Nadal’s loss to Alexandr Dogolpolov, tomorrow; for now, here’s a look at some of the day’s other notable results, including its other stunner, Maria Sharapova’s loss to Camila Giorgi.
Attack of the Clone
One thing we know about Sharapova: She doesn’t like playing a Mini-Me. As the Portuguese tennis journalist Miguel Seabra pointed out, last year at Wimbledon she lost to Michelle Larcher de Brito, this year at the Australian Open she lost to Dominika Cibulkova, and today she lost to Camila Giorgi.
What do these three women have in common, aside from the fact that they’re all ranked well below Sharapova and have never approached what she’s done in her career? Two things: They’re all significantly shorter than the 6’2” Sharapova—most people are—and they all play something like her. They swing hard and flat, for the fences, and they do it from a lower trajectory than she does.
Sharapova’s coach, Sven Groeneveld, seemed to understand the issue when he came out to talk to her on a couple of changeovers. “Lower your center of gravity,” he told her over and over. It worked for a while in the second set, but there was no advice anyone could give that would have helped Maria today. She finished with 16 winners and 58 unforced errors, a stat-line that normally wouldn't get you anywhere close to a victory.
Yet she nearly pulled it out. That's because Giorgi, Mini-Me to the end, was almost as bad in the stat department. She hit 24 winners and committed 48 errors. Groeneveld told Sharapova, "remember who you're playing"—in other words, remember that Giorgi will miss. It almost worked.
“I didn’t play a good match at all,” Sharapova said, “and I started very poorly. Never played against her, but she’s someone that doesn’t give you much rhythm. Some shots she hits incredible for a long period of time. Sometimes they go off a bit."
As erratic and nervy as Giorgi was—she double-faulted 11 times, was broken to lose the second set, and was broken the first time she served for the match, at 5-4 in the third—she was still fun to watch when she was on. Fun, and refreshing. Unlike so many of today’s pros, both male and female, Giorgi takes her ground strokes at the top of the bounce and moves forward to cut off the angle on her returns. There’s no question she goes for too much; the Italian, whose role model as a player is Andre Agassi, seems to have been built with only a fifth gear. Even when she starts to falter, she doesn’t take an extra millisecond between points. But when she’s good, it’s a thrill to see her take over a court.
As for Maria, she failed to defend her title here, which means her ranking will drop, stunningly, to No. 7. Asked to assess her relationship with Groeneveld thus far, she said, “I mean, results-wise, it’s obviously not where I want to go. But I’ve never been the person that comes out and wins the first tournament as a partnership. It took me a little while from when I started working with Thomas [Hogstedt].”
As often happens with Sharapova in pressers, she came in looking shell-shocked and left with a little ray of hope in her eye—these interviews can be like therapy for her. Asked what was next for her this week, she said, “I’ll probably head to Florida. I like Florida.”
She may be down to No. 7, but she knows there’s only one way back up.
What's in a Name?
“C’mon Dmitry, my sister really wants you to win.”
That’s what a fan in the crowd yelled to Dmitry Tursunov when he was playing Roger Federer on Monday. And that's about as much support as the Russian could hope for—someone’s sister wanted him to win.
No wonder Federer doesn’t want to retire; these days the tour is one long love-fest for him. In a press conference this week, one of the questions he was asked began, “Obviously, you’re very popular.” Another—and this was an especially tough one—went like this: “Have you ever had a time when people rooted against you?” (Federer’s answer: "Yes." Though, suspiciously, he wouldn't be specific.)
According to Federer, he's at peace these days. After his 7-6, 7-6 win over Tursunov, he signed the camera lens on court, “Roger Federer is happy.”
He says he doesn’t feel old at 32, “because there are other guys my age and older around.”
He says he’s “very happy” with his new racquet, which has given him “extra power, easier power.”
He says the troubles of 2013 are behind him. “I feel different this year. I feel like if I do play my best I can come through again. That’s all the difference you really need....Now I feel like I’m in a good place. Zen on the court. I know what my solid level is. Even if I won 6 and 6 today, I just feel like I was calm and served for the set. OK, got broken...”
Wait, what was that last part? For the second straight match, Federer served for the first set at 5-4 and was broken. This time he missed a backhand into the net for 0-15; missed another backhand into the net for 0-30; watched Tursunov come forward and hit a volley winner for 40-0; and was broken when a forehand landed in the net.
Soon after, the two were players in a tiebreaker. Up 5-4, Federer sent a regulation forehand over the baseline. At 6-5, set point, with an easy look at a backhand pass, Federer hit it straight back at Tursunov, who reflexed a winning backhand volley.
Of course, two points later, Federer came back with an exquisite, and exquisitely risky, forehand drop volley that went for a winner. And he closed the set by rifling a forehand pass. These are the things he feels good about, and what he’s trying to emphasize.
“Those are the moments,” Federer said today, “where you feel there is confidence around somewhere.”
It’s there, somewhere, but it seems there are nerves around somewhere as well. The Maestro didn't used to fail to serve out sets against guys like Paul-Henri Mathieu and Dmitry Tursunov. Federer will always have the confidence that, simply put, he’s Roger Federer. But he also may be wondering, as he steps up in the big moments now, whether that still means what it once did.
Gael Monfils and Fabio Fognini are kind of like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in reverse. When it comes to anti-epics, the Frenchman and the Italian have set a high bar. Four years ago, they nearly started a riot at Roland Garros when they played and argued and played and argued until it was too dark too play and argue anymore. Last year they took another strange and sinister trip together, in Umag, in a semifinal that ended 7-6 in the third set and defied logic from start to finish.
Fognini won both of those matches, and he won this one as well. It also went the distance, to 7-5 in the third, and the ATP’s two resident slacker-entertainers did what they could to give the world a third anti-epic. Fognini bashed his racquet against his foot and then smashed it on the court. He laughed as another frame fly out of his hand on his serve. He headed a ball into the crowd. He jawed with the chair umpire, before resorting to sign language, Italian-style.
As for Monfils, he started as slowly as he could, tried leaping overheads when they weren’t possible, hit the deck on multiple occasions, and nearly made a no-look passing-shot winner. He also double-faulted when he had match point at 5-4 in the third, and again when he was down break point in the same game; and he was broken at love to lose the match.
Despite the strenuous efforts of these two jokers—no Djokers—to keep failing better, the crowd in Stadium 2 never really got into it.
Watching, I wanted to ask: What if you put on an anti-epic and no one cares?
Then I wanted to ask: Is some tennis bad for the soul?
Sloane Has Game, Jokes
So far, Indian Wells has been good for Sloane Stephens’ soul, as well as her game. For the second straight round, Stephens had to walk into a main stadium that had just emptied after an epic match involving Rafael Nadal. And for the second straight round, rather than succumbing to the (total lack of) atmosphere, Sloane rose to the underwhelming occasion with some promisingly aggressive and upbeat tennis.
This time she beat Ana Ivanovic, 7-6 (3), 6-4, and she did it the same way she did last time, playing proactive tennis. Stephens hit as many forehands as she could, and wasn’t content just to loop them back in the court the way she has so often in the past. Sloane was broken while serving for the first set at 5-4, but bounced back in the breaker. And she went down 2-4 in the second before reeling off the last four games.
In between, Stephens pulled off something even more impressive: She cracked up her implacable and seemingly uncrackable coach, Paul Annacone, who made his first official on-court visit. It was an exchange, and a match, that brought some hope for their future.
As for Ana, she finally made a shot that she’s been practicing for years, a tweener—call it a Tweenovic. It was impressive, but judging by the way she finished each set, Ana may have been spent a little too much time practicing it, and not enough time on everything else.