Federer and Vesnina, legend and late bloomer, earned inspiring IW wins

by: Steve Tignor March 19, 2017

Both Vesnina and Federer won Indian Wells titles at the expense of talented compatriots, Kuznetsova and Wawrinka. (AP)

Svetlana Kuznetsova had won the first set from Elena Vesnina, 8-6 in a tiebreaker, on a lucky net-cord winner. She had broken her demoralized opponent to start the second set, and was now up 3-1 and serving at 40-15. Kuznetsova had won 17 WTA singles titles during her 14-year career; Vesnina, a doubles specialist for most of hers, had won two. Everything seemed to point to a Kuznetsova win.

When she tossed the ball to serve at 40-15, though, something changed. Specifically, Kuznetsova’s grunt changed. Out of nowhere, it became deeper, more pronounced, more guttural. It sounded like the grunt of someone who was laboring mightily just to put the ball over the net, not cruising to an inevitable victory.

Kuznetsova’s grunt didn’t lie. She double-faulted on that point, and while she still held serve for 4-1, the set soon began to slip away from her. Up until that point, she had been the stronger player and more daring shotmaker. But now the errors began to flow. Vesnina, with nothing to lose, and seeing Kuznetsova struggle to cross the finish line, found a second wind and began following it to the net. At 2-4, Vesnina crunched a backhand winner down the line and broke serve. Now she was the stronger player and the more daring shotmaker. Kuznetsova has a reputation for giving back leads in big matches, and that reputation preceded her.

“I was playing a bit more free when I was down in the score, and I think Svetlana got a little tight,” Vesnina said. “And I saw that.”

“I just went and took my chances, I was just trying to be aggressive,” she added. “When me dad [Sergey, who is also her coach] came on court, he said, ‘Don’t try to play so deep with Svetlana. Try to play wide, short angles, and then come to the net.’ It worked.”

Still, that was just the first of Vesnina’s comebacks on the day. After her second-set Houdini act, she trailed 2-4 in the third set. Again, Kuznetsova appeared to be the stronger player; again, she opened the door back up for her opponent—and again, Vesnina wasted no time walking through it. She broke for 3-4 with a backhand winner, and broke again at 4-4 with a forehand winner that caught the outside edge of the sideline.

Despite being broken seven times on the day, Vesnina had no trouble holding onto her serve for a 6-7 (6), 7-5, 6-4 win in three hours and one minute. After 13 years on tour, she had earned by far the biggest win of her singles career. This popular and thoughtful 30-year-old, who is also the most talented player in virtually every doubles match she plays, was appropriately ecstatic.

“I can’t believe I won this title, against such a great player,” Vesnina said, with genuine disbelief. “It seemed like it was so far away, this title, and now I won it.”

At the start of the day I wrote that, with Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka absent, and Angelique Kerber losing early, this hadn’t been a banner week for the WTA. And Indian Wells officials almost certainly would have preferred a final like last year’s, which pitted Serena against Vika. But Vesnina and Kuznetsova put on a show for the packed house; or, more accurately, they put on a war. For three hours, emotions ran high, points were played aggressively, and momentum pendulumed back and forth every four or five games—you had no idea who was going to win until Kuznetsova’s last ball sailed long. The stars may not have been out on the women’s side on Sunday, but that didn’t stop the sport from putting on a show worthy of the stage.

*****

“What can I say?” Roger Federer told the crowd after his 6-4, 7-5 win over Stan Wawrinka in the men’s final. “This was a fairytale week again.”

Fairytales have happy endings, the way Federer’s week did, but they usually don’t make you shake your head and say “whoa” or “wow” or “d---” every three minutes or so.

In that sense, it was a throwback week for Federer, to those days a decade ago when he was a dominant No. 1, when hard-court Masters titles came by the fistful, and when he looked as if he were playing circles around his opponents. While Federer was fortunate to be given a quarterfinal walkover against Nick Kyrgios, who might have been his toughest opponent, he won this tournament without dropping a set, and at one point he held serve 42 straight times. He also showed that his wins over Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open in January were no fluke. In fact, Federer seemed to have improved since we saw him in Melbourne. Instead of taking 10 sets to survive Stan and Rafa, he took just four.

Before the final, Federer had laid out his hopes for the match, and what advantages he might have over his friend.

“I have variation,” Federer said. “I have an offensive mindset that’s in my DNA. And sometimes for a player like Stan, he likes to have bit more time, and I can maybe rush him.”

That’s what Federer did, even when he wasn’t trying to. Knowing he couldn’t let himself end up on the defensive, Wawrinka hit bigger, went for more, and, for much of the match, stood closer to the baseline than he normally does. Like Jack Sock on Saturday, there was a sense that Wawrinka was walking a tightrope, that he knew he had to make the correct split-second decision and execute the perfect shot with every swing he took. The match was played at a brisk, Federer-friendly pace; it took them just 12 minutes to play the first five games. By the second set, Wawrinka was unsettled enough that he struggled to put away easy overheads, and even had trouble deciding which racquet to use.

Federer also happened to be at the top of his game, as he had been all week. He used the body serve to good effect, and took advantage of Wawrinka’s chip forehand return. He attacked ruthlessly but not recklessly; his forays to the net flowed naturally from his more powerful backhand, and the aggressive mindset he had on his return. Just as he had in Melbourne, when Federer needed a break in the second set, he changed the pace and hit higher and softer to Wawrinka’s one-hander. It worked. Pretty much everything worked.

Yet this wasn’t “vintage Federer,” as we’ve come to know it. This was something better, because rather than taking us back in time, Federer, at 35, showed us something new. Against Nadal, it was his full-extension topspin one-handed backhand that was the revelation. What stood out most in the final was Federer’s volleying and defensive skills. He’s also had both, of course, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him hit a more delicate drop volley—running drop volley—than the one he carved out early in the second set. I don’t think I’ve seen him pull off a more stunning stab volley than the one he sent spinning into the opposite corner at 5-5 in the second set. And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him look more Djokovichian in defense than he did in retrieving a few of Wawrinka’s forehand bullets.

How has Federer remade himself at 35? Some say it’s his racquet, which is bigger than it was once. Other says it’s the influence of Ivan Ljubicic. I think both of those things are true. But I think it also has to do with something even simpler: rest. When he won the Australian Open, Federer hadn’t played seriously in six months. When he came here, he had played just a couple of matches over the last five weeks. That’s not the norm on tour, obviously, but that’s how Federer wants to keep it this year.

“What I don’t want to do,” he said on Saturday, “is overplay and just get tired of traveling and tired of just playing tournaments.”

“I want to play, if people see me, that they see the real me and a guy who is excited that he’s there. So that’s a promise I made to myself that if I play tournaments that’s how my mindset has to be and will be.”

During his 30s, the storyline surrounding Federer has been, naturally enough, about a great athlete raging against the dying of the light. So far in 2017, a different narrative seems appropriate. He’s not fighting off inevitable decline now; instead, he’s finding  elements of his game and talent that he might not have even realized were there. The Federer story at Indian Wells seemed to me to be about how much lays untapped not only in him, but in anyone. As far aging-athlete stories go, Federer’s is an inspiring one at the moment, rather than a melancholy one. Let the fairytale continue.

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