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Indian Wells, USA
Who can end the American drought in the California desert?
It’s been 21 years since Indian Wells crowned an American champion. But as the tournament returns to its rightful week on the tennis calendar, keep an eye on these contenders poised to snap the streak.
Published Mar 07, 2022
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When Andre Agassi and Serena Williams swept the trophies at Indian Wells in 2001, it was supposed to be a triumphant moment for American tennis. Instead, that event would mark the beginning of a decades-long drought, as none of their countrymen since have gone on to win another singles title at the BNP Paribas Open.
That’s not to say there haven’t been plenty of worthy challengers in the last 21 years: Agassi played countryman Pete Sampras in the final, and later on James Blake (2006), Mardy Fish (2008), and John Isner (2012) would all reach the championship match as well. On the women’s side, two-time champion Lindsay Davenport would reach three finals in a row between 2003 and 2005, and Serena herself returned to the final in 2016—one year after ending her 14-year boycott of the tournament.
The question that kicks off every Sunshine Swing is, who can finally end the American drought in the California desert? As the 1000-level event makes its return to the March schedule for the first time since 2019, it comes at a historically strong time for US tennis: there are currently 13 players in the WTA Top 100 and 11 in the ATP Top 100.
“I do think we probably have a better chance on the women's side to get an American champion than on the men's side," Davenport said via conference call. "But I think an American champion is coming in the next three to five years for sure."
It all depends on which player has the playing style and mental fortitude to adapt to the tournament's unique conditions, as well as the momentum to put together seven wins in a row against the best players in the world.
The conditions at Indian Wells present players with a unique challenge, with the relatively slower court surface contrasting against the dry Mojave desert air that makes tennis balls fly. The courts tend to reward aggressive baseliners at a time when first-strike, serve-bot tennis dominates the men’s game.
Top-ranked American Reilly Opelka will be aiming to improve on a 1-4 record at Indian Wells, after building up some stateside momentum by winning the tournament in Dallas and reaching the Delray Beach final.
But according to Tennis Channel analyst Davenport, last year’s semifinalist Taylor Fritz will be among the top favorites for the men’s trophy. The former world No. 1 also tipped on-the-rise Sebastian Korda and Brandon Nakashima for big runs.
“It is always great to go back to a tournament where you've played your best tennis,” Davenport said of Fritz. “Sometimes people feel pressure defending ranking points. That won't be the case for him. He loves the crowd that gets behind him there.”
In addition to the on-court adjustments they will have to make, there’s a lot more that goes on behind the scenes at Indian Wells that can zap a top player’s focus. Due to its status as the largest non-Grand Slam tennis tournament bringing together most of the men’s and women’s Top 100 in one spot, Indian Wells is the perfect setting for a laundry list of photoshoots and sponsor obligations, as well as player council and tour board meetings.
That increased attention is a spotlight that usually shines brighter on the top players and home favorites.
“It’s a beautiful place, but it is hectic,” Opelka told Tennis.com. “It's such a dry, brutal heat, and because the scenery is so beautiful there’s a lot of requirements and a lot of photoshoots. You don't get much practice time in at all, actually. You’re more busy doing all your photoshoots for the year.”
It’s a factor that could shed some light on why, for the last four years, every Indian Wells champion has come from outside the WTA’s Top 10: Elena Vesnina was ranked No. 15 in 2017, Naomi Osaka was No. 44 in 2018, wildcard Bianca Andreescu was No. 60 in 2019, and rising Spaniard Paula Badosa was No. 27 last October.
And that would mean top American woman Danielle Collins, No. 11, would be well poised for success in the desert. Davenport highlighted Collins before she withdrew with injury, and also pointed to the resurgent No. 38 Sloane Stephens, who just won title in Guadalajara, as dark horse favorites in the women’s draw.
But keep an eye on 17-year-old Coco Gauff, who just reached the quarterfinals at the WTA 1000 in Doha, where she also won the doubles trophy with Jessica Pegula. Gauff reached the third round at Indian Wells in her debut last year, and will return just one spot shy from her career-high ranking at No. 17.
“There are a lot of young ladies who have a really good chance of winning this tournament. Coco Gauff is going to break through at a really big event really soon. I hope it's sooner rather than later,” Davenport said. “I don't know if it'll be at Indian Wells or if it'll be at the French Open or somewhere.
“She's in for a big title run. Wouldn't that be great to see that happen in the desert?”
The BNP Paribas Open kicks off in Indian Wells on Tuesday, March 8. The women's draw ceremony will take place on Monday, March 7 and the men's draw ceremony will take place on March 8, both set for 3:00 p.m. local time.