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The Rally: Is Indian Wells a glimpse of the future?
If this tournament is any indication, the future of pro tennis may be more complicated than we thought.
Published Oct 16, 2021
Having covered Indian Wells as far back as 1983, when it was played in La Quinta, and lived my entire tennis life in California, I’ve always felt very much at home during this event. The weather and the intimacy generate a spring break-spring training vibe—an early year time of hope and expectation.
Of course, in 2020, the pandemic forced the tournament’s cancellation. And then, this year, to have the BNP Paribas Open take place in October brought a twist to the tennis story line. Many times over these last two weeks, I’ve had to remind myself that the players are not next headed to Miami. Fortunately, save for the one-off windy day that can happen any time in the desert, the weather has been excellent. The tennis has been glorious. As last month’s US Open showed, there is indeed a new flock of great tennis players emerging, of various styles and personalities. Indian Wells added an exclamation point to that notion.
But a key difference between a major like the US Open and a tournament like Indian Wells is the way the story happens. The US Open is more like other sports—days of competition that build up and culminate with a grand conclusion.
The plot unfolds differently at smaller events. Sure, there will be the finals and a set of champions. But the real joy of the non-Slams is in the discreet and compelling steps along the way. Just ask those aficionados who flock to Indian Wells during its early days and middle weekend. With that in mind, I don’t care to think of Indian Wells as the fifth Slam. Tennis doesn’t need a fifth Slam; nor can I imagine Indian Wells tournament owner Larry Ellison wishing to be considered fifth in anything. Far better to think of Indian Wells as the best possible Indian Wells.
This year's tournament had plenty of engaging moments. There were young contenders like Jenson Brooksby and Leylah Fernandez, lighting up the court, not just with competitive intensity, but also with creative tactical acumen. There were surprises such as Americans Tommy Paul, upset winner over Andrey Rublev; and Taylor Fritz, a Southern California-raised player who’s had the week of his life. There were veterans like a healthy Andy Murray, the resurgent Grigor Dimitrov, and Victoria Azarenka, in the finals for a third time, nearly a decade after she’d first reached that stage.
Will any of those results point somewhere? It’s hard to say, even more so now amid the altered calendar and the cumulative stress of traveling the world amid a pandemic. Forget that cross-country trip to Miami this year. Instead, many men and women are next headed to Moscow.
Steve, what’s been your experience of Indian Wells in the autumn?
I don’t care to think of Indian Wells as the fifth Slam. Tennis doesn’t need a fifth Slam; nor can I imagine Indian Wells tournament owner Larry Ellison wishing to be considered fifth in anything. Far better to think of Indian Wells as the best possible Indian Wells.
I have to say that the idea of holding a fifth Grand Slam at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden is tempting to me. The location is almost too perfect to pass up, and we all know how successful the Slams are. But I also like the tournament as it is. It’s big enough already, and as you say, it offers a more relaxed and personal experience for fans and players than a major inevitably would.
When it’s held in the spring, Indian Wells functions as a season preview. This year it seemed like it might offer us a preview of the pro tours in the years to come. With no Roger, Rafa, Novak or Serena (or even Osaka or Barty), we would see who might be ready to step into their shoes in the near future. The assumption on the men’s side, of course, was that the Next Four—Medvedev, Zverev, Tsitsipas and Rublev—would monopolize the four semifinal spots. That’s what happened in Cincinnati in August, after all. On the women’s side, many of us were curious to see what was next for the US Open’s two breakout teens, Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez.
Instead, we’ve seen a completely different tournament unfold. None of the six players I just mentioned are still around. In their place is a hodgepodge of old and new and surprising faces, including Grigor Dimitrov, Victoria Azarenka, Cam Norrie, Taylor Fritz, Paula Badosa and Jelena Ostapenko.
Is there a theme we can discern here? To me, it seems that a few (relatively) older players have been inspired by two things: (a) the absence of the Big 3 on the men’s side; and (b) the success of their younger counterparts. Dimitrov mentioned that watching Medvedev this year has spurred him to play better; Fritz’s run began with a win over Brandon Nakashima, a younger American and potential future rival; and it would make sense if Azarenka and Ostapenko, two former Slam champs, were motivated by what they saw from Raducanu and Fernandez at the Open.
All of which is to say that the future might be a little more complicated than we think, and that a smooth generational transfer may not be in the cards. And that’s a good thing, in my opinion. I’ve loved seeing Dimitrov and Fritz, in particular, finally get over the hump in Indian Wells.
What, if anything, do you think this tournament might indicate for the future, Joel?
Tennis’ future strikes me as a mix of the certain and the uncertain.
- Certain: frequent COVID tests, potential quarantines, dialogue about vaccines.
- Uncertain: player participation, tournament schedules, fan attendance.
For so long, the Sunshine Double of Indian Wells and Miami often served as an early indicator of what was to come, arguably akin to the way the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary give an idea of what’s to come in determining U.S. Presidential nominees.
But the last two years have jettisoned that notion. And while I may be overreacting, I don’t think 2022 will see those two events reclaim that status. There is just so much in flux these days, including the participation of the Big Three, as well as such champions as Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.
So if you look at pro tennis as a restaurant, bid adieu for now to the idea of a prix fixe meal—hearty and frequent portions of notable items. Instead, settle in for a smorgasbord, a series of small plates of varying flavors.
To a large degree, this is a tribute to the greatness of recent champions. Serena, for example, inspired a number of women to develop formidable serves, as seen by the likes of Osaka, Iga Swiatek, and Madison Keys. Talk to any young pro who’s practiced with Nadal and Djokovic and you’ll see how much they learned about building more formidable movement skills and groundstrokes—and, alongside that, putting in that much more work on off-court fitness. And Federer? Well, he’s showcased an incredibly broad spectrum of tools—perhaps paving the way for everything from the value of a slice backhand to the clever use of the drop shot and the opportunism of a sneak attack. Even more, these great champions have continually enhanced their games, demonstrating to contenders that to build a sustainable career, you must improve—or decline.
The greats have asked so many questions of their opponents for so long that the response is the dawn of an era of stylistic diversity. It’s one thing for someone as tall as Medvedev to serve big. But did we ever think someone 6’ 6” would also move so well? Ditto Reilly Opelka, who with every tournament shows he’s got far more weaponry than his self-deprecating “servebot” nickname would indicate. On the women’s side, I’m encouraged by the different ways players like Jabeur and Fernandez construct points. From all of this, I’m seeing that in assessing matches, we might need to discard such terms as “offense” and “defense” with more nuanced concepts related to depth, transition and what we really mean by the application of pressure.
Steve, is there a particular trend in the way tennis is played that greatly excites you?
I think your restaurant analogy is apt. If this tournament is any indication, tennis fans will soon be moving out of the steakhouse and into the tapas place down the street. Indian Wells has been full of small, varied triumphs.
When it comes to styles of play, it seemed that offensive games are being rewarded in a way that it wasn’t true half a dozen years ago. Even the slow conditions in Indian Wells didn’t deter the players from taking their rips and pressing the issue. You could see it in the way Fritz took the rallies to Zverev in quarterfinal. In the way Paul kept coming to the net in his win over Rublev. In the way Badosa has played forcefully but not recklessly to make the women’s final. In the rapid-fire strokes that Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alex De Minaur traded in their three-setter. In the creativity that Fernandez brings to the court. In all of the points that Dimitrov has finished at the net. I think winning with superior defense and consistency will become more difficult as the game continues to evolve. As you say, players of all sizes are getting faster and better from the baseline.
Maybe it’s because this tournament was played in the States, but what strikes me about the future right now is that there’s an opportunity for U.S. players, especially among the men. As good as Medvedev, Zverev, Rublev, and Tsitsipas are, and will continue to be, they’re not going to dominate in the way that the Big 3 have. This may leave room for players who are willing to be aggressive, the way Paul was against Rublev, the way Fritz was against Zverev, and the way that other Americans like Sebastian Korda and Frances Tiafoe can be. The distance between those guys and the top players shouldn’t be as great as they have been over the last 10 years.
Of course, as I’m talking about all of the new faces we’re seeing and going to see, Roger, Raf and Serena have yet to retire, and Novak is still No. 1. Maybe, by the time the tour rolls back into Indian Wells in five short months, they’ll all be in the draw again, and the future will look a little more familiar again.