BNP Paribas

The Way the Body Works: Players Recovering from Stomach Bug Expected to Play Better at the Sony Ericsson Open

The top tennis players in the world converge this week for the 2012 Sony Ericsson Open in pristine Key Biscayne, Florida. As the world’s premier tournament outside of the four grand slams, these next two weeks are sure to bring many storylines and possibly some surprise winners on both the ATP and WTA tours.

Last week during the BNP Paribas Open, the tournament saw several high-profile players pull out due to a sweeping 48-hour long stomach bug that effected players, coaches and fans alike. One theory not yet tested in tennis is just how successful these same players will be in the week after their bodies and immune systems have had to fight off a vicious virus. That being said, will the players affected by last week’s stomach bug perform better or worse than their healthier counterparts this week in Key Biscayne? The answer: much better, and here’s why.

When the body is forced to fight an infection or virus, the immune system is initially compromised. But because of immunological memory, the body becomes more alert and “remembers” the pathogen it previously killed. You may have experienced this added alertness after recovering from a cold – you are less likely to contract another cold or virus directly after your initial cold because your immune system is more alert to foreign pathogens.

As tennis players’ immune systems are no different than our own, it’s very likely that they will respond in the same manner: the players who pulled out last week from the BNP Paribas Open are less likely to contract any new virus this week, and thus more likely to have extra energy as their bodies should be fully recovered and their immune systems more alert.

The list of pull-outs is no short list, and includes Petra Kvitova, Francesca Schiavone, Gael Monfils, Vera Zvonareva, Vania King, Jurgen Melzer, Mike Bryan, Philipp Kohlschreiber, Andreas Seppi, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and Magdalena Rybarikova. Meanwhile, even Roger Federer stated he felt “under the weather” at the beginning of the tournament.

As the players range anywhere from number 1 on the ATP rankings to number 86 on the WTA rankings, it will be interesting to see the players’ progression through the draw. As some will undoubtedly fizzle out due to other factors, it’s no certain science, but I would bet that at least a few of these players will have better than expected results during the next two weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Schiavone or Melzer bust through with excellent runs, and now you would know why. It’s all thanks to their immune system.

Tennis With a Twist

Around 11:30 PM at Madison Square Garden a tan Rory McIlroy, the newly crowned #1 golfer in the world, stood quietly and practically unnoticed in the back of a crowded press room.  All eyes were on his girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, as she talked about dragging McIlroy onto the tennis court earlier that evening to play a point against Maria Sharapova. “He was not too pleased with me but at least he can say he played tennis at Madison Square Garden. Not a lot of people can say that.,” she laughed.  Later in the same press conference Roger Federer and Andy Roddick were asked what they thought of the breakout New York Knicks player Jeremy Lin.  Federer, who has been overseas the past month, was well aware of “Linsanity”, and said he hoped to watch (Lin) play at the Garden one day. Roddick had actually used Lin’s locker before the exhibition that night and said he might have to “send (Lin) a thank-you note” after his victory.

Tennis, meet pop culture. Pop culture, meet tennis.

Amidst all of the scheduling, length-of-season, and injury dramas in the WTA and ATP these days, exhibition matches are often frowned upon.  But last night’s 5th Annual BNP Paribas Showdown’s Tennis Night in America showed exactly why they’re an integral part of the game.  Andy Roddick put it best when he said, “I’m not sure how 18,000 (spectators) in the most famous venue in the world watching our sport can be a bad thing. I think it’s a great thing. There are a lot of people (in the media center) who don’t cover tennis on a regular basis and it will be out there tomorrow. I think it’s a huge positive for our sport.”

The evening started at 7:30 when world #2 Sharapova and world #4 Wozniacki stood (under spotlights) on opposing ends of the court on top of blue light-boxes as sparklers flew behind them and Katy Perry’s “Firework” blasted from the stadium speakers. This was not going to be your average night of tennis.  However, during the first set Wozniacki and Sharapova battled like the match was taking place a few miles east and a few months later at Flushing Meadows. They were laser-focused, engaging in sharp rallies, and playing very aggressive tennis (yes, even Wozniacki). There was barely even the hint of a smile.

Things changed in the second set. In the break between sets Sharapova, Wozniacki, and the chair umpire talked and giggled (yes, even Sharapova). Later, after the girls exchanged leads, Wozniacki decided to kick things up a notch.  During a changeover she took a young girl from the audience and began dancing with her. Never one to be outdone, Sharapova then took an older man from the audience and danced with him. When the music stopped and it was time for tennis again the boisterous New York crowd made it known they weren’t ready for the fun to stop. Wozniacki- an expert at milking a moment of fun-  knew exactly what to do. She went into the crowd and fetched McIlroy. At first it seemed like the couple were just going to dance, but then she put the tennis racket in his hand and created a blockbuster moment- he actually played a point against Maria Sharapova.

After losing the point to McIlroy (“He won more points (against me) than Caroline did!” Maria joked), Sharapova would go on to serve out the match and fairly easily defeat Wozniacki 6-3 6-4.

Then, around 9:00PM, it was time for the men (professional tennis players, not golfers) to take over. Andy Roddick and Roger Federer are clearly no strangers to each other, New York, or the big stage. The two have played twenty-three times- seven times in the semis or later of a Grand Slam-  with Federer holding the infamous 21-2 lead in their head-to-head.  But this time was different. It’s Roddick’s home country and Roddick was born to comically entertain a large crowd.  In the first set alone Roddick got Ben Stiller’s autograph, tossed a racket after a failed tweener, reacted mockingly to a foot-fault call from the crowd, and did a spot-on impersonation of Rafael Nadal.

Impersonations and jokes aside, Roddick played some crafty, powerful tennis, and most importantly looked healthier and moved better than he has in months.  Federer, fresh of a victory and a plane-ride from Dubai, also played some brilliant points but the American was just a tad looser and sharper than his adversary this night. With the near-capacity crowd hanging onto every point Roddick upset the Swiss Legend 7-5 7-6 (7).

After the match it was all jokes and respect between the two. Roddick quipped that he “must be in Federer’s head,” and said that the 16-time Grand Slam Champion “clearly isn’t very good under pressure”. Federer seemed pleased that Roddick is playing well again, saying “it is good to see (Roddick) play so well and hopefully he can make another run at the top-10.”

There’s no telling what the tour-level significance of these matches will be. Is Wozniacki going to actually employ the more aggressive techniques she displayed tonight at Indian Wells? Will Sharapova stay loose and serve-quip free from now on? Can Roddick build on this momentum and make another run at the Top 10? Will Federer ever survive the humiliation?  Only time will tell.  But last night 18,079 people in person and countless others on sketchy streams around the world got to say they saw Andy Roddick beat Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova laugh and dance, and the best golfer in the world play tennis.  Tennis has had many memorable Monday nights, but none quite like this one.

Dreadful Federer falls to Nadal in Key Biscayne semifinal

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — It had a “Fight Night” atmosphere, but Friday night’s Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal men’s semifinal at the Sony Ericsson Open was as suspenseful as a first-round knock-out.

A dreadful Federer splattered unforced errors all over the stadium court at the Tennis Center at Crandon Park, falling 6-3, 6-2 to his Spanish rival.

Federer committed an incredible 31 unforced errors – greater the number of points it takes to win a set – in the loss. Nadal, by contrast, played a clean match committing only 10 unforced errors.

Nadal, the world No. 1, will face No. 2 Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s final – a re-match of the final of last month’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in a match-up that will likely determine Grand Slam tournament titles for the years to come.

Nadal took first control of the match with the No. 3-ranked Federer in the middle of the first set, breaking Federer in the third game of the match and rolling through five straight games from 4-2 up in the first set to 3-0 in the second set.

“It’s always a bit of an adjustment obviously for me coming out and playing Rafa – any lefty, I guess, but him in particular. That’s what made it hard tonight” said Federer, the 16-time major champion who will turn 30 this August. “In the first couple of game you get a break down, and then I felt like conditions weren’t really favoring me as well. It knew it was slow, but just makes it so hard to hit through on him on a surface like this. Then maybe you try to overhit a bit and then obviously I starting taking wrong decisions on big points.”

Said Nadal, “I think I played very, very good match, very solid and serious. First set especially I think I played very, very good. Second set, I think he played worse. He had more mistakes than usual. He tried to play shorter points, so I think second set, he didn’t play well.”

Many of the crowd of 14,638 fans chanted and cheered for Roger in the second-set, hoping to pump him up to get him into the match. However, Nadal continued to tighten his grip on his top rival, with whom he now holds a 15-8 head-to-head advantage in their all-time series.

The match marked the first time in six years that the two tennis icons have played in North America – the last meeting coming in the 2005 final here, Federer winning in five sets.

The Sony Ericsson Open is about to start and we kick off with a Victoria Azarenka pictorial

Indian Wells 2011 has ended and congratulations to the winners Caroline Wozniacki and Novak Djokovic.  In a thrilling match  Wozniacki beat surprise finalist Marion Bartoli in three sets 6-1, 2-6, 6-3. Novak Djokovic managed to maintain his amazingly good form versus Rafael Nadal and beat him in a stunning three set match 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.

But the BNP Paribas has ended and we now move on to the next tournament: The Sony Ericsson Open! It starts this Wednesday in Key Biscane, Miami and it is one of the biggest non-major tournaments on the planet. Last year the title fell prey to Kim Clijsters who defeated Venus Williams in a match that was over quicker than my eyes can blink.

Some reporters of  TennisGrandstand will write some nice stuff for us in the coming days so stay tuned!

I have managed to obtain some amazing photos from the great Chris Rogers at Miami Tennis Photos!  One of the series that he sent us was about Victoria Azarenka. Have you noticed that at important events, something  bad always happens to Vika Azarenka? Fainting versus Serena Williams at the Australian Open, last year’s US Open and last week at Indian Wells she retired  versus Caroline Wozniacki.  Let’s hope that nothing will happen to her at the Sony Ericsson Open 2011.

Anyway, if you guys have any predictions for Vika for the 2011 edition of the Sony Ericsson Open then feel free to leave a comment. I think she can make it to the semis if that hip of hers doesn’t act up. But that is just me. I want to know what you think!

Here are some photos of Victoria Azarenka at previous editions of the Sony Ericsson Open. Again, credit where credit is due so  © Chris Rogers  at Miami Tennis Photos!

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Surprise doubles champs in Indian Wells

Roger Federer called it a “rough day at the office” after losing his singles semifinal against Novak Djokovic and losing the doubles final at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. Federer and his partner Stanislas Wawrinka last teamed up to play doubles in the 2008 Olympics, where they took home the gold medal. This week’s doubles draw in Indian Wells was full of singles specialists who rarely if ever play doubles, including Rafael Nadal who happens to be the defending doubles champion with partner Marc Lopez. Roger and Stan dispatched the Spaniards in the semifinals on Friday.

It wasn’t a surprise that ‘Fedwrinka,’ as fans have dubbed the Swiss duo, was successful in Indian Wells. They may not play doubles very often, but both Federer and Wawrinka can be excellent doubles players when they want to. It’s been a tough week on the team though. On Friday, Roger and Stan faced off for a spot in the singles semifinals and then had to be out on the doubles court just an hour or two later to compete against Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez. Wawrinka lost the singles encounter, but regrouped to play a pretty good match. In the final it was Roger who was fighting the losing blues. He lost only his third match of the year, all three of which have been against Novak Djokovic and had to be ready for doubles just two hours later.

This isn’t a story about the losers though. The real credit lies with the guys on the other side of the court. Federer and Wawrinka were taking on Xavier Malisse and Alexandr Dolgopolov, both reasonably accomplished singles players as well. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to see Dolgopolov and Malisse play together this week, but I did watch this match on TV and they were spectacular. Their win was even more surprising when the team explained how they came together. In the post match interview, Dolgopolov said, “We actually just we weren’t like talking all around. We just said hi before this tournament, and we weren’t like really close. But, yeah, he just ask me, Do you want to play like 15 minutes to the deadline of the doubles, because I wasn’t planning playing doubles here, and, yeah, here we are, winning the tournament. So it’s pretty amazing.” This was Alexandr Dolgopolov’s first ATP title in either singles or doubles and “Team Ponytail Express,” as Malisse and Dolgopolov are affectionately referred to, was all smiles throughout the entire match and especially after the win.

The newly crowned BNP Paribas Open doubles champions will continue to play doubles together through the European clay court season because of the success they’ve had in Indian Wells. This win actually catapults them from an unranked doubles team all the way to No. 5. Alexandr was supposed to play doubles with Florian Mayer for the rest of the spring and had to call him to see if he would allow Alexandr to play with Xavier instead. The prospects for Team Ponytail Express are great and I’m very excited to see how they’ll do in the clay season.

Breaking news: Victoria Azarenka retires against Caroline Wozniacki and Tommy Robredo withdraws

Tournament directors likely have nightmares about what has happened today at the BNP Paribas Open. In the first match on Stadium 1 this morning, Caroline Wozniacki got off to a quick start and went up 3-0 against Victoria Azarenka, who had to call the trainer. After consulting her coach, Azarenka decided to retire from the match against her good friend because of a left hip injury. Unfortunately, she was also scheduled to play doubles with Maria Kirilenko this afternoon, which she will also have to forfeit. Caroline Wozniacki moves on to the semifinals to face the winner of Maria Sharapova and Shuai Peng.

The bad news just kept on coming when Tommy Robredo withdrew from the tournament before his quarterfinal match against Juan Martin del Potro. Tommy injured himself yesterday in the second set of his match with Sam Querrey and even though he was able to pull out the win, was viably limping off court and in his post match press conference. He described it as a “muscle strain, in two places.”

The official word from the tournament was a left abductor muscle strain. When asked whether he practiced this morning, Robredo said, “I didn’t even try. I knew I was not going to be able to play, so that’s why I pulled out.” In terms of making the decision, he said, “Well, after the match I knew that if something strange happens maybe I could play. But if not, for sure I will not play. We did an MRI yesterday night, and we saw the results. Obviously the doctor here says not to play. We have been delaying it as much as possible because we were contacting our doctors in Spain to see what they feel about, and now the decision is done. Everyone is saying the same, so yeah. I am out of here; and I am out of Miami, as well.”

This is a big blow to the Spaniard who did not have the best results in 2010 and has been off to a great start in 2011. He reached the quarterfinal here last year as well, so he will defend all of his points. He made it to the 3rd round in Miami, so he will lose points there. Juan Martin del Potro will move on to face the winner of Rafael Nadal and Ivo Karlovic who play first in the night session. Most of the questions for Juan Martin revolved around playing Nadal, quite understandably, and when asked to give his opinion on playing Karlovic, he discussed the Croat’s monster serve, but concluded by saying, “But I think Rafa will win.”

BNP Paribas Open preview: The round of 16

Tomorrow is a big day at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells because all sixteen men left in the singles draw will play for a spot in the quarterfinals. At this point, there are still some surprises left in the draw. Players like Somdev Devvarman and Ryan Harrison are having amazing tournaments. So, let’s take a look at each of today’s matchups.

Stadium 1

Sam Querrey v. Tommy Robredo

A year ago, there wouldn’t have been a question who would win this match. Sam Querrey seemed to be a rising star, destined to break through at a Masters event or a Grand Slam, while Tommy Robredo was a former Top 5 player who appeared to be declining rather rapidly. A lot has changed in a year though. Sam never got his breakthrough and Tommy has found his way back to form. Now, these two are just four spots apart in the rankings and fairly evenly matched in my mind. When I asked Tommy about his goals for 2011 after beating Donald Young, he responded that he would like to make it back to the Top 10. A good showing in Indian Wells would be a great confidence booster transitioning onto clay, Tommy’s favorite surface. When asked about his level of play, Robredo said, “I think that last year, I did the worst year of my life and now it was a turnover, no?” The interview took place before the result of the Querrey/Verdasco match was available so he was asked to comment on the prospect of playing either guy, to which he responded, “When you are in fourth round, you’re not going to play with somebody easy, no? So, if you want to win, you have to play your best and I’m in a good moment so I just hope to arrive to the match in great shape and to win.” Querrey may not have had the best start to the season, but he’s played great tennis so far this week, particularly against Verdasco. Sam recently switched the tension on his racket back to what he was using before his slump and that seems to have provided him a much needed boost. In my mind, both these guys have the capabilities to win this match and both feel confident this week which should make for a good show.

Novak Djokovic v. Viktor Troicki

Novak Djokovic is probably having about as good a start to the year as could be imagined. He’s undefeated so far this year and took home his second Slam in Australia. It’s tough to imagine that anyone could derail him from taking home this title, except maybe Federer or Nadal, and that’s a big maybe. There’s a lot to be said for confidence and Nole’s got tons of it this year. These two guys have grown up together, as Nole put it, “he’s one of my best friends on the tour, and off the tour as well.” In his press conference today, Djokovic was asked about playing such a good friend, and he said, “we are very competitive and professional, and you know, our job is to play well and try to win.” Even more interesting is the fact that Djokovic and Troicki are still alive in the doubles draw which means they will have to play as a team even after one of them has lost their singles encounter. Djokovic seemed enthused about the prospect of continuing their doubles campaign even if the singles clash may make it a bit awkward, saying, “Maybe in the same day it’s a little bit uncomfortable and you know kind of you know, if he wins he feels bad really talking about that with me or vice versa. I guess, but it passes, it is just one day, you know, we are still friends regardless of what happens on the court. It’s our job, but we are especially excited about the doubles, that’s what I have to say.” All in all, it would be tough to say Viktor can pull this off. Nole is in fine form. However, I should mention that his result against Gulbis may have been a little misleading. Djokovic played well yesterday, but no as well as he has been playing this week. Gulbis more self destructed. He had plenty of chances where he was up 0-30 on Djokovic’s serve or up 40-0 on his own serve where he would go on to lose the game. Regardless, I would be surprised if Djokovic didn’t come out on top of this encounter.

Andy Roddick v. Richard Gasquet

John Isner may not have played great tennis last night, but Andy Roddick appears to be in fine form. Just when journalists try to write him off, Roddick always comes back with a vengeance. He won his 30th title last month in Memphis, despite being quite ill, and certainly appears to be playing high quality tennis. Roddick had spectacular results at Indian Wells and Miami last season, so it’s really important for him to defend his points at this year’s tournaments. He was runner up at the BNP Paribas Open last year, so he will need to make it all the way to the final if he’s going to defend all of his points. To do so, Andy will have to make it past Richard Gasquet, who is a former Top 10 player trying to fight his way back up the rankings. When asked about Gasquet’s level of play in his post match press conference yesterday, Andy said, “I haven’t seen him actually play much recently, but we’ve been on tour together for a very long time. I think we know each other’s games pretty well. Certainly confidence is a big issue with him, he seems like he’s confident right now, he played well in Dubai, he’s played well here. So, I’m expecting the best of him.” Clearly you should never underestimate the opponent, but Andy Roddick should be able to get through this match.

Rafael Nadal v. Somdev Devvarman

Today’s night session is likely to be a short one. Rafael Nadal appears to be healthy and that is a fearsome thing. He is playing amazing tennis and I’m not sure how Somdev Devvarman will handle the pressure of playing the world No. 1. Devvarman hasn’t had very many good results on big stages so playing Rafa at night in Indian Wells will probably be one of his biggest matches. This is already a great result for him and I have a feeling he’ll be happy with his progress this week regardless of whether he wins or loses. I just think Rafa has the upper hand here.

Roger Federer v. Ryan Harrison

The young American, Ryan Harrison, had a great result yesterday, beating upstart Milos Raonic in a third set. Harrison moves on to face Roger Federer in the 4th round. He’s a confident guy, but I’m not sure how much confidence can do for you when you’re playing a guy like Roger. Yesterday afternoon, Federer demolished Juan Ignacio Chela and it’s hard to imagine that Harrison will not share Chela’s fate. Ryan is only 18 and has plenty of time to mature and grow his game. He’s still a little hot tempered and tends to lose focus. That will be an issue with Federer because he’s likely to fall behind at some point. His only chance is to hang in there and stay level headed and come up with a new game plan. I’m just not sure he’ll be able to do that quite yet.


Stadium 2

Juan Martin del Potro v. Philipp Kohlschreiber

Juan Martin del Potro is back and that is a beautiful thing. He looks like he’s in pretty good shape and definitely gaining back some of the confidence he lost being out for such a long time. Kohlschreiber is kind of a surprise 4th round opponent. He’s kind of spotty player who occasionally finds success, but generally comes across as fairly average (for a high quality player that is.) Based on their level of play and Delpo’s scorching forehands, I think del Potro should be able to pull this one off pretty easily.

Tomas Berdych v. Stanislas Wawrinka

This should be an interesting match. Tomas Berdych had the best year of his life last year making the semifinals at Roland Garros and the final at Wimbledon. It’s tough to follow a year like that and he’s been struggling ever since Wimbledon last year. He crashed out in the 1st round of the US Open and hasn’t managed a great result since. However, he seems to be clawing his way back to form. On the other hand, Wawrinka is playing some of his best tennis. He won a title at the beginning of this year and he’s very focused on his game these days. I think we might see the upset here with Stan getting the win.

Albert Montanes v. Ivo Karlovic

This is probably the most peculiar of the matchups. I doubt anyone had these two pegged in their draw. But, they are both extremely talented players. Montanes is actually ranked quite high, but because he’s from Spain, which has so many highly ranked players, he tends to be forgotten pretty often. Karlovic has proven himself to be a great player, but he’s only recently come back from injury and is still working to find his top form. He broke the service speed record in Davis Cup last week and he’s already dispatched David Ferrer and Gilles Simon from this tournament. With wins like that, it’s hard to bet against him. I think Karlovic will likely win this one.

Indian Wells: Upsets galore at the BNP Paribas Open

If you like to participate in bracket challenges, I can pretty much guarantee you didn’t predict what has happened so far to this year’s draw at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. I think last year’s surprise victory by veteran Ivan Ljubicic has given hope to players who previously had none. I mean it seems like losing early is the thing to do this week for top players, opening up the field for those lesser recognized guys and gals.

Biggest upset thus far? It’s still Andy Murray. I’m not even surprised that Andy Murray lost his first match in Indian Wells because frankly, I still think Australia is weighing on him, but he lost to Donald Young. I’m going to say that again in case you’re confused. Andy Murray lost to DONALD YOUNG. I think you’ve got it now. Anyway, Donald went on to play one of the most embarrassing sets of tennis I’ve ever witnessed yesterday against Tommy Robredo, losing the match 6-0 6-4. The crowd cheered each point he won like he was one point away from the match, rather than one point closer to finally holding a service game.

I don’t mean to beat up on Andy Murray, because he’s not the only big name that lost early on. David Ferrer, likely the biggest competition in Nadal’s quarter lost his first match to Ivo Karlovic, who followed that up with a win against Gilles Simon. Watch and learn Donald Young, watch and learn. When you take out the big player, you’re supposed to capitalize on the opportunity to play a lesser ranked player. Robin Soderling was one of the big names to topple yesterday, against Philipp Kohlschreiber. He appeared to be having some issues with his foot, so maybe we can chalk this one up to injury, but none the less, the number 4 seed has been taken out of a quarter already missing the number 5 seed.

Of the men remaining in the top half of the draw, Rafael Nadal is the only player in the Top 20. The bottom half of the draw has gone much more predictably, with no shocking upsets to speak of; however, they will be playing their 3rd round matches today, so we’ll see if the pattern holds.

The ladies’ draw hasn’t fared much better. The top half of the draw has already lost players like Li Na, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Sam Stosur. Kuznetsova lost to Christina McHale, which is probably the most comparable upset to the Young/Murray match on the men’s side. McHale played amazing tennis this week and came very close to beating Nadia Petrova yesterday, but Petrova managed to hang on. The most interesting, although probably not the most surprising upset in this section was Sam Stosur’s loss to Dinara Safina. The former world No. 1, Safina, is still a long way from her old form and she probably wouldn’t have won this match without a little help from Sam. Safina served 16 double faults in the two set match, not exactly a stat most tennis players hope for. Regardless of how she won, Dinara was delighted. She was all smiles on court after her win and was funny and endearing in her press conference. The on court interviewer even gave her a hug. She plays Maria Sharapova later today.

The bottom half of the women’s draw is also missing a key player after world No. 3 Vera Zvonareva lost to Dominika Cibulkova on Sunday night. Possibly more surprising than Vera’s early loss was what a tough time Kim Clijsters had against Sara Errani. Clijsters is definitely favored to win here in Indian Wells because she’s been so dominant lately, but she did not look like the Aussie Open champ on Sunday. In the second set, her serve seemed to fail her and she ended up losing it 6-2. Honestly, I think this match was a kind of a fluke, and Kim should have no trouble dispatching Marion Bartoli today. Based on the look of the draw, I would not be at all surprised to see a Kim Clijsters/Caroline Wozniacki final. Both players are in fine form at the moment and even when they struggle, the rest of the field seems to struggle as well.

Indian Wells observations: Who says American tennis is weak?

Americans have a history of doing well in the California desert. Since 1987, when the men’s tournament moved to Indian Wells, the event has been won by an American eight times and on six occasions, an American has come in second. In just 24 years, half of the finals have showcased at least one American man. There’s been plenty of talk lately about how weak American tennis is, particularly in terms of young players on both the ATP and WTA tours. Frankly, we as Americans have been spoiled by players like Connors, McEnroe, Agassi, and Sampras. American tennis isn’t weak. We just don’t have the best player in the world anymore. What we do have is an incredibly solid field of American men, rather than one or two stars.

At this points in the tournament, there are still six Americans remaining in the draw at the BNP Paribas Open, more than any other country. Andy Roddick, last year’s runner-up, still leads the field even at the age of 28. He beat fellow American, and good friend, James Blake yesterday in the 2nd round, and will have to face another American, John Isner, in his effort to pick up his sixth Masters title and his first in Indian Wells.

John’s struggled a bit so far this year, but he managed a convincing win over Ricardo Mello yesterday to set up his meeting with Roddick. When asked about his slow start this year, John said, “I still think my best tennis is three, four years ahead of me, even though I’m 25 right now. That’s just how I feel. It’s just going to take a little time. I have always been a late developer, and this year hasn’t been the greatest year so far.” Honestly, I believe him. John didn’t take the conventional route to professional tennis. He went to college, and while NCAA match play certainly helped develop his game, it’s not the same as being on the pro tour day in and day out. Most 25 year olds have been on the pro tour for seven or eight years, but John’s had less than four years.

John’s buddy and sometimes doubles partner, Sam Querrey, has also had a rough start to the year with some very disappointing losses, including the 1st round at the Australian Open. Until this week, Sam had been just 2-5 this year in wins and losses, not exactly what you’d expect from a guy who started the year in the Top 20. But, his first match at the BNP Paribas Open was no walkover. He beat Janko Tipsarevic, who has had quite a good start to 2011, going 10-5 and making his third career final just a few weeks ago in Delray Beach. I think this was a huge match for Sam, in terms of gaining back some confidence. He comes off as a laid back guy, but it’s tough to imagine that such a rough start to the year wasn’t weighing on him a little. He’s got a positive outlook for the rest of the week and going into Miami, saying, “I feel like I’m off to a good start, and, you know, I played really well. You know, Janko, it’s tough seeing him in the first – second round for him, first round for me. I thought I played great. I want to play like that in the next one against Verdasco.” If Sam really does play the way he played against Tipsarevic, he should have no trouble making his way past Fernando Verdasco, who’s also had some rough losses lately.

Sam was asked in his press conference what he thought of Donald Young’s win over Andy Murray, certainly the most surprising result of the tournament thus far. He said, “that was awesome. I’m so excited for him…He’s a good friend of mine. I have been practicing with him a lot. I’m excited for him and happy for him.” I love to see the players being so supportive of each other, and Donald gave Sam some of the credit for his win, saying, “I’ve been around like in LA in the offseason with Sam and Mardy and I saw how hard they work every day, I’m like, this is what they do all the time and I’m dying. It was tough. I kind of made the decision where this is my living. This is what I want to do. I really don’t want to go get a real job, so I want to give 100% of my effort and have no regrets.” I’m not sure a few weeks training in LA is enough for Young to turn over a whole new leaf, but if he can pull off big wins like he did against Murray, nothing’s stopping him. Young is his own worst enemy, so if he can pull it together and really look for consistent results, we’ll have another very talented young American.

The last two Americans left in the draw are Ryan Harrison and Ryan Sweeting. Harrison is actually the youngest player left in the tournament, at just 18 years old, and he was quick to point that out to journalists when they said he and his next opponent, Milos Raonic were around the same age, saying, “He’s two years older. He’s not a teenager anymore, so let’s clarify that.” I’m not sure how big a difference there really is between 19 and 20, but Harrison is doing a pretty good job for someone who probably just got their real driver’s license. Sweeting is a slightly different story. Sweeting is 23 and attended the University of Florida before turning professional in 2007. While he’s been on tour for a while, he’s only just beginning to be noticed.

I doubt each of these guys has the potential to be No. 1, but not every player needs to be No. 1. America can still have a strong tennis tradition without having the very best player, and who knows what these youngsters will do in the next few years? Even Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had to start somewhere?

On a sidenote, the only American woman left in the draw is 18 year old, Christina McHale. Probably not what you expected, huh?

Sampras eases past Agassi

It was like looking through a time-warp Monday night in New York. Madison Square Garden opened its hallowed gates for an evening of classic tennis between some of the greatest players to ever pick-up a racquet.

The BNP Paribas Showdown tried to re-ignite legendary rivalries between Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe as well as Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. With 37 Grand Slams between the four players there is no doubting their past accomplishments. Yet while on paper the idea seemed intriguing, in real life it did not quite translate as planned. The evening did however prove that tennis still has a place at MSG and that the people of New York would love to watch the sport live more than once a year.

Lendl and McEnroe kicked things off at 7pm as the arena was still filling up. Unfortunately the match was nothing close to any of their gripping encounters from the 1980s that included 20 ATP World Tour finals. After years of hitting golf, rather than tennis balls, Lendl clearly lacked the necessary match practice to keep up with McEnroe and found himself in a 0-4 hole pretty quickly.

The lack of competitiveness had a distinct hand in keeping the crowd subdued as they collectively wondered if we’d see anything that relatively resembled what one might expect from two men who hold 15 Grand Slam titles between them. It’s one thing to watch a dull match when there is at least something on the line, but in an exhibition it becomes just plain painful pretty quickly.

Just when it appeared that Lendl might be picking his game up slightly, McEnroe retired leading 6-3 with an ankle injury he had sustained while warming up two hours prior to the event. The fact that an injured Johnny Mac was able to still dominate his opponent spoke volumes to the disparity that existed between the two on this night.

Almost as disappointing as the lack of competition between these two old rivals was the complete absence of any of McEnroe’s typical bad-boy antics. No cursing the umpire or an unsuspecting spectator. No thrown racquet or disputed line-calls. McEnroe’s silence was even more surprising than that of the crowd but I guess it’s hard to blow a gasket when you’re leading so comfortably.

The main tilt between Agassi and Sampras got underway around 9pm and just from watching the warm-up you could tell that this would be a much more skillful match. Aside from the fact that these two American legends are roughly twelve years younger than their opening act, they have both been playing competitive exhibition matches of late.

Agassi played twice against retired head-case Marat Safin in Taiwan in January, while Sampras played two weeks ago against current pro Gael Monfils in San Jose. The two were clearly trying to arrive in New York prepared yet not for what some media had anticipated as a grudge match after last year’s embarrassment in the “Hit for Haiti” fundraiser.

For those of you who missed that one, here’s a reminder of the bad blood that surfaced between these two usually classy guys. Things start playfully at the 1:32 mark of the clip when Sampras shows off his sense of humor by imitating Agassi’s pigeon-toed walk. I have to admit that at the time I thought it was refreshing to see Pete show us his lighter side. Unfortunately Agassi responded by taking things to another level by making reference to Pete being a bad tipper. This statement was all the more hurtful since it was written in Agassi’s autobiography which had already caused tension between the two. Sampras proceeded to aim a serve directly at Agassi and the mood for the rest of the evening was one of tense confusion as the crowd struggled to figure out if the two were seriously airing out their differences or not.

This time around fortunately the two stuck to playing tennis and did their best to rekindle memories from their glory days. For Sampras, he aptly proved he still has his greatest weapon of all – his serve. Agassi admitted after the match that while other parts of Pistol Pete’s game might not be as vicious as they once were, the one device that always frustrated him still packed a punch. Agassi too showed us glimpses into the past with some torrid forehand returns that from time to time left Sampras flat-footed.

Mostly though, this was a night where Sampras was the sharper of the two. He moved well for a 39 year-old and often found his way to the net where he still could put away the majority of his volleys. His footwork seemed solid and he displayed a real desire to compete. Agassi did too, but more often than he would have liked saw his shots fall short of their intended targets. Sampras would prevail 6-3, 7-5.

While it was not the three set nail-bitter that fans were hoping for, it still brought us back to the greatest American tennis rivalry of the past twenty years. One more time Agassi and Sampras managed to divide a crowd’s allegiances almost evenly down the middle. Chants of “Come on Andre!” and “Let’s Go Pete” were being traded back and forth in the stands just as frequently as the two players traded their groundstrokes down on the court.

For the players, it was clear that their bodies would no longer perform the same reflexes and reactions that they once did so routinely. That’s bound to happen when you’ve been away from the game for eight years like Sampras and five for Agassi and only find the time for a few exhibitions a year. The most difficult thing for some fans to watch in friendly matches like this one isn’t that the players are no longer what they used to be, but rather that there is really nothing on the line for two great former champions to play for.

Despite the lament for something more meaningful to validate this tennis showdown, Agassi was able to find one word to explain why we were all here today: nostalgia. During changeovers the jumbo-tron played clips of their greatest Grand Slam matches against each other. Not only did these highlights enthral the crowd as they reflected on the past but Agassi and Sampras as well. My favorite image of the night was of the two sitting in their chairs with Sampras leading 5-4 in the second set and both simultaneously straining their necks to watch a montage of their 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinal match on the jumbo-tron. Even within a match that was not yet finished, nostalgia for what they once had together made them pause and reflect. The fact that they shared that moment with 17,000 tennis fans tonight in New York is meaning enough for me.