Indian Wells

After Delray Beach Return, Juan Martin del Potro Faces Next Test In Indian Wells

Kevin Craig



Juan Martin del Potro made his return to tennis last month in Delray Beach, Florida after an 11-month absence due to recurring wrist problems. While he didn’t win the tournament, which nobody, not even himself, should have expected, he came out of the event with a very positive outlook and is eager to continue his progression towards playing full time on the ATP World Tour again.

In his post-match press conference after his loss to Sam Querrey in the semifinals of the ATP 250 event, del Potro was clearly disappointed, yet still exclaimed his satisfaction with the overall result he came up with this week. Beating a Top 30 player, a promising young American, and an inspired qualifier en route to the semifinals in Delray Beach were all impressive results for the Argentinian in his return event. While Denis Kudla and Jeremy Chardy didn’t play their best tennis in their matches against del Potro, it was still an impressive feat for him to knock out two Top 70 players in his first live match action since Miami in 2015.

In the loss to Querrey, the American was able to dominant his service games and crush the ball from anywhere on the court, forcing del Potro to move around and hit more backhands than he would have liked. The American only lost nine points on serve throughout the match and didn’t have to face a single break point, allowing him to relax on del Potro’s service games and apply pressure. The pressure built up at the latter stages of both sets, allowing Querrey to break at 5-5 in both sets, giving him the 7-5, 7-5 win. Querrey’s high level of play in the match can give del Potro some relief as it was arguably the best match that Querrey had played all week.

Despite the loss, Del Potro stated in his post-match press conference that he felt as if he had “won more than a tournament,” a sign that he is more than happy with where his game currently is. The 2009 US Open champion confirmed that he will be accepting a wild card to play in the masters level event in Indian Wells, and is well aware of what he needs to work on to improve his game before then.

The competition in Indian Wells surely will most likely be tougher than what del Potro came across in Delray Beach, and will possibly give a better test as to where he truly is with his game. While the entire tennis world is glad to have one of the best players in the world back on tour, no one is happier that del Potro is back on the court than del Potro himself, stating that he is “so glad to play tennis again.” After both his quarterfinal and semifinal matches, he expressed how tired he was, but his happiness could not be hidden behind his exhaustion.

Del Potro stated that he has “many positive things to take from” his experience in Delray Beach as he looks forward to continuing to take the next steps in his comeback.

Hardcourt Retrospective (ATP)

As the ATP tour descends with wrathful inevitability upon the clay of southern Europe and elsewhere – indeed the WTA has already made the switch – the time seems appropriate to look back at the prolonged hardcourt season just ended, the one that began in Atlanta last July, and concluded just a few days ago in Miami.

It is a useful way to view the tennis season: as a near-perpetual hardcourt marathon punctuated by those brief fevered months on the traditional courts of the Old World, with the year-end break merely the longest of several afforded to worn players. A wider perspective is always a useful thing to maintain, provided one can resist the persuasive distortions of the panorama.

This period incorporates the US Summer, the Asian swing, the European indoors, Australia, and the disparate events in February that culminate in the US Spring Masters, and therefore includes two Majors, six Masters 1000, the World Tour Finals, and a multitude of 250 and 500 events.†

Table 1. Hardcourt Leaders

This shows the hardcourt season leaders, including their number of points, titles, and win/loss.

It surely comes as a surprise to no one that Djokovic tops this list, across all three categories, or, presumably, that Murray sits in clear second place. After all, between them they won both Majors, and three of the six Masters events. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that Ferrer numerically out-performed Federer, at the Majors, the Masters and at 500 and 250 level. It’s interesting to note that Berdych accrued more points than del Potro, despite having a worse winning percentage and winning fewer titles. However, the Czech did play more matches than anyone else in this period.

Table 2. Points Gain

This table shows which players gained the most points. It will consequently favour the top players heavily.

How about that? Gasquet has gained the most hardcourt points since last July. His biggest hauls came in Montreal, Miami, and three 250 level titles in Montpellier, Doha and Bangkok. It’s more proof that he’s headed in the right direction. I am hopeful that this trend will continue for a while yet. These numbers merely add more wonder to the late career resurgence of Haas. Ferrer, meanwhile, feasted on his elevated seeding to gain excellent results in Paris, New York, Melbourne and Miami.‡

Del Potro made a substantial gain despite a dismal Australian Open loss, and he has gradually returned to an appropriate spot in the rankings. Djokovic gained points despite failing to defend titles at the US Open and Miami, mainly because he picked up titles in Shanghai and at the Tour Finals.

Table 3. Points Loss

This table shows which players lost the most points. Once again, top players are inevitably featured.

It’s hardly surprising that Nadal tops this list, given that he contested only one hardcourt tournament in this period (Indian Wells), though he did win it.Ψ Federer, on the other hand, has fallen away sharply, as the fistful of titles he claimed in 2011/12 to regain the No.1 spot have gone sadly undefended. Seeing these two atop this list does rather support the idea that we’ve seen the last of the ‘Fedal’ era, for better or for worse.

Tsonga is a worrying case, since there isn’t much evidence that his poor form is due to pick up. He still has tremendous weeks, such as Marseilles, but he also has too many stinkers. Fish’s health issues have been amply discussed, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever return to the top ten. Monfils has also suffered a dispiriting run of injuries (he’s prone to it, of course), and has tumbled outside the top hundred. It’s worth mentioning that John Isner sits just off this list at No.6. Like Tsonga, but more so, it’s hard to find much hope that his current slide has bottomed out.

Table 4. Rankings Gain

This table shows who made the biggest rankings leap into the top 100 since last July.

This reveals a mixture of seasoned professionals returning – Blake, Robredo – and youngsters on the make. De Bakker and Berankis were ranked unusually low, due to injury, and it’s good to see them reascend to a level more commensurate with their abilities, although I’d hazard that the Lithuanian is more likely to keep climbing much higher. I cannot see de Bakker breaking into the top 50, but a ranking around 70-90 seems not unreasonable. The same could be said of Donskoy. I suspect he’s ranked right at the limits of his current ability. His numbers attest to hard toil at the challenger level, and a nice run to the third round in Melbourne.

Table 5. Top 100 Entries

I include this list, and the one that follows, purely for the sake of curiosity. They show entry into and exit out of the top 100. Given the relatively modest number of points shared between these players, these figures are undeniably skewed by clay results in South America and elsewhere. Zeballos is a perfect example of this.

As with the previous list, as well as a few (too few) youngsters, there is a healthy number of veterans making late-career stands: Robredo, Blake, Hewitt, Tursunov, Mathieu, Becker.

Everyone was on Rosol’s case when he didn’t follow up on his upset of Nadal at Wimbledon with more astounding feats. But it should be noted that he has risen some 44 places, which is a pretty good effort (there are a couple of clay results mixed in there). It wasn’t all roses, though: he did get bagelled by Paolo Lorenzi.

Zemlja is also a pretty interesting case, leading the current Slovenian charge in men’s tennis, along with Bedene and Blaz Kavcic. His standouts were the run through qualifying to the third round of the US Open, and through qualifying to the Vienna final, defeating Haas and Tipsarevic en route.

The average age of these 22 players, incidentally, is 26.59 years. Make of that what you will.

Table 6. Top 100 Exits

Roddick, Ferrero and Chela have of course retired, and so their departures from the top 100 hardly merit further discussion. Excluding those three, the average age of the departed is 28.32 years. This number is dragged down slightly by the 26-year-old Monfils, who tops this list courtesy of a run of injuries, owing to bad luck and a playing style tailored perfectly towards crippling oneself. Assuming he can regain his health – never a safe assumption – he’ll be back in the top 20 before too long. Perhaps.

There is certainly a decent number of tour veterans who one suspects the race is overtaking: Karlovic, Phau, Andreev, Volandri, Mahut and RamirezHidalgo. I hesitate to include Nalbandian on this list, but doing so has become increasingly hard to justify. His low ranking and poor results still somehow feel like a mistake that will one day be rectified, even though I know deep down it won’t be. Hope springs eternal, though Nalbandian clearly doesn’t.

Ebden, Stebe, Bogomolov and Young are excellent examples of that rankings quirk around this level, wherein one or two strong results will buy a journeyman twelve months in the big time, but no longer. Once that year is up, they inevitably subside. My apologies to those readers still hoping for big thing from Young, but I cannot see it happening. Of course, a return to the top hundred isn’t out of the question for any of these guys, but it will always feel like borrowed time.

† This period also of course includes the Golden Swing in South America. Where this has affected the figures I have made a note of it.

‡ Ferrer’s current points total includes 550 points from the Golden Swing.

Ψ Nadal’s current points total includes 750 points from the Golden Swing.

All On The Surface: What’s Happened To Miami?

From my current vantage in Melbourne – which is either an ocean and a continent away or fifteen hours in the future, depending on the direction – the Sony Open Tennis in Miami has lost some of its erstwhile burnish. There was a time when it was, if not necessarily the most polished of the non-Slam events, certainly the biggest. It was a shining highlight on both the men’s and women’s tours. Now though, its lustre has dulled. Attendance figures are down, which is borne out visually by the dollops of empty seats dotting the strangely canted Stadium.

Even the players don’t seem that into it. It isn’t merely that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal skipped the men’s tournament, or that Victoria Azarenka pulled out of the women’s. There have been retirements galore at all levels – something like 13,050 at last count – of a volume that one associates with warm-up events staged the week before a Major. We expect players to pull out peremptorily for niggles when they have a more important event coming up, but that’s not the case in Miami. It’s supposed to be an end in itself, but people are pulling out with sore throats. Sergiy Stakhovsky quipped on Twitter that if Crandon Park began its renovations now the players would have an excuse to skip it next year. Jonas Bjorkman responded that the venue hasn’t seen an upgrade in 19 years, and that the revenues aren’t being reinvested into the event, or words to that effect.

As has been widely reported, Paul McNamee last week suggested that Miami should consider switching to clay, which sparked some debate. McNamee’s suggestion spoke directly to the specific issue of the tournament’s hardcourt surface, which has grown painfully slow in recent years, but also more generally to the tournament’s ongoing relevance to both respective tours. It’s well worth a read.

I’m not convinced that ‘relevance’ is a quality to which any tennis tournament should necessarily aspire, or be judged by. But it is a quality that Miami itself aims for: what are the tedious proclamations of its status as the unofficial ‘Fifth Slam’, iterated endlessly, if not a grasping towards relevance? If nothing else, we’re invited to judge. There was a time when it might have felt like a Fifth Slam, but they’ve now passed. Stakhovsky said that, too.

A move to clay would reposition Miami at the beginning of the mostly European clay swing. The current drive on both tours is to consolidate the many disparate events into coherent ‘swings’ (though this is a term I dislike). Thus the lead up to the US Open rebranded as the ‘US Open Summer Series’. The lead up to the French Open is called the ‘Road to Roland Garros’. The ATP has been more determined in this than the WTA: even September’s three week Asian swing has a clear shape, as it escalates from a pair of 250 level events (Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur), though a pair of 500s (Tokyo and Beijing), culminating in the Shanghai Masters. In a similar spirit, the two combined US Spring events are intended to complete the February hardcourt events staged throughout North America  and elsewhere.

As much as we (rightly) ridicule the idiotic bickering between Indian Wells and Miami as to which constitutes the ‘Fifth Slam’, there are reasons why the debate persists, and real ramifications for the winner and loser. As I say, back in the 1980s and 1990s Miami was the official unofficial fifth Slam; in the glory days of the Lipton International, players would themselves use the term. Indian Wells in those days still felt very much like an entrée to the main course. In fact it had a 64-strong draw in those years, and had yet to match Miami’s extravagant generosity towards the Bye family (the move to a ridiculous 96-draw came in 2004).

Two factors have significantly diminished Miami’s cachet. Firstly, there is the severe reduction of the number of American February events, which has been gone over exhaustively, and shows no sign of being reversed. Indeed, the WTA this year only staged one modest event in North America before Indian Wells (Memphis). Any culmination feels lessened when no one cares about the build-up. Secondly, Indian Wells has now overtaken Miami in terms of sheer interest and excitement. Beyond the issue of prize money and an expanding facility in Southern California, it feels – I realise I’m being subjective here – as though the players can’t wait to get to Indian Wells, yet are keen to skip Miami given half a chance. (Serena Williams is of course the exception here, and I don’t mean to downplay the value she represents for  the US market in particular.) Indian Wells is now such a spectacle that replicating the excitement would be difficult for Miami, even if it was possible, or desirable. I don’t think this part of the season can sustain back-to-back week-and-a-half mini-Majors. Consequently, Key Biscayne has started to feel like a hangover. There are even fewer celebrities in attendance. Kevin Spacey is nowhere to be seen.

Nor has Miami helped its own cause with the surface. The Miami hardcourt is among the slowest on the tours (perhaps only Valencia is its equal on the ATP tour).  This is a quality that is only enhanced by the dense swampy atmosphere. Indian Wells has a fairly slow court as well, but this is offset by thin desert air. Miami’s courts are notoriously difficult to penetrate, and grant a fairly decisive edge to defensive players (which of course is not to say that attacking players cannot do well). Indeed the joke that Miami doesn’t need to move to clay since it already has, is one worth making. I can’t recall that I’ve ever heard a single player praise the Miami surface.

Converting Miami to clay might even help US tennis. Dirt has for some time been the weakest surface for American players. Indeed, José Higueras has pointed out for some time that the lack of clay courts in the States has contributed significantly to the nation falling away on all surfaces, believing that early development on clay provides a much better foundation, in terms of stroke production and footwork, but also through patience and the capacity to structure a rally. Having an important clay court event right near many of the United States top training facilities would certainly help. As McNamee says in his article, Florida already has the highest concentration of clay (Har-Tru) courts in the States. Given that the Orange Bowl is also staged there –the official Fifth Junior Slam – this would directly incentivice clay for the youngsters.

But switching to clay wouldn’t solve the issue of identity, or relevance, or answer the increasingly vexed question of why there are two big joint events in March at all. Running back-to-back events only makes sense when there’s a Major to follow; the sheer size of the Major seems to subsume the discrepancies among putatively similar lead-up events. I disagree with McNamee that it would function as ‘the grand opening of the major clay court season’. It would be far too far out from the French Open to constitute a meaningful warm-up. Indeed, even Monte Carlo’s value is questionable in this respect. It seems to be a structural requirement that these ‘swings’ start small, and gather steam as they go. I also don’t think the ATP tour needs a fourth Masters on clay, although it desperately needs one on grass.

If I was a dictator – as we all pray I one day will be – or at least granted executive powers in the matter of tennis scheduling, I wouldn’t convert Miami to clay. Until I could figure out a way to move it to Europe and play it on grass, I think the easiest solution would be to switch Miami and Indian Wells, since the current disparity between them is only going to grow as long as Larry Ellison has his way, or more accurately his wealth and energy. You might as well play the biggest one second. I’d also ban any more talk of ‘Fifth Slams’. Perhaps these measures would free Miami up to be whatever it wants to be. If players still skip it, or indulge in perfunctory retirements, it won’t seem so crippling.

I’d also speed up the courts. It’s getting painful to watch.

A Mighty Quartet: How Dominant Are the Big Four?

With his victory at the Indian Wells Masters 1000, Rafael Nadal has contrived a brief return to the No.4 ranking, thereby granting men’s tennis a momentary break from the odd configuration whereby the Big Four aren’t its top four. At a stroke, Nadal has reasserted the validity of the Big Four as a concept, and realigned it with the actual rankings. Given that this was the first tournament they all contested since June last year, it’s frankly convenient.

To say this is hardly to lavish undue disrespect on David Ferrer, who is generally the first to concede his compatriot’s superiority. Lest Ferrer had forgotten the pecking order, there was the Acapulco final several weeks ago to remind him, in which he managed only two games, which was at least one more than he deserved. The point was further rammed home when he fell in his opening match at Indian Wells. The rankings will switch back after Miami, since Nadal isn’t playing there and Ferrer is. Nadal will inevitably subside back to the number five ranking. That’s just the way the rankings work.

I presume I do not astonish anyone by saying that the top four’s current dominance of men’s tennis surpasses anything that has gone before. You don’t need to know much about the sport to know that. In a way, it is a coincidence that there are four supremely good players at the top of the men’s game, although this is also a number reinforced by the structure of tournament play. Even if there was a fifth player with similar abilities, he would find it hard to break in.

It relates directly to seeding. The top four seeds will always be drawn to face a seed between five and eight at the quarterfinal stage. This can be a mixed bag: that top seed might draw Tomas Berdych in a monstrous mood, and potentially lose, but he might also face Janko Tipsarevic or Ferrer having a bad day, and cruise. On the other hand, someone seeded between five and eight will always draw a top four player in the quarterfinals, and, in the current era, those guys almost never have bad days. You might take out one of them, or even two, but then you’ll find another one lurking in the final. (This is what Juan Martin del Potro discovered in Indian Wells, although I’m sure he was already conversant with the theory.)

Consequently, on average the top four are more likely to reach the semifinals not only because they are by definition better at tennis, but also because they face lesser opponents to get there. Once there they are awarded more points – at the same time denying those points to other players – thereby reinforcing their position.

And the points are crucial, since in order to be in the top four, you must regularly accrue the kinds of points that are allocated for semifinals and above. As a general rule, the amount of points rewarded for each round at an ATP tournament doubles as you progress, until the semifinal. For example, the points allocation for a Major is as follows.

  • 1st Round: 10 points
  • 2nd Round: 45 points
  • 3rd Round: 90 points
  • 4th Round: 180 points
  • Quarterfinal: 360 points
  • Semifinal: 720 points
  • Final: 1,200 points
  • Winner: 2,000 points

As you can see, the points from each round apart from the first round are doubled in each subsequent round, until you reach the semifinal. These proportions are retained for every tournament of each level. A Masters 1000 event is called that because the winner receives 1000 points; aside from the early rounds, which are riddled with byes, every round awards half what a major does . You can therefore guess why 500 and 250 events are named as they are, and what the point allocations are.

At the Majors (and to a lesser degree Masters), the jump from the quarterfinals (360 points) to the semifinals (720 points) represents a break point of sorts. Consistently reaching the semifinal stage at those events bestows enough points that you can reach the higher ranking, while at the same time denying those below you the chance to do so. To be ranked in the top four in the current era requires a lot of points, more than ever before, and it requires reaching a lot of semifinals as a baseline, with regular titles and runner-ups thrown in.

To take an extreme example, world No.1 Novak Djokovic currently has 13,280 points, while No.2 Roger Federer has 8,715. The gap between them is therefore 4,565 points. That is greater than the points gap between the world No.7 Juan Martin del Potro and the world No.182 Agustin Velotti. Of course, Djokovic’s current points lead is enormous, while Federer has shed thousands of points in the last six months, but my point is that there is an enormous concentration of points in the top few spots, especially at the moment, and that in order to achieve those points hauls you have to be consistently reaching the semifinals.

So just how many points are concentrated at the top? Well, there are various ways to look at it. One useful metric is to examine the absolute maximum number of points the top four players can have, which would be achieved if all four of them reached at least the semifinal at every event for twelve months. To keep the comparison consistent we can limit this to ‘mandatory’ events, meaning the four Majors, the nine Masters and the World Tour Finals. For the record, the maximum number of points that four players can accumulate from all these events is 42,740. The present top four have actually accumulated 32,450 points between them, which 75.92% of the maximum possible. Bear in mind that this number is lower than it could be, given Nadal was absent for seven months, a period that included two Majors, four Masters, and the WTF.

The following graph demonstrates how this data compares historically, against year-end data going back to 2000.

As can be seen, the dominance of the top four has increased dramatically in that time, peaking in 2011. There has been a slight tail off since then. Nadal’s recent absence had something to do with this (the main beneficiary was Ferrer), as well as general improvements from del Potro and Berdych.

It is interesting to note that over that same period, similar data for the top ten reveals a slighter though still noticeable increase:

The points are increasingly concentrated at the very top, which means the so-called Little Four (Ferrer, del Potro, Berdych and Tsonga) are maintaining their positions with relatively modest results (although Ferrer’s results, as mentioned, have been slightly inflated). If anything, this makes it even more surprising that the top ten is as stable as it is: it’s currently the same as it was last December.

The Little Four only require consistent quarterfinals and the odd semifinal in order to stay where they are, and the wonder is that they’re managing to do precisely that. They managed to fashion a rather stable camp just below the rankings summit. In some ways this is far more startling than the news that the Big Four are so dominant, which isn’t really news at all, any more.

Federer v Nadal – An Old Rivalry

By James A. Crabtree

Before, it was Laver and Rosewall, McEnroe and Borg, Agassi and Sampras.

For the past year it’s been more about Djokovic and Murray.

One hundred years from now the beginning of this millennium will be remembered for clashes shared by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

The biggest headline in tennis once again took centre stage at Indian Wells in the men’s quarterfinal.

Federer will undoubtedly be remembered as the greatest player of all time. What will perhaps be forgotten is that Federer has been consistently owned by the man who chased him in the rankings for so long, Rafael Nadal. Nadal leads the Federer/Nadal conflicts with 19 wins to 10, and significantly by 8 wins to 2 in grand slams.

The most recent encounter between these two at Indian Wells had the build-up.

Federer has not won a title since August last year and in many ways is playing a match in a more timid style than that of which we are accustomed to seeing.

Nadal, as we all know, is back after a very lengthy absence and has a point to prove on hard courts and in a tournament in which he lost to Federer last year.

When Federer beat Nadal in the Indian Wells 2012 semi-final it was his first victory against the Spaniard on an outside hard court since Miami in 2005. The 2013 display went back to the script of old whilst Federer and his army of fans searched for answers with no more imaginative excuses than his age and injury.

Nadal’s display of aggression after a lengthy layoff from injury was significant although Federer’s lack of hostility on court, faltering serve and inconsistency was disheartening. Federer’s main hard court weapons, the flatter forehand and faster serve have all but eluded him so far this year.

These players know each other’s games inside and out and new strategy is almost impossible. Like a childhood sibling fight all tactics have been used before, only a heightened level of spite could prove a difference.

A spite that was missing for Federer resulting in the 28th encounter being an epic anticlimax.

Nadal’s biography ‘RAFA’ is as much about Federer as it is about Nadal, with detailed schemes of how the Spaniard would overcome the Swiss inundating the text. More than simply a great matchup Nadal treats the issue with obsession, a mountain he must climb. In contrast for Federer to play Nadal seems like an exhausting chore and whether he admits it or not, one he would rather avoid.

Indeed, in their most recent battle, Federer seemed more fatigued by an opponent that has always troubled him. For some reason Nadal always thinks of himself as the underdog. And these may have been the prevailing issues rather than any of the subplots leading up. Federer struggles against Nadal, always has, and perhaps, always will.

This rivalry has been going on a long bloody time, nine years to be exact. They have met 29 times, have played seven exhibitions of which Nadal has won five, will meet a few more times before they retire and then will undoubtedly play each other a further absurd amount of times more on the Champions tour.

If the current game plan remains the same, it would be hard to imagine a reversal of fortune for the greatest player of all time.

Kirilenko’s Career Week

“So I’m just enjoying, you know, to play out there.”

Perhaps Maria Kirilenko has enjoyed playing tennis under the scenic desert skies of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden just a bit too much.

Kirilenko won her fourth consecutive three-set match at Indian Wells against Petra Kvitova on Wednesday, advancing to the semifinals of a WTA Premier Mandatory event for the first time. In those four consecutive victories against Christina McHale, Mallory Burdette, Agnieszka Radwanska and Kvitova, Kirilenko has logged a whopping nine hours and 31 minutes on court.

Having turned professional in 2001, Kirilenko was long considered just another “glamor girl” of women’s tennis. She was “the other Maria from Russia,” the original face of the Adidas by Stella McCartney line, and also appeared in the 2009 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. On the court, the Russian has always been dangerous, but rarely had a chance to make the next step. However, she’s made a firm statement with her racket over the past 18 months. She took home a bronze medal with Nadia Petrova at the London Olympics, won her first singles title since 2008 in Pattaya City in February, and is knocking on the door of the top 10.

While Kirilenko’s game might not feature a single defining weapon, she does everything well. She combines athleticism and court craft, injects paces when she needs to and possesses a steely resolve and will to win. She rallied from a set down against McHale, a set and a break down against Kvitova and came through with flying colors in an extended third set against Radwanska. That is what has made her run in Palm Springs all the more impressive; when down and out, Kirilenko has dug in her heels and found a way to win.

The win against No. 4 Radwanska was Kirilenko’s best in terms of ranking. The win against Kvitova was her second consecutive against a top 10 opponent. Despite the contrasting styles of play of those two opponents, each match had a similar theme. She was the underdog.

Kirilenko has always been capable of pulling off a long, grinding upset in her WTA career. Who could forget her three-hour, 22-minute marathon win against Maria Sharapova in the first round of the Australian Open in 2010? Or how she and Samantha Stosur played the longest tiebreak set, 17-15, in Grand Slam history at the US Open in 2011? However, it has been Kirilenko’s body, perhaps her greatest strength, that has let her down in the past. A full slate of singles and doubles matches always caught up to her in the end. Earlier this season, Kirilenko made the decision to forego doubles to work on improving her singles game.

It’s clearly helped. Many of Kirilenko’s victories are punctuated with a smile, a fist pump and a shriek of delight. She radiates pure, unadulterated joy, as if she wants to let the fans know just how much all the hard work means to her and how much it’s finally paying off.

On a day in Stadium 1 where Stanislas Wawrinka and Ernests Gulbis came tantalizing close to pulling off upsets over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for what seemed like the umpteenth time, only to fail in the clutch, Kirilenko showed once again that she hasn’t backed away from the pressure moments this week.

Instead, she’s embraced them.

“I feel I can be on this level. Nothing is scary out there now. I can compete with them and win.”

Indian Wells, Where Character is Destiny

In the final analysis, I wonder if my desire to be surprised is outweighed by my desire to be right. Would I prefer the talented headcases to pull themselves together and grind out tough wins under pressure, or do I secretly relish seeing them cave in yet again, abject in a deciding tiebreaker after squandering match point? Under light interrogation, many fans insist that they’d like to see the prodigious youngsters break through against top players. But who can forgo the hot flush of satisfaction when the youngster loses to a top player by the almost clichéd score-line of 7-6 6-1?

I’ve no doubt that part of it is garden-grade Schadenfreude, the default setting for many who spend their lives on the internet. Beyond that, however, I suspect people derive genuine pleasure from those moments when reality conforms to the stories we tell about it. It feeds into our latent belief that character is destiny, even in tennis. I assume no one is dismayed to hear this; everyone, at some level, must relish the idea that their special area of interest is structured like a Greek tragedy.

Two results from yesterday clearly stood out in this respect. These were the losses of Nicolas Almagro and Grigor Dimitrov, to Tommy Haas and Novak Djokovic respectively. Each loss cleaved closely to the standard view of each man. Both permitted the self-avowed experts among us to nod knowingly, as though these matches couldn’t have played out any other way. Strictly defined, Almagro’s loss was more a comedy than a tragedy, although we shouldn’t hold that against it. Sometimes it’s good to laugh.

Almagro has so far had a mixed year, ‘mixed’ in this sense being a euphemism for ‘poor’ (‘year’ means pretty much what you’d think). There was of course that Australian Open quarterfinal in January, in which he failed to serve out the match no fewer than thirty-seven times (I’m going from memory here). Afterwards it was debatable whether he was more spooked at the prospect of finally defeating David Ferrer (on his thirty-seventh attempt) or of reaching his first Major semifinal.

After Melbourne, Almagro made his way to South America, to join the so called Golden Swing he has recently made his own. This sequence of otherwise inconsequential clay court events has become interesting in recent years for the way it perfectly showcases the pecking order in men’s clay court tennis. The first tournament in Chile, lacking top players, is entirely a lottery involving South Americans and second-tier Spaniards. Almagro typically shows up for the second event in Brazil, and commences winning until David Ferrer arrives and takes over. Two years ago Ferrer didn’t show up until the fourth tournament, which is Acapulco. Almagro consequently won Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo. Last year Ferrer showed up a week earlier, leaving Almagro with just Sao Paulo. This year the whole was thrown into disarray by the presence of Rafael Nadal from the get-go. This resulted in Almagro winning no titles at all, a dismal outcome from a portion of the season that is his best opportunity to shine, and earn.

Today Almagro lost to Haas after failing to serve out the match at 6/5 in the final set, and, more specifically, failing properly to dispatch a frankly hopeless drop shot from the German on the first match point. Admittedly, the drop shot landed on the service line and might conceivably have been an even worse lob – context suggests otherwise – which might account for Almagro’s indecisive disposal of it. He planted it cross court, and was as interested as everyone else to discover his opponent had anticipated this possibility, and arrived just in time to plonk the passing shot into the acre of open court. Haas, encouraged, subsequently broke back, and then compiled a tiebreaker that was almost perfectly unlike the one he’d lost to conclude the second set.

I don’t mean to belittle Almagro, since I find his game stylish and attractive. It was an excellent match, as virtuosic and dramatic as one could hope for, and the Spaniard provided almost exactly half its entertainment. Theatrically, Haas displayed a greater capacity for histrionics (racquet tosses, shirt changes, and pointless remonstrations with the umpire), although Almagro was better able to project to the back row. I won’t pretend I’m displeased that Haas won, since he’s nearly as old as me and he won’t be around for ever. But my point is that I was also not displeased that Almagro’s manner of losing seemed so perfectly characteristic, not to say comedic.

At about the same time Almagro and Hass were breaking their tie in the third set, Dimitrov and Djokovic were doing the same in their first set. From a strict chronological perspective, Dimitrov’s match thus ended about twenty minutes after Almagro’s.  However, the loss occurred earlier. It happened as the Bulgarian served for the first set at 5/3, whereupon he set about confounding the persistent comparisons to Roger Federer. Federer would surely never serve four double faults to be broken back, but that’s precisely what Dimitrov did, proving emphatically that his spiritual progenitor is really Fernando Verdasco: He’s less Baby Fed than Baby Fer.

A tiebreaker ensued, which Djokovic won 7-4 (including one point that he graciously conceded). Dimitrov had led 5/2 in that first set, and hadn’t been all that far from 5-1. He made it to 5-1 in the second set, although he was sadly on the losing end by this time, and it was merely a prelude to going down 6-1. No one bothered to sound surprised as Djokovic galloped away with the match, especially among the Sky Sports commentators, who only briefly gave off excoriating Dimitrov in order to praise the world No.1’s professionalism.

They were hard to fault on both counts. Djokovic did everything he should have, right until the end, whereas Dimitrov only managed it for eight games. Once momentum has swung against them, it seems all but impossible for a young player to wrench it back, and instead they just spiral away. The score-line of 7-6 6-1 is a perfect illustration of this. It seems very common in these types of matchups. Once Djokovic had broken back – he afterwards admitted he hadn’t had to do much – even the contour of the result seemed grindingly inevitable. It felt like fate. It felt like a Greek tragedy, but not a very good one.

Interesting matches, lopsided score lines on day 7 in Indian Wells

In the early rounds of most tournaments, you can expect the main stadium matches to be blowouts. They generally feature low ranked players against the very best and often turn out to be some of the least interesting matches. Tuesday’s schedule featured third and fourth round matches on the main stadium, just about the right time for the matches to get competitive. On paper, the main stadium match ups for Day 7 should have been no trouble for the higher ranked player and while all of them won, the matches provided some pretty entertaining tennis.

Novak Djokovic d. Grigor Dimitrov 7-6(4) 6-1

Novak Djokovic hasn’t lost a match yet this year. The Australian Open champion is the number 1 player in the world and very rarely troubled by anyone outside the Top 4. Grigor Dimitrov has been steadily working his way up the rankings and the 21 year old now sits at a career high 31 in the world. It looked like he came with his A game when he broke Djokovic in the first set. He had the chance to serve it out at 5-3 and it seemed like almost a sure thing, but that’s where experience comes into play. Dimitrov served up four double faults in that game to put them back on serve. Things dropped off quickly from there. Djokovic held and Dimitrov doubled faulted to open the tie break, which he ended up losing 7-4. The second set slipped away just as fast. Djokovic didn’t have to pull out his usual extraordinary play because Dimitrov was beating himself. “He started off well today, but then, you know, I think he gave me the break with four double faults. You know, I haven’t done much really in the match in the second set when I made two breaks. It was all of his unforced errors, so I just needed to hang in there and try to be patient” said Djokovic in his post match press conference. Dimitrov has plenty of talent to make a splash over the next few years, but today the more experience player definitely had the upper hand. 

Maria Sharapova d. Lara Arruabarrena Vecino 7-5 6-0

Are you unfamiliar with the name Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino? You’re not alone. The 20 year old from Spain is currently ranked 87 in the world. No one thought she had much of a chance against Sharapova, the number 2 seed. Sharapova was stumped when asked about Arrubarrena-Vecino after her last match, saying, “well, I hope my coach was out there watching the end of that one.” Sometimes the unknown players can provide the best challenge and despite being broken early in the first set, Arrubarrena-Vecino was able to come back. Once again, the wheels fell off after the lower ranked player lost the first set and Maria Sharapova was able to roll through the next set 6-0. Sharapova explained her early slips, saying, “I think maybe I was going for the lines a little bit more than I had to, especially in the first few games when you haven’t really don’t know too much about your opponent or haven’t played her.” 

Jo Wilfried Tsonga d. Mardy Fish 7-6(4) 7-6(0)

The score line may not be lopsided but the tie breaks certainly were. Perhaps the closest match of the day on paper, this one did not disappoint. A year or two ago, these players would not have met so early in the tournament as they were both Top 10. Mardy Fish is playing his first tournament back after an extended break for health reasons and was seeded number 32 at this event. As it should have been the match was extremely close, but it came down more to Fish’s errors than Tsonga’s winners. After losing the first set tie break, Fish went up a quick 4-0 in the second set before being broken back twice. When asked if those breaks could be attributed to lack of match play, Fish responded, “maybe. I mean, I usually don’t lose 4-0 sets very often. I can’t remember the last one. So, yeah.” Fish was visibly disappointed with the loss, admitting it would’ve been a different story if he had lost 3 and 2. In the long run, this isn’t such a shabby start to Fish’s comeback. There’s certainly no shame losing to a player of Tsonga’s calibre. Tsonga will play Milos Raonic in the fourth round. 


Lucky 13: Ernests Gulbis’ win streak continues in Indian Wells

It hasn’t been often over the last year that Ernests Gulbis has been faced with a room full of reporters after a match. More often than not, he’s been packing a bag and heading off to the next tournament. That’s how few and far between his wins had become. The 24 year old Latvian, whose ranking peaked at 21 in 2011, had bottomed out at 159 in October of 2012, a ranking that often relegated him to playing challengers or qualifying for the ATP events. Perhaps the biggest low came just last month in Bergamo, Italy where Gulbis fell to world number 234, Michal Przysiezny, in the opening round of a challenger. Gulbis said he mother had a suggestion after that particular loss, “she told me that I should quit tennis. I told her, give me one more month. So now at least she’s happy.” She’s not the only one that’s happy these days. Gulbis has displayed his charming grin all week in press, getting all sorts of questions about his win streak, which has now reached thirteen matches, including qualifying and winning the Delray Beach tournament and qualifying and subsequently reaching the fourth round here in Indian Wells. 

After his second round win against 9th seed, Janko Tipsarevic, talked about some of his struggles, the highs and lows of reaching a peak so early in your career, saying, “so story of my life, you know. I reach something, and then I destroy it.” He spoke with the wisdom of someone who made childish mistakes but is finally starting to grow up. He seems dedicated to his routine. He’s hired a new coach, Gunter Bresnik, and the results speak for themselves. It appears he has no intention of destroying things this time around, what he considers more like a fourth chance than a second or third. “I hope it’s my last one. I hope that this is the one where I make it.” It’s a long climb back to the top, but it seems like he’s doing things the right way this time around. But, that doesn’t mean he’s being hard of himself about taking so long to figure things out, saying, “somebody doesn’t figure it out all his life. I figured it out after 24 years. I think it’s quick enough.”

The normally light hearted Gulbis turned serious in Saturday’s press conference when he was asked about the differences between playing tour level tournaments and challengers. He quickly shot back, “When was the last time you were in challenger? Go to it. Really.” There’s likely no greater difference than a tournament like the BNP Paribas Open, which pampers its players to the nth, and a 50k challenger housed in a college gym. Perhaps heading back to that world helped develop this new found drive for the Latvian, who has beaten three Top 20 players in his current streak, the longest of his career.

Certainly his next opponent will be the toughest challenge he has faced yet. His fourth round opponent is none other than Rafael Nadal, who received a walkover from Leonardo Mayer on Monday. Gulbis has a 0-4 record against the number 5 seed, who is playing just his third tournament this season after being sidelined with an injury since last July. Gulbis is confident that he has a good chance of beating Nadal the way he’s playing right now, but a loss would not be devastating because he’s on the right track. He said, “idoesn’t, okay, it matters if I win or not, but I want to play as much as matches as possible against these top guys. Sooner or later I’m going to win something, you know, it’s gonna give me extra confidence, and then just to keep it there, you know.”

Mardy Fish has a triumphant return in Indian Wells

Mardy Fish walked on court Sunday for his first professional singles match in six months and eight days, his first match since beating Gilles Simon in the third round of the 2012 US Open. He was forced to withdraw from his US Open fourth round match against Roger Federer last September when the heart condition he revealed earlier last year flared up once again. It’s been a long road back but Fish finally made his 2013 debut at the BNP Paribas Open, a short trip from his home base in Los Angeles. Fish was first up on Stadium 1 on Saturday against compatriot Bobby Reynolds. It wasn’t the cleanest or easiest match Mardy Fish has ever played, but he left the court victorious after three sets, winning 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. He described it as a, “win just to get back out there.” Fish was the number one American player for much of 2011 and some of 2012, having taken the helm from Andy Roddick who would go on to retire last year. He is a much needed presence at a time when younger Americans like John Isner and Sam Querrey have been struggling.

When asked about his feelings after the match, Fish called it, “elation probably.” He went on to say it wasn’t just about winning, adding, “there has been a couple of people that have really been there for me through these past months, and it felt good to play for them, as well. My wife has been a rock at my side the entire time, so it’s been very difficult for her, as well.”

Sunday’s match actually wasn’t Fish’s first appearance on court at this year’s BNP Paribas Open. He teamed up with fellow American and good friend, James Blake, to take on Spanish duo David Marrero and Fernando Verdasco in doubles on Saturday. Blake said he was, “honored to be the one that’s out there with him when he comes back because I know how hard it’s been. It’s been a long journey for him, and I hope I really, really hope that it’s easier for him to be out there with me, with someone that you know, I like to think of myself as one of his good friends out here that cares about him more as a person than any results will ever speak to.” Perhaps playing with Blake did bring back some of the good old days because the pair won the match 6-4, 6-4. 

Andy Roddick was certainly paying attention to his good friend Mardy’s return on Sunday, tweeting, “Hell yes @mardyfish !!!” just after the match’s completion. Fish was asked to comment on the absence of his good friend Roddick who wasn’t playing the tournament for the first time in over ten years. Being the same age, the two players grew up together on tour. The two even attended the same high school. The biggest difference for Fish? “I miss the free meals from him because he has way more money than we all do.” Just kidding. On a more serious note, Fish said he missed the “silent cheering from afar for us both” and having a breakfast companion. The two would eat breakfast together every morning at this particular tournament

Mardy Fish is taking things slow. He will play Miami and then assess whether he wants to continue on to the clay court season. As for this tournament, Fish will face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the third round, who took out James Blake on Sunday night.