Sharapova saddled responsibility for misinformed doping. Venus returned. Novak broke records. Vika vaulted back into the top-10. And a tournament director made gender-insensitive remarks during a Sunday breakfast with reporters; comments that cost him his job.
– The 2016 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells
After Maria Sharapova‘s “L.A. press conference” before the start of main-draw play, we should’ve known this would be no ordinary fortnight at Indian Wells. Doping and Maria’s “situation” became the focus of all press-room chatter. Players weren’t shy about sharing strong opinions either.
Venus Williams to the rescue…
Oddly enough, the inflammatory debates and in some cases, baseless accusations, were finally quieted when Venus Williams – the source of inflammatory dialogue 15 years prior – stepped onto Stadium-1 at Indian Wells for the first time since 2001.
She and sister Serena had refused to play the “premier mandatory” event since the two were booed and heckled after Venus withdrew from a semifinal match with Serena nearly a generation ago. Serena went on to capture the title that year with a 3-set win over Kim Clijsters; but the sisters vowed never to return to that hostile atmosphere.
Last year, Serena ended her “boycott” and reached the semifinals, before a knee-injury forced her to withdraw from her match with Simona Halep. This year, it was big sister Venus’ turn for healing. Her turn to feel the adoration of the sport’s 5th slam. Her moment of closure.
Adoration amplified. That is exactly what Venus felt as she took the court to face Kurumi Nara. A smile from ear to ear; like Serena a year prior, Venus fought back tears of acceptance and redemption during the coin toss. Though she fell in straight sets 4-6, 3-6, it was a ‘fairy tale’ trip to the desert: “Not everything can end fairy tale. It’s already enough of a fairy tale to be here…It was still a great day,” she said. “It’s such a blessing.”
Controversy returned 9-days later. Prior to the Sunday Finals, tournament director Raymond Moore was asked a question about the tournament’s potential goals with regard to the WTA Tour. His reaction rewarded him global, sexist, chauvinistic infamy, ultimately forcing him to resign. It was ugly, and the echoes will continue to reverberate for the remainder of the season.
Novak Djokovic earned his 3rd consecutive BNP Paribas Open title – his 5th overall – surpassing Roger Federer, who owns four Indian Wells titles. Novak’s only loss this year (22-1) has come thanks to an eye infection. He was forced to retire from a match with Feliciano Lopez last month in Dubai. He now sets his sights on Miami, looking to earn the “Sunshine Double” for an unprecedented fourth time.
Victoria Azarenka is back in the top-10. With her win over Serena Williams in the Final, she vaulted to World #8. Here are my thoughts about Vika after her Round of 16 win over Sam Stosur:
After her win…I told the 2012 champion that I hadn’t seen her THIS animated, this DETERMINED in quite awhile. Was I crazy? Did she light a fire under her ass when she arrived at Indian Wells? She shrugged it off – said she was just happy to be back on tour, putting the work in, playing top-level tennis…blah, blah, B.S.
Look – my opinion? Vika knows that a win here gets her back in the top-10. Once there, she can set her sights on what this is really all about: Reclaiming World #1…(or at least giving herself opportunities to face Serena). It’s all or nothing with Vika. The injury and necessary time-off was a TOUGH pill to swallow. The mountain she’s had to climb just to get back into the top-15? A necessary evil. She’s handled it with notable maturity – through insanely hard-work and by surrounding herself with a team of expert climbers. She has nearly reached the second highest peak in her journey. From there, she knows she can set her sights on the summit. She can smell it. And the sense of urgency is obvious in how she’s carried herself on and off the court these past two weeks.
Indian Wells. Top-5 Moments of 2016 on Stadium-2
1. Bob and Mike Bryan def. Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco
Round-1. Electric atmosphere. Exhilerating match. Incredible fans partying in a packed house. Top-notch tennis set the tone on this middle Saturday, and Stadium-2 fans were on the edge of their seats throughout the match. Nadal and Verdasco came out and immediately punched Bob and Mike in the mouth, breaking Bob in game-1. The Spaniards would control the entire first set 6-3, and most of the second. It honestly felt like the 2-time champs would go-down in two…but then Verdasco double-faulted twice at 5-all. The Bryans scored the break and Mike held-serve to force the match tie-break. Back and forth, the MTB was excruciatingly fantastic; but then at 8-all, Nadal double faulted giving Bob his window to earn the win. Bob and Mike Bryan – with 109 career titles – stole this one from Nadal and Verdasco 3-6, 7-5 [10-8]. MORE
2. Nenad Zimonjic and Edouard Roger Vasselin def. Bob and Mike Bryan
Quarterfinal. Bob and Mike Bryan simply needed one point to win. Up seven match-points (9-2) in the match tie-break with Nenad Zimonjic and Edouard Roger-Vasselin. The moment was huge. The crowd was amped. The brothers have made a career out of crushing anxiety and closing with confidence…but for some reason, Wednesday night was different. Both Bob and Mike were tight on serve. Nenad and Edouard erased all seven match points, and then an eighth, earning a spot in the Semfinals, winning 14-12 in the match tie-break. Remarkable match. FINAL: 4-6, 6-1, [14-12]. MORE
3. David Goffin
Round of 16. Stan Wawrinka was an absolute mess for the first 45-minutes of this one. He was down a set and 0-4, when he finally smashed a racquet and snapped to. It actually turned into one of the most competitive, remarkable sets of the tournament. Wawrinka broke Goffin twice to reach 3-4, screaming COME ON! with a huge pass up the line. Goffin would then break and serve for the match – but he couldn’t close. Stan won the next four games to force a decider. Up 5-3, Goffin served for the match again…but Stan broke back and both held through to the tie-break. Goffin eventually took it 7-5 in the tiebreak, thanks in part to a missed overhead from Wawrinka. FINAL: 63 57 76(5). Goffin went on to reach the Semifinals with a win over Marin Cilic. MORE
4. The Agnieszka Radwanska Show
Round-3. Agnieszka Radwanska is an artist with a bottomless bag of tricks. Monica Niculescu is the most frustrating opponent on tour, with a mastery of mixing up spin and pace, keeping competitors off balance and out of rhythm. When they clash, as they did in Doha two weeks ago, it is like going back in time. Shot pace is typically slower, rallies are longer, and the on-court creativity can be brilliant. (Next time, they should both have to use wooden racquets). Radwanska won it 6-2, 6-1…a similar scoreline to their match in Doha. Despite the score, it was actually a tough match for Radwanska, requiring a ton of effort and her usual contributions to the highlight reel…including the shot below. MORE
5. Gael Monfils
Finally, good fortune for Gael Monfils at Indian Wells. He’s been coming here for eight years, and has never made it deep into the second week. This year, thanks to a favorable draw and Andy Murray’s early departure, he reached the Quarterfinals for the first time. In his Round of 16 match with Federico Delbonis, he actually attempted a “full-frontal tweener” on a rocketed Delbonis forehand. While he missed the shot, Monfils admits it wasn’t the wisest decision considering how balls can leap off the surface here. No one wants to see the trainer called to court for that. Always the showman, fans regularly packed Stadium-2 to see the unpredictable Frenchman perform throughout the tournament.
Honorable Mention: Taylor Townsend
Taylor Townsend was unstoppable in the week leading up to the BNP Paribas Open. Ranked #379 in the world – in her 4th trip to Indian Wells – this was the hardest she’d ever had to battle just to get into the main-draw. She had to win six matches in the pre-qualifying tournament to win a wild-card to the Qualies. On the first Monday, she defeated Evgeniya Rodina; then on Tuesday, took-out the talented Latvian Anastasija Sevastova. She played an exhausting eight consecutive matches just to reach the main draw…
— Andy Taylor (@StadiumAndy) March 8, 2016
Though she fell to Vania King in the first round, Taylor demonstrated remarkable endurance and commitment to battle her way back into the top-100. Unfortunately she has a long way to go. The first-round loss dropped her to World #394. She’s proven to herself that she can string wins together. If she can do the yeoman’s work of piecing together titles on ITF Women’s Circuit this year, we’ll see more of Taylor on the WTA tour in 2017.