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Fri12142018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Through swirling winds and unusually cool temperatures, the 2018 BNP Paribas Open’s final weekend was marked by tense yet surprisingly lackluster play on both of the draw.

With the exceptions of the electric semifinal loss by Venus Williams to No. 20 underdog Daria Kasatkina, and world No. 1 Roger Federer’s thrilling comeback in his semifinal win over Borna Coric, moments of stellar play proved few and far between.

Upset victories remained the order of the tournament, with both singles’ championship matches on Sunday producing unexpected winners. First up was the women’s match, with Russian star Kasatkina facing Naomi Osaka of Japan. While Kasatkina had thrilled fans with her determined take-down of crowd-favorite Williams in a long and brilliant semifinal battle on Friday night, she could not muster that level of play in the final, as she lost rather quickly, 6-3 6-2, to Osaka.

Next up was the highly anticipated men’s final, with crowd-favorite Federer attempting to defend his title against No. 6 Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina. Other than a tight second-set tiebreaker in which Federer managed to prevail, 10-8, play was ho-hum, with on-court tension more of a product of the players’ discontent with the chair umpire, line judges and the rowdy, packed-house crowd. In the end, del Potro walked away with the third-set tiebreaker, 7-2, and the title.

“In the finals, you know, you must be playing in all the ways, not just tennis,” del Potro observed during the post-match press conference. “Unfortunately, I couldn't stay calm in the tiebreak of the second set, but then the calms came again in the end of the match, and I played good in the tiebreak.”

When Federer was asked post-match about the uncharacteristic bursts of anger he showed throughout the final match, he said, diplomatically: “I don't even remember half of it, to be honest. I don’t want to get into the details. You know, I think I was just (me) trying to pump myself up more, to get energy for me. … It had no effect on the outcome of the match. I think we both went after the umpire for different reasons—or the same reasons in different moments.”

See a variety of Week 2 photos below.

Published in Snapshot

As play ended late Sunday night, March 11, it was fair to say that the first week of this year’s BNP Paribas Open delivered more than its share of upsets and surprises at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

More than half of the Top 30 seeded Women’s Tennis Association players went down to defeat, including Johanna Konta (No. 11), Garbine Muguruza (No. 3), Petra Kvitova (No. 9), Jelena Ostapenko (No. 6) and the ever-popular Americans Madison Keys (No. 15) and CoCo Vandeweghe (No. 17). Also, unranked but perennial fan favorites Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenko fell victim to a group of young and talented players determined to make their presence felt at this year’s tennis carnival.

On the men’s Association of Tennis Professionals side, the carnage was less widespread, but a number of highly seeded victims, including Grigor Dimitrov (No. 3), Alexander Zverev (No. 4), Lucas Pouille (No. 9), Novak Djokovic (No. 10) and American John Isner (No. 15), will not move on to the round of 32, which began Monday, March 12.

In the midst of this statistical turmoil, some intriguing personal moments unfolded on the Stadium Court 1. On Saturday night, the seemingly immortal men’s No. 1 player, Roger Federer, was getting into tournament shape. Playing his first singles match of this tournament against Argentinian Federico Delbonis, Federer took the first set 6-3 and was tied early in the second set—when the skies gave way to a rainy downpour, the likes of which Indian Wells rarely sees. The match was delayed for several hours before finally being postponed to Sunday for its completion.

“It's been a long time since I have been interrupted at night and have to come back the next day,” Federer said to reporters after he claimed his initial victory with a 7-6 second-set victory, sparing him a lengthy contest on the second of what became three consecutive days of play.

The inconvenience did not color his continuing attraction to our valley tour stop. “They are very knowledgeable about tennis,” he said about the tens of thousands of fans who come out each year. “It's nice that the tournament has invested a lot so they can have an even better experience here at the tennis.”

Just prior to Federer’s eventual Sunday win, five-time BNP Paribas Open champion Novak Djokovic took on his first match challenge against the 109th-ranked Taro Daniel of Japan. While walking onstage during his introduction to the packed stadium, Djokovic exhibited an air of detachment as he smiled slightly, waved his hand and lifted his chin, looking to the sky and soaking up the gladiatorial atmosphere he’s been missing due to various recent injuries and illnesses. “I was grateful to be out on the court after surgery that quickly,” he said in his post match interview, “but at the same time, (I) just didn't feel good at all.” His spotty, overall lackluster play highlighted that reality. After losing a tight first set in a surprisingly one-sided tiebreaker (7-3 for Daniel), he seemed to find his passion and stormed through the later part of the second set, taking it 6-4 to square the match. Then came a complete collapse in the third set as the upstart Daniel capitalized for a 6-1 runaway win.

“Well, it’s life, you know,” Djokovic philosophized later. “God always challenges you when you expect it least. I have experienced many times similar situations, so I know that there is always something good in it. You just need to try to set your mind at that frequency.”

The true “feel good” story of the week belonged to 16-year-old American player Amanda Anisimova, who got into the tournament via a sponsor wild-card exemption. On Sunday, in she faced ninth-seeded Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic. The young New Jersey native was absolutely on fire as she overwhelmed her more accomplished opponent, 6-2, 6-4.

“Yeah, it feels crazy. I mean, I’m still in shock,” Anisimova gushed in the post-match press conference. “She (Kvitova) is the best player I have ever played, and it was the biggest court I have ever played on. So it was definitely nerve-wracking, kind of, but I was enjoying it so much out there and I was playing my best. It was a good day.”

As Week 2 play gets underway, a huge highlight comes Monday night—in fact, it’s happening as of this posting. The No. 8 seed Venus Williams is facing her uncharacteristically unseeded younger sister, Serena in the third round. Serena, coming back to competition after the birth of her first child, was asked how she feels about playing her sister at such and early point in the tournament.

“She’s had such a good year last year and (is) playing fantastic tennis,” Serena observed. “But I have to play a seed regardless, sooner than later most times for the next couple of tournaments. So I have to be ready. Obviously I wish it was anybody else in the draw, literally anybody, but that’s OK. Just have to go out there and see how I am and do my best.”

Here are two predictions for Week 2: Rain will return to play havoc with the later rounds this year … and only one Williams sister will move on past tonight. (Update: Venus defeated Serena, 6-3, 6-4.)

Published in Snapshot

As the 2016 edition of the BNP Paribas Open got under way last week at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, two topics dominated the conversations of players, the media and fans alike: Maria Sharapova’s recent alleged doping infraction (leading to her absence) and the return of Venus Williams after a 15 year boycott of the tournament where she enjoyed some of her earliest career triumphs.

Two-time defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic told the media he was sympathetic regarding Sharapova’s situation. “I know that she has always been very responsible and aware toward herself, toward the sport—very disciplined, very … hard working, hard-working ethics, and (she) loves what she does.

“I thought she was very courageous, and it was very human, brave of her, to go out and take the responsibility and say what has happened. She did admit that she made a mistake with her team. But certainly if there was a mistake, and if she was caught to be positive on doping for a certain substance, then there should be certain kind of consequences for that.”

Consequences seemed to be on Venus Williams’ mind as she stepped back into the Tennis Garden surroundings.

“I think when (Serena) came back, it wasn't an easy decision. You never know what was going to happen,” Venus said regarding her sister’s return to Indian Wells last year. “But she had so much courage to do so. It made it so easy for me. I felt like when I came out here, I was able to focus on the tennis and not on, ‘Oh, my gosh, what’s gonna happen?’”

What did happen when she finally set foot on the Stadium 1 show court for her Friday, March 11, match? A standing ovation that lasted several minutes.

“Yeah, I did get emotional,” Venus Williams said. “When we were doing the coin toss, I got a little watery eyed. Your opponent—you don't want to give them any more encouragement. It was wonderful. I think I smiled the whole warm-up. I had to get my game face on. It was tough to do.”

Shortly after the start of her first match, against 89th-ranked Kurumi Nara of Japan, the wind kicked up, and a burst of rain rolled across the Tennis Gardens grounds, blowing objects around. The storm chased players off all the courts—and it’s possible the disruption contributed to Venus’ early exit from this year’s tournament: She would go on to be upset, 6-4, 6-3.

“The crowd rooted me on because it was a tough day and tough conditions and brutal out there,” a positive Venus Williams remarked in her post-match media conference. “It was wonderful to feel the love. You know, I would love to come on back.”

As the winds dissipate and the second week of play gets under way, all five of the top-seeded men are still alive (including No. 1 Djokovic, No. 2 Andy Murray, No. 3 Stan Wawrinka, No. 4 Rafael Nadal and No. 5 Kei Nishikori), while just three of the top 5 women (No. 1 Serena Williams, No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 5/defending champ Simona Halep) are moving ahead. 

Published in Snapshot

Wednesday, March 9, was a beautiful day in many ways at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

At 9 a.m., under brilliant blue skies, long-estranged Women’s Tennis Association champion Venus Williams made her first official appearance at the tournament since 2001. She took to Practice Court 1 to begin her preparations for her first match, which will take place on Friday, March 11. Before only a dozen onlookers—only members of the media and security guards—Venus worked on her game. She seemed anxious and a bit surly; while casting surreptitious gazes at the few strangers present, she maintained a serious expression.

At 10 a.m., as her workout entered its second hour, the gates to the grounds opened up for fans—and a crowd of spectators quickly formed around her court. She worked out in brief spurts, taking frequent breaks to rest in the shade, talk on her phone or grab sustenance from a Whole Foods shopping bag she brought with her. During one of those breaks, as the stands filled, she looked around and caught sight of a young girl holding a sign that read: “Welcome Back Venus!”

A smile broke across her face.

As she returned to the court for more work, a healthy round of applause spilled out from the gathered fans.

The tension had been broken. She laughed, and it was pretty clear she was starting feel comfortable at the site of some of her earliest career victories.

Later, when she left the practice court, she walked across the great green area where players regularly congregate for impromptu soccer matches, calisthenics or other activities. Dogged by the ever-present photographers (present company included), she seemed a bit guarded, but then veered off to a crowd of autograph-seekers behind the fence, where she spent a few minutes signing and chatting. Then she was off again.

The final surprise sighting of the newly returned Venus Williams came at the start of her sister Serena’s practice session, around 12:30 p.m. As Serena, the current top-ranked WTA ranked player, laced up her tennis shoes and talked to her entourage, Venus appeared on the court to greet her sister. They spent 10 to 15 minutes together, laughing, dancing and talking with Serena’s guru-in-residence, Patrick Mouratoglou.

With a kiss and a smile Venus left. But make no mistake: She seems happy to be back, and regardless of the ill will from 15 years ago, her fans are happy, too.

Published in Snapshot

I first met Serena Williams in 1997. She was playing doubles with her sister Venus, here at the Hyatt Grand Champions. The crowd loved them. In a sense, the Indian Wells tennis tournament helped make them: It was their first big tournament together, when they started to show the sports world the power of the Williams tennis family.

Later, I had lunch with their father and trainer, Richard Williams, and he told me that Venus and Serena would be playing in many Grand Slam finals—as rivals. Personally, I thought he was crazy, but as a journalist, I liked his quotes. I grew to like Richard Williams even more after I learned that he taught himself how to play tennis by watching video-tape lessons!

Flash forward to 2001, when the Williams sisters were set to play each other in the semifinals of what is today the BNP Paribas Open. Despite a live TV broadcast, fans filled the Tennis Garden. You could feel the excitement in the air.

I believe that I was the only reporter who watched as the Williams sisters, both looking fine, warmed up on a side court. (Everyone else was entering the stadium for their match.) Both sisters knew me from various press conferences—and the moment Venus spotted me, she mysteriously stopped hitting the ball. She then did two knee bends and then walked off the practice court.

Based on the way they were acting, I had a feeling that there would be no semifinal.

I went to the media room, looking for Bud Collins, the legendary tennis broadcaster. (We shared the same media spot at the top of the stadium.) He wasn’t around, so I walked over to the Los Angeles Times’ Lisa Dillman, and told her what had happened. At first, she doubted my suspicions; after all, the match was about to start.

Then we looked down and saw that the singles net was being exchanged for a doubles net.

As Dillman and I walked into the players’ lounge to speak to the Williams’ sisters, all hell broke loose in the main stadium: As the announcer announced that the semifinal match was cancelled, the crowd erupted! They booed loud and long, just like at wild soccer matches I used to cover in Europe. These people had paid good money to watch the Williams sisters’ match. Instead, they watched a doubles match that was moved into the slot from another court.

Back in the interview room, I opened with questions, asking the Williams sisters to confirm what I saw down on the practice court. They confirmed my account. (I still have press clips from back then, as I was quoted about it.)

The official explanation was that Venus Williams pulled out due to a knee injury. The unofficial explanation, believed by many in the media room, was that Richard Williams ordered Venus to drop out of the semifinal match, so that Serena could go into the finals. (At the time, Venus was way ahead of Serena in winnings, money and fame.) Some sources also said that it was too emotional for the sisters to play against each other back then, so a family decision was made to avoid a head-to-head match in Indian Wells.

Many others had a different opinion and believed that Venus Williams was indeed injured. For example, I asked Bud Collins, and he flatly refused to believe that any such deal was made. (For the record, I adore the Williams sisters and have written about them many times for European publications.)

When Serena later faced off against Kim Clijsters in the final, thousands of fans were still pissed about what happened at the semifinals. They booed Serena (and Venus, as she watched) from the start to the finish of the match, which Serena won. In my 18 years covering this tournament, I’ve never seen such a fiasco! After the match, Richard Williams claimed that a fan insulted him by using a racial slur. Ever since, Venus and Serena Williams have boycotted the Indian Wells tourney.

To this day, some media outlets claim that the whole affair was based on racial discrimination. I believe that most of the crowd anger came not from racism, but from Venus’ suspicious last-minute decision—mere minutes before the match’s scheduled start—to forfeit. The fans felt betrayed! These same fans had embraced the Williams sisters in the previous years; after all, they were the big American tennis hopes for years to come!

Well, 13 years have passed since the scandal. In the months leading up to this year’s BNP Paribas Open, Serena hinted that she might be coming back to the desert this year. Alas, it didn’t work out this season.

She’s still the biggest and richest female tennis star on the planet—and such a grand tourney needs the greatest champions, especially the greatest American tennis champions. Let’s all hope for Serena Williams’ return to Indian Wells in March 2015.

Published in Features