INDIAN WELLS, CALIF. — Tennis tournaments sometimes go viral. A decade ago, the U.S. Open did. Now, in Indian Wells, it’s the BNP Paribas Open’s turn. Speculation that the tournament might be shipped out to China or Arabia seems but a distant memory. Now the tournament has a happy deep-pocket sponsor — a French bank — and a happy deep-pocket owner — a billionaire from the Bronx, Larry Ellison — who hasn’t hesitated to spruce up the joint. Fans now enjoy bustling new pavilions, generous landscaping, a $350,000 spider camera, enough video walls to thrill any computer geek and Hawk-Eye technology on eight courts.
If you build it, they will come. So a record 350,000 fans descended on “The Happy Masters,” and the tournament responded with many a sizzling storyline.
There was a big upset. Donald Young, 21, demolished No. 4 Andy Murray. There was a big injury. Kim Clijsters opened the door for Marion Bartoli when she withdrew with a gimpy shoulder. Once imposing stars Dinara Safina, Maria (will she reach the top again?) Sharapova and Juan Martin Del Potro soldiered on. And, at last, there was a breakout performance of sorts by a young American. Ryan Harrison — just 18 but with good movement, strong defense and a fierce will — beat another phenom, Canadian Milos Raonic, and gave Roger Federer a spunky run. Plus, there was a jaw-dropping doubles tournament featuring nine of the top men and a Rafa vs. Roger doubles semi won by Fed and Stan Wawrinka. And, incredibly, Caroline Wozniacki — bright, bubbly and impenetrable — used her Danish defensive wizardry to sprint through the field, including the surprisingly resistant Marion Bartoli, with her two-handed attack off both sides.
Still, the BNP’s go-to events came at the business end of men’s play. Incredibly, the men’s semifinal lineup (Rafal Nadal vs. Del Potro, Federer vs. Djokovic) featured players who had claimed the last 24 Slams. Del Potro, the ’09 U.S. Open champ who had beaten Nadal in their last three meetings and has been staging a rousing comeback, took advantage of the Spaniard’s sloppy start to race out to a 4-1 lead. But Nadal, hitting high to his foe’s backhand, took Del Potro’s best shot and then broke down the gentle giant’s powerful, yet not necessarily imaginative game to win 6-4, 6-4 in what Nadal said was his best match of the tournament.
But, of course, the best player over the past six months has been Serb Novak Djokovic, who in the next semi tidily won his sixth consecutive set over Federer 6-3. Then Federer let his inner-genie out of the bottle — fabulous flat forehands, sublime movement. And abracadabra, there was all the old magic. Sprinting and briefly dominating, Fed took the second set 6-3 and was about to take a 3-2 lead in the third when, as Roger was serving, a fan yelled out “Go, Roger!”
He didn’t. Instead, inexplicably, he lost 12 straight points. Had The Mighty Fed ever suffered such a collapse? And as the Swiss genius lost the match 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 and fell to No. 3, voices rose to debate: Just how serious is the 29-year-old’s decline? The field is rising, noted some. Others suggested that Fed once was a .393 hitter, who’s now batting .324. Even a brain scientist chimed in. “Look in his eyes — see the quiver in his lips.”
Charlie Pasarell, the tournament’s Godfather, contended that Roger wasn’t “playing now like he used to…The game was so easy for him…Sometimes that can work against you. It’s not that you don’t work as hard, but you take for granted that you can do all the stuff and sometimes it just doesn’t happen that way…He miss-hit an awful lot of shots. His serve was very sporadic.”
Pasarell’s partner, Ray Moore, suggested, “A slight edge has gone off Roger’s game…When you’re younger, you’re single-minded and you’re focused.”
Recently, Djokovic has not only been single minded and more than confident as he’s unleashed one of the great streaks in recent times: U.S. Open finals? Check. Davis Cup title? Got it. Aussie Open crown? No problem. But during this half-year blitz, the Serb had TWICE lost to Nadal, who had beaten the Serb in all five of their finals and held an imposing 16-7 head-to-head record — took the first set 6-4. But his serve suddenly went AWOL, allowing the Serb to take the offensive. Scoring key breaks in marathon games and patiently collecting the second set on his sixth match point, Djokovic then surged to score a runaway 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory. With his upgraded court positioning, confidence, serve and groundies, the better-than-ever Djokovic had his 20th straight win. In just over 24 hours, he had out-powered and out-thought the two prevailing players of our era, who own 25 Slams between them. Then, in yet another notable Djokovic awards ceremony, Novak claimed his friend Nadal was the best player of all time. The ever-modest Nadal chuckled, thanked the Serb and insisted it’s “not true.” But Novak explained, “He’s the best ever because, even though he’s 24, he has done so much already. [There are] many years in front of him to even to overtake Roger in the Grand Slam trophies.”
Than again, at this rate, there just might soon be another “greatest player of all time.” After all, this Djok is serious.