Old and New, Victory and Defeat and the New and the Religion of Naomi Osaka

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Felix Auger-Aliassime: languid elegance with power. Photo by Harjanto Sumali

Bill Simons

Indian Wells

CONSTITUTIONALLY CARILLO: When commentating on last night’s Mama Mia instant classic between Serena and Vika Azarenka, Mary Carillo said, “I love this match, I love the loud screams, the withering looks.” As for Petra Kvitova, Carillo said, “She is constitutionally classy.”

NAOMI’S TRUE TO HER RELIGION: We thought it was impossible. But after her win tonight over Kristina Mladenovic, Naomi Osaka actually gave a pleasant, but rather boring on-court interview. Why? ­She never does that. It’s as if it’s against her religion. And maybe she sensed that, too. So she took the initiative and out of nowhere spoke of some spectators that caught her fancy. “They’re not here anymore,” she said. “But there were these three kids sitting right there and [every time] I looked up they were dancing and it was super cute.” She then went on: “And a shout-out to the guy who told me it’s super cold and I want to go home so please finish this.”

EVERYTHING CHANGES, NOTHING CHANGES: Life, and for that matter tennis, is all about perspective. To many over the past years, not much has changed. Novak, Roger and Rafa have dominated, winning 52 of the last 63 Slams – mind-boggling. To others, everything is changing. Emerging ATP players are grabbing titles everywhere. Russian Karen Khachanov won the Paris Masters. Alexander Zverev won the ATP Championships in London and is now No. 3. Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Roger Federer in Melbourne, won Marseille, reached the Dubai final and is now No. 10.

The Next Gen surge came to the fore last summer in Washington D.C when the four players in the semis were youngsters Andrey Rublev, Alex deMinauar, Tsitsipas and  Zverev – and the 21-year-old German was teased for being the oldest guy in the locker room.

In a similar vein, Canada’s young turk Felix Auger-Aliassime shocked the “old Greek,” 20-year old Tstitsipas, 6-4, 6-2 to score his first-ever win over a top ten player. Then again, Felix dominates the Greek. In three previous meetings in the juniors, he never lost. He has an easy power and offers hints of elegance. Somehow, he brings to mind the young Arthur Ashe. He’s quiet, languid, a little indrawn and great fun to watch. And he plays with power. He says his strengths are his instincts, aggressive shots and belief. Unlike Ashe, he loves clay. He often plays on the slow stuff and recently reached the finals of the Brazil Open. He feels he can win on all surfaces.

Sometimes Auger-Aliassime is referred to by his initials, FAA, and he confides he doesn’t know what his limits are. What 18-year-olds do? FAA started the year at No. 108. We asked the personable prospect about his dreams. He replied, “I want to feel all the emotions I can feel on these courts.”

For all the wonders of the young guns of tennis, the game’s elders were holding their own. Last night 37-year old Serena amazed in her “Mama Mia Battle of the WTA Mothers” against Vika Azarenka. Then. within 22 hours, her older sister Venus, 38, came from a set and two breaks down to score a popular three-set win over another two-time Slam winner, Petra Kvitova. Venus noted that the crowd was behind her all the way to match point. She added, “I just love the battle. I could feel the collective sigh or the collective roar.”

Of course, another thirty-something star, 37-year old Roger Federer, according to many is the sweetest candy in the tennis universe. And then there are the ancient ones – the 40-year olds. Bob Bryan amazingly became the first player to return successfully to the tour after a serious hip injury. His brother Mike is the No. 1 doubles player in the world. They’ve already won a title this year and they prevailed today. In the first round, the timeless giant Ivo Karlovic surpassed Jimmy Connors and Tommy Haas to become the oldest winner in the history of the Masters Series. Then he backed it up with a stunning win over his fellow Croatian, No. 11 seed Borna Coric, who reached the Indian Wells semis last year and is only 18 years younger the Karlovic. A year ago Auger-Aliassime became the youngest Indian Wells winner since 1990. Today he was the talk of this desert town.

PEOPLE WATCHING TO THE MAX: Is the first Saturday at Indian Wells the best people watching in tennis? Okay, there are more A-list show biz and political celebs at the US Open. The French Open attracts stylish continental stars and soccer superstars. People who Wimbledon asserts are “the good and the great,” are spotted sitting in the Royal Box next to a Duchess or Duke. But here on the first weekend, there are young players like Taylor Fritz, old players like Venus, doubles players like the Bryans, injured players like Bethanie Mattek-Sands, legends like Sampras and Lendl, former women players who were supposed to be Davis Cup captains, like Amelie Mauresmo, and former players like Mardy Fish who is a Davis Cup Captain. There are Indians ordering pasta and talking about cricket, power agents telling reporters they can do this but not that, and star coaches like Patrick Mouratoglou, player development gurus, Team Tennis chiefs, federation officials and parents licking their wounds after their kid has suffered defeat. It’s a dizzying array filled with energy, and lots of fun.  

A SENSE OF LOSS: Within hours two of the most charismatic young players in the game, Marseille winner Stefanos Tsitsipas and Acapulco champ Nick Kyrgios, were bumped out of Indian Wells. About ten days ago, Aussie Nick was No. 72. Then he beat Rafa, Stan Wawrinka, John Isner and Zverev to prevail in Mexico. Today he lost to 35-year old Philipp Kohlschreiber…Eighteen months ago American Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys met in the US Open final. Here neither of the struggling Americans won a match. Sloane is one of the most up-and-down players in the WTA. No. 17 Keys has had extensive health problems and today struggled with her backhand as she fell to No. 97 Mona Barthel from Germany.

DEADLIEST ANALYST OF THE TOURNEY: Jim Courier noted that during his match against Djokovic, American Bjorn Fratangelo was going back to his usual power strokes and observed, “Unfortunately he’s reverted to what’s comfortable…and that’s a death sentence for him.”

A TALE OF TWO GLADYS: “It was a good day for Knight,” quipped one reporter. Translation: legendary singer and big-time tennis fan Gladys Knight drew adoring cheers in Indian Wells. Tomorrow Julie Heldman will be in town promoting her book which offers an unvarnished view of the maternal abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother Gladys, the pioneer who edited World Tennis magazine and was key to the creation of the women’s circuit.

HOW MANY TIMES? In a 30-stroke point against Bjorn Fratangelo in which Novak Djokovic again showed his speed, court coverage and flexibility, Ted Robinson asked, “How many winners do you have to hit to beat No. 1?” Jim Courier replied, “On this point it wasn’t enough.”

STAN’S STANCE ON KERMODE: When asked about this week’s ouster of ATP President Chris Kermode, Stan Wawrinka said, “I’m really, really sad and disappointed…If you look what Chris achieved for the tennis, for every player, for every fan, for everyone around tennis, it’s been amazing.

“So it was really sad news…I know a few players don’t like this decision, but I don’t know about every player…I would say, the funny part…is that it’s not like there is another option yet, or at least I don’t know.

“I would say it’s surprising and strange. I would like to know exactly what they think…because that’s the most important thing. When you change someone from that spot…who’s doing so well since a few years, you need to have another option.”

When Wawrinka was asked if he had “any sense of the issues” against Kermode, he replied, “Not really…I’m not in the council…[but] for me, it’s not the right decision.”

The Swiss then spoke about decision-making in the sport, saying, “There is some problem in general in politics, in tennis, in governance in the board, in everything. There is a lot of things happening that I don’t think are right. But at the same time, we have a council with players that are doing a lot of work [and spending] a lot of time, and they make the decision.

So if you want to change that, you need to be on the council…I’m not spending the hours and the time they are. I also know that there are some people in the board that shouldn’t be in the board.”

QUOTEBOOK:

“Either you take the racket out of Djokovic’s hands [with power], or you confuse him with different spins and styles” – Jim Courier

“Maybe lie on my bed and sleep and try to forget.” – Petra Kvitova after being asked after her loss to Venus whether there was anything she was looking forward to

“It’s going to be a while before either of these two are going to get their AARP cards.” Bret Haber while commentating on the match between Felix Auger-Aliassime, 18, and Stefanos Tsitsipas, 20.

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