Bill Simons and Douglas Hochmuth
A ROUGH DAY AT THE OFFICE FOR NOVAK: In Australia, Rafa Nadal went into the finals on a tear. He demolished one foe after another and hadn’t dropped a set. Then he got destroyed by Novak Djokovic. Nole said he felt divine on court. He seemed to be flirting with perfection. Some claimed he took the game to a new level. The Serb collected his third Slam in a row.
Going into the BNP Paribas Open, the question was simple. Would Rafa or Roger be able to stop Djokovic? Or maybe it might be No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev, or Stefanos Tsitsipas. Few would have said it would be veteran journeyman Philipp Kohlschreiber. Yes, the 35-year old is a great, savvy player. For 18 years he’s thrived on the tour and is now ranked No. 39. But the German hadn’t beaten Djokovic in ten years and is 1-8 overall against him. And he’s a bit of a glutton for punishment. He’s a combined 2-37 vs. Nole, Rafa and Roger, and he’d never before beaten a No. 1 player.
Long ago, Djokovic took off to Germany to craft his game. Today the German took it to the Serb, 6-4, 6-4 in a tidy 1:38. In Melbourne, Djokovic had moved with lightning speed and a pristine precision. He’d dominated and he’d had all the answers against Rafa.
Today, it was “No way, Nole!” His forehands drifted. He shanked some backhands. His drop shots landed in the alleys. One of his overheads went three feet long. His groundies were slower than usual. In his straight-set win in the Aussie Open final, he had just nine errors. In two sets today he had 32. And, goodness, at times he even seemed off balance. He couldn’t convert four key first-set breakpoints. He ran nearly a half mile more than his foe.
And, of course, observers know you really don’t want to face Kohlschreiber early in a tournament. Yes, he’s lost four times in the first round this year. And, yes, he’s never gotten beyond the quarters in the 147 Slams and Masters he’s played. But if you can’t overpower Philipp, he’s a real threat. Just ask a generation or two, or three – from Andy Roddick and Andy Murray to Nick Kyrgios (whom Kohlschreiber downed in the second round) or a man named Nole who’ll soon be taking a one-way flight to Miami.
THE HAPPIEST MAN IN THE DESERT? Do you think Gael Monfils is pleased that Kohlschreiber beat Djokovic? The Frenchman is 0-15 vs. Novak and he has a dominant 13-2 record over Philipp.
NAOMI MAGIC PUT ON PAUSE: You could say the magic started here a year ago. Going into the 2018 Indian Wells tournament, Naomi Osaka was ranked No. 44, well under the radar. Insiders knew her as a delightful kid. Only devoted fans knew any of the details of her five years on tour. In the desert she beat Sharapova, Halep, and Daria Kasatkina, and then offered a delightful if somewhat dizzy acceptance speech. She would promptly beat Serena in Miami, survive the turmoil of her New York win and then show incredible resilience in Melbourne.
Suddenly she was big. No, she was huge. Osaka not only became No. 1 in tennis, she was Asia’s biggest female star since Li Na. “How will it feel to be the face of the Tokyo Olympics?” she was asked.
But there were issues. In Australia, she said she wasn’t talking before matches to her coach, Sascha Bajin. She lost in the first round at Dubai. She booted Bajin out and brought in a new mentor, Jermaine Jenkins. But today, in her third round matchup against an in-form Belinda Bencic, she seemed listless and error-prone, as she fell to a 1-5 deficit in the first set. Bencic, who’s struggled with a long list of wretched injuries, has been anything but listless of late. En route to her Dubai final she beat four top ten players, Sabalenka, Svitolina, former No. 1 Halep and two-time Wimbledon champ Kvitova.
Head down, shots flying, Osaka bent over in frustration and went down on one knee. She gently talked to herself and twice called her coach on court. But nothing worked as she fell 6-3, 6-1 in 1:07. Within hours, both the world’s No. 1’s, Djokovic and Osaka, had fallen. The incredibly popular Japanese star fell short in her first attempt to defend a crown. But few doubt there are many titles in her future for this brilliantly gifted 21-year-old.
GOOD DAY, BAD DAY: After her Tennis Channel partner said, “Good day for Canada, good day for Switzerland,” Tracy Austin quipped, “Bad day for No. 1’s.”
A LITTLE MIRACLE FOR A BIG MAN: John Isner is the only American man left in the singles draw, and today he beat Guido Pella. Here’s a miracle: he did it without playing a tiebreaker. He’ll next play 22-year-old Karen Khachanov, who won the Paris Masters. But here’s the bad news: Isner is 0-3 versus the Russian.
KYRGIOS COMMENTARIES: When some broadcasters suggested that Djokovic might have lost to Philipp Kohlschreiber because he was sick, Nick Kyrgios tweeted: “Lol yeah, something has to be wrong with him right? I lose to Kholi and get absolutely shredded ‘same old Kyrgios’ how about the guy is just good? And he knows how to win matches? Hate this, why we always gotta kiss these guys when they lose.”…Kyrios also sent out a tweet on Shapavolov In reference to Shapovalov’s on-court rap. He said, “As much as you are an absolute gun, and gonna be crazy good for many many years, this was tough to watch my guy.”
By the way, for all of you fans of Canadian rap, here is the song Shapovalov sang in one of the boldest post-match performance since Djokovic did his hilarious imitations year ago.
IN ROGER’S SHADOW: Stan Wawrinka has won over $32 million. He’s lifted the trophies at the French, Australian and US Opens. He has an Olympic Gold medal in his trophy case. What he doesn’t have is worldwide adoration, or a $310 million apparel deal. He doesn’t routinely fill up big stadiums in huge cities, like London and New York, or arenas in deserts, like Dubai and Indian Wells. If you’re a Swiss tennis fellow it’s not easy not being Roger. Federer is adored. He casts a shadow like a mighty Alpine peak.
When Roger changed his shirt on court the other day the crowd went bananas. Body-watchers in tennis know that Stan Wawrinka has the best barrel chest in the ATP. Yet Stan the Man has few groupies.
Roger’s backhand is celebrated as the most beautiful shot in tennis history. But Wawrinka probably has the most powerful one-handed backhand in the game. And he may have the best forehand-backhand package as well. Who can really match his imposing one-two punch?
Although there have been some painful bumps in the road, Wawrinka and Federer are friends. They teamed up to win the 2008 Olympic doubles gold medal and the 2014 Davis Cup. But tonight, Roger retained his title as the alpha male of Swiss tennis. He beat Stan 6-3, 6-4 in 59 minutes.
STARS FADING FAST: Many a star has already departed from Indian Wells, including Serena, Djokovic, Osaka, Kyrgios, Zverev, Tsitsipas, Stephens, Keys, Halep, Kvitova, Nishikori and Cilic.
BETTER RESEARCH, BUDDY: After a non-professional in the press room asked Federer if he’ll play Davis Cup, Roger replied that he can’t play because Switzerland didn’t qualify. Roger added, “There goes your question. Better research next time, buddy.”