What Indian Wells Taught Us

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Bill Simons

“It’s been a long –

A long time comin‘ –

But I know a change gonna come

Oh, yes, it will!”

~ Sam Cooke

The sky seemed to be falling. The bad-boy duo of Jimmy Connors and the even naughtier John McEnroe began to get a bit long in the tooth – and a certain desperation set in. Have mercy! Tennis would never be the same again.

But four swashbuckling lads – tennis’ answer to the Beatles – emerged. Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang took the game to new heights. Sadly, they, too, aged, and left the game. Once again, a palpable panic descended. Certainly there would be a void. The American guys named Andy Roddick, James Blake and John Isner weren’t at all shabby. Yet it was an array of superstars – Roger, Rafa, Serena and Venus – who brought an unprecedented dazzle to the game. We’d never relished such a galaxy of stars.

But the past two years have shaken tennis. In 2020 the game was knocked off its orbit. Then this year Rafa didn’t even make the French Open finals. The last time we saw Roger he was on crutches at the Laver Cup. A hobbled Serena stumbled out of Wimbledon and hasn’t played since, and Venus is ranked No. 147.

Tennis lovers wonder once again, Will the game still thrive? What’s next for a sport that’s dependent on appealing, ascendant stars? Can anyone fill the void that certainly will descend?

Daniil Medvedev is fleet and fine. The 25-year-old has long displayed his lanky style and quirky personality, and now he’s won a Slam title. But does the Russian have the magic to be a superstar?

Alexander Zverev has an imposing game, but an off-court issue lingers. The long-haired, brooding Stefanos Tsitsipas is a rising Greek god, right? But first he’s got to win a major title and again flash the appealing, inquisitive, free-form side of his personality. 

Speaking of appeal, young Emma Raducanu, Leylah Fernandez, Coco Gauff and the newly minted Indian Wells champ Paula Bedosa all have had stunning moments. But, goodness, Roger, Rafa, Novak, Serena and Venus, with their crowded trophy cases and over-the-top magnetism, have lifted the standards of tennis stardom to Himalayan heights.  

Amidst all this turmoil, enter the 2021 BNP Paribas Open. Rarely has there been a tennis tournament that can be seen from either a glass half-full or half-empty perspective. Optimists point out that the tournament was perhaps the hardest hit major sporting event in the world. Nineteen months ago, the Coachella Valley’s annual feel-good tennis festival was canceled. Our dismal COVID era had begun. The tourney’s return may not be quite as miraculous as the staging of the 2020 US Open, but it’s just wonderful that it even happened. 

It would have been awful to have a full two-year gap in play. So many were uplifted to see tennis in action. Many great storylines emerged, like the triumphs of a little-known Brazilian woman and the beloved Tunisian pioneer Ons Jabeur, and the breakout runs of Californian Taylor Fritz and Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov. 

Photo by Getty Images

In the scintillating women’s final, Vika Azarenenka was an inspiration. 

The tourney gave us two shock winners. If you chose Spaniard Paula Badosa and Brit Cameron Norrie to prevail, please go get me a lottery ticket. Not surprisingly, attendance was way off at Indian Wells. Sometimes the second biggest stadium in the world was close to empty, and at times the atmosphere was hardly rollicking.

But then again, this BNP Paribas Open was a pop-up tournament, filling in a one-off slot in the calendar. Tennis fans who are locked into their habitual patterns weren’t exactly expecting big-time tennis in the desert in October. Plus fans had to be vaccinated, kids under 12 weren’t allowed and many of the big names in the game were no-shows. 

Still, continuity is essential. And, guess what? Sometimes you just have to show up. Hard-core and casual fans alike relished a tournament that came through in the end with a classic battle. Fans roared. The Badosa vs. Azarenka instant classic reminded us that this game inevitably delivers compelling drama and pathos, even if no one named Roger, Rafa or Serena is in the arena.

Well done, Indian Wells.

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