Big Foe Falls to Big Foe

Photo by Harjanto Sumali

Bill Simons

Indian Wells

Tennis is crowded with great origin stories. Richard Williams dreamed up the idea of having a couple of daughters and taking the tennis world by storm. Michael Agassi dangled a tennis ball above the head of his infant son Andre in the kid’s crib. And, as a child, Frances Tiafoe slept with his father in a tiny maintenance room at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in Maryland, where his dad was the academy’s maintenance man.

Tiafoe has come a long way since then. Here at the BNP Paribas Open he’s staying at a glorious estate that’s to die for, where – eat your heart out, Motel 6 – villas go for $350,000 a weekend.

A couple of weeks ago Tiafoe was schmoozing with LeBron James and Steph Curry at the NBA All-Star game. More importantly, he’s been a key member of the strength-in-numbers surge in American tennis. There are now 10 US men in the top 60. But it’s America’s Big Three who’ve really been making runs recently.

Taylor Fritz, who won Indian Wells last year, reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals and got up to No. 5. With his backhand in place and speed on display, Tommy Paul reached the Australian Open semis.

Frances Tiafoe hasn’t been too shabby either. He reached the US Open semis, was a star at the Rod Laver Cup and became the last American standing at Indian Wells, where he reached his first ever Masters 1000 semis.

Unfortunately “Big Foe,” as the 25-year-old is known, had to face a big foe himself – a 6 ‘6” slinky former No. 1. This week Daniil Medvedev had endured a cut thumb, a badly twisted ankle, questions about his Russian homeland and what he thought were ridiculously slow courts.  

The hottest player in the world has won three tourneys in a row: Rotterdam, Doha, and Dubai. The ATP noted, “With 18 wins in 30 days across three continents, four countries and 12 time zones, nobody needed two days off the ATP tour more than Daniil Medvedev.”

From the outset, Tiafoe showed 14,500 adoring fans his power serves, his sprinter’s speed, an NBA-like athleticism, his unconventional but nasty forehand, a nervy willingness to charge the net and his astonishing volleys. And does any pro player (other than Nick Kyrgios) love the big stage as much as Frances?

Midway through the first set Tiafoe saved three break points. But Daniil was on fire. Well rested and playing with ease, here was a master in his studio, painting a compelling picture. Dashing with ease, Medvedev dominated from the baseline as he took advantage of too many forced and unforced Tiafoe errors.

After winning the first set 7-5, Medvedev broke early in the second set. Tiafoe countered by tapping his inner Stefan Edberg. He charged the net and tried to impose with powerful returns. But Medvedev is one of the greatest power absorbers in the game. His long-armed wrap-around shots bring to mind Shiva, the Indian god. Tiafoe responded with devilish dinks. 

But the fastest big man in tennis history retrieved with uncanny anticipation and blasted brilliant, deep groundies from the corners. After one astonishing running forehand that dipped onto the line, Tennis Channel gushed, “Can you believe it? This is what confidence looks like!” 

Twice Medvedev served for the match. But Tiafoe is a gritty fighter, and vastly improved. He saved three match points, and, thanks to a brave backhand and a Medvedev double fault, evened matters deep into the second set. But then the American let down his guard and the Russian broke at love. 

In the next game, Tiafoe saved four more match points. But Medvedev ran away with the tiebreak, and, on his eighth match point, blasted an ace. He offered a wry smile of relief and shook his head. 

His 7-5, 7-6(4) win propelled him into the final, where he’ll be seeking his 19th title and his first at Indian Wells. He’s now within a match of becoming the first man to win four titles in five weeks since Andy Murray in 2016.

Medvedev told the press, “It was a crazy match. It’s always best to finish a match on your first match point, not your eighth.” He confided that he wouldn’t have nightmares that night – he’d sleep well. He’ll face the powerful and vastly popular No. 1 seed Carlos Alcaraz  in Sunday’s championship match. Daniil is seeking his fifth Masters 1000 crown and his first Indian Wells title.

OF LUXURY DIGS AND LAUNDRY NIGHTMARES: Frances Tiafoe is staying at the Zenyara Resort, where the luxury villas go for only $350,000 a weekend. Roger Federer would always rent a house for his family and team directly across the street from Wimbledon. In New York, he stayed so often at the Carlyle hotel that they named his suite the Roger Federer Suite. During the US Open, Novak Djokovic used to stay at a millionaire’s New Jersey estate that had its own court, which was just like Arthur Ashe Stadium. During the French Open, Serena Williams would stay in her own Paris apartment. Similarly, while playing the US Open, Ivan Lendl stayed in his own Greenwich home. 

Golf lover Rafa Nadal often stayed at Larry Ellison’s Porcupine Creek estate in Rancho Mirage, where he enjoyed playing on its superb golf course. That said, while he was at the Olympics, Rafa liked to stay, at least briefly, in the Olympic village. There, the British gold-medal cyclist Jamie Staff spotted Rafa in the laundry room. Staff recalled, “I didn’t bother him, but he was shoving all his colors and whites in together. I really wanted to say, ‘Dude, you’re going to have a nightmare with that. You can’t just put the whole bag in — there are reds in with whites.’ But what can you do?” 

ARYNA ARENA: Oddly, the center court at Indian Wells is kind of nameless. It’s called Stadium 1. But why not call it Pasarell Stadium for Charlie Pasarell, who was the godfather of the BNP Paribas Open? In any case, on-court announcer Andrew Krasny suggested that if Aryna Sabalenka takes the title Sunday, the stadium should be named Aryna Arena.

CZECH MATES: Czech duo and No.1 seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova beat Laura Siegemund and Beatriz Haddad Maia 6-1, 6-7(3), 10-7 to claim the Indian Wells women’s doubles title. The pair have won eight Grand Slam titles and completed a career Super Slam – all 4 Grand Slams, an Olympic gold medal, and the WTA Championship. Former French Open champion Krejcikova thanked her skilled but high-strung long-time partner Siniakova, saying, “It’s always stressful for me [to play with you], but I enjoy it.”

HERE WE GO AGAIN: Tomorrow’s women’s final will be a rematch of the Aussie Open final between Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka and Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina. Sabalenka has reached the finals of the three biggest recent WTA events and has an 17-1 record this year. Wimbledon champ Rybakina has been hitting out all week. She totally destroyed No. 1 Iga Swiatek 6-2, 6-2.



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