Indian Wells Opening Day – The Gathering of the Tribe

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

THE GATHERING OF THE TRIBE: Six times a year we gather. The tennis tribe comes together for the biggest events of the game.

Aussies board trains on Melbourne’s trolleys with their quaint bells. The festive Miami Open draws lively fans from South America and beyond. Paris’s Metro and its broad boulevards swell for the French Open. Proper British grandparents from Yorkshire and their wide-eyed families traipse down Church Road as if on pilgrimage, eager to get to the First Church of Tennis: Wimbledon. New Yorkers jam onto the # 7 subway to get to the rowdy US Open.

In California, Interstate 10 brings thousands inland from the coast until billboards for upcoming shows and caring senior homes remind them they’re in the Coachella Valley.

The flight into Palm Springs, over snowy passes and copper mountains, reveals the expansive desert and the city, with its orange tile roofs and countless fairways. It is a sublime descent, in tennis only rivaled by flying above Manhattan’s mighty skyscrapers.

Post-Covid, few take the good things in life for granted. And, as hundreds of thousands start to gather for the two-week tennis celebration that was so battered by the pandemic, I feel excitement and gratitude.

THE UKRAINIAN FLAG FLIES HIGH: In a wonderful symbolic gesture, last year the BNP Paribas Open flew the Ukrainian flag atop Stadium 1, right by the Stars and Stripes. This year they could have taken it down, but the now familiar blue and yellow banner is again flying over Indian Wells’s prime stadium. 

NO KIDDING: The headline of Art Spander’s piece on Indian Wells read, “Djokovic’s absence is not a shot in the arm.”

INTRO OF THE DAY: An Indian Wells announcer introduced University of Georgia product John Isner by proclaiming, “Once you are a Bulldog, you are always a Bulldog.”

RUSSIAN MEDVEDEV AND THE UKRAINE: Russians Andrey Rublev and Daria Kasatkina have bravely spoken out for peace. But a year ago Daniil Medvedev said it would take 10 or 20 years to figure out what was going on in Ukraine, and that everyone had their own opinion. 

Perhaps understandably, the No. 1 Russian hasn’t ever really come out against the war. So Inside Tennis asked him, “What are your feelings on the war? Do you have a fear of speaking out?” The personable Moscow native replied, “I said it so many times, I am not going to say anything new. I’m for peace. Everyone around me knows. Everyone around me, everyone in the locker room knows this.

“They know I can be a little bit crazy on court but then I feel like I have a good relationship with all the players and it doesn’t matter which country you are from…That’s why I think tennis is such a great sport because we have the ability to travel all around the world…I have been in 60 countries…and that’s what I like doing…[Tennis] is the thing I do best in my life…That’s the only thing I can do.”

Inside Tennis asked, “Would you like to see the war end?” But the interview moderator stepped in and didn’t allow Daniil to answer.

HEAVY IS THE CROWN: We asked Iga Swiatek about the pressure of being No. 1 and what she likes most and least about being atop the rankings. The 21-year-old admitted that her breakthrough year in 2022 “spoiled me a little bit.” She added that the pressure of being No. 1 is “the biggest issue for sure…[When I was young] I didn’t even dream about it because I thought it wasn’t possible…[Being No. 1] is a feeling anyone would want, but for sure it comes with a lot of pressure and expectations…I felt the pressure increase strongly because I won the WTA 500 [in Doha]…but still, I lost in [the Dubai final] and people were surprised…[and] critical.

“Last year, before my huge [37-match] streak and before winning all these tournaments, I would have been so happy with the result. But because of those comments, I felt like [reaching the Dubai final] was not enough. So I’m trying not to read a lot of these things. I don’t want it to influence me because I’m happy with the work I’ve done and how I played in Doha. But this is an example of how people’s attitudes change a little bit and I don’t think it’s a positive change…[But] I think I’m doing good.”

AMERICANS RANK HIGH: Never mind that Taylor Fritz has a lot of points to defend at Indian Wells – he’s been camping out at No. 5 in the rankings for a good stretch. Fellow American Frances Tiafoe is No. 16. And Tommy Paul, with his run to the Australian semis and the Mexican Open finals, has risen to No. 19. So, for the first time since July 2018, when Jack Sock, John Isner and Sam Querrey were bringing it, the US has three male players in the top 20. There are also three Russians in the Top 20: No. 6 Medvedev, No. 7 Andrey Rublev and No. 15 Karen Khachanov. 

America is the only country with two WTA players in the top ten. Jessica Pegula is No. 3 and Coco Gauff is No. 6. Russia has four WTA players in the top 20: No. 8 Daria Kasatkina, No. 11 Veronika Kudermetova, No. 12 Ludmilla Samsonova and No. 18 Ekaterina Alexandrova.

TAYLOR’S PAIN: Taylor Fritz is young and strong and known for his ability to recover from severe injuries. He was wheeled off the court at the 2021 French Open with a severe knee injury, but three weeks later he played Wimbledon. Last year, Fritz famously won Indian Wells on a bum ankle. Last week, deep into the Mexican Open, he endured excruciating full body cramps. He couldn’t get an IV because they were banned. He said he’d never felt more pain.

Now, Taylor says he feels 100%. As for the stress of defending his title, he commented, “Everything’s been great. I’m just super happy to be here…I’m not stressing out a lot.”

SAY IT ISN’T SO: Stefanos Tsitsipas said that because of his shoulder injury he’s never practiced so little for a tournament, and he doesn’t expect to go far at Indian Wells or the Miami Open.

GIANT KILLER: San Diego’s Brandon Nakashima, who’s 6’ 2”, downed the 6’ 10” John Isner 7-6 (7), 6-3. Brandon next faces 6′ 6″ Medvedev.   

THUS SPOKE THE MINISTER OF HAPPINESS: Ons Jabeur, who’s known as the Minister of Happiness, observed, “Politics is a mess. I hate politics because there are a lot of lies…For me, tennis is a beautiful sport.”

MEXICO GETS IT RIGHT: ​​We aren’t sure why it’s taken tennis so long. The sport is one we so often watch on TV, yet time and again its yellow balls don’t stand out as they are hit. Years ago the Madrid Open had a bright blue court and the ball stood out. But players hated the slippery clay-like surface. So blue clay was promptly and permanently banned. But last week, the Mexican Open in Acapulco got it just right. It featured a super bright blue, almost purple court. And it was really easy to see the balls as they flew back and forth.

THE BEAUTY OF SPORTS: Iga Swiatek reflected on her childhood in Poland, recalling that her advancement was based on her father’s support. She said, “In sports, the beautiful thing is that it doesn’t matter where you start from. If you have talent and if you’re going to work hard…you’re going to succeed.”

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