At Last Some Desert Normalcy: Alcaraz and Swiatek Win Again

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Bill Simons

Indian Wells

At Indian Wells there was one thing we’ve come to expect: the unexpected. 

We expected that Rafa’s long-awaited return would thrill fans. But Rafa broke hearts when he pulled out.  

We expected the greatest male player of all time, Novak Djokovic, would take over the mantle of the Big 3 and rule supreme. But some kid from Italy, No. 123 Luca Nardi, who’s had a poster of the GOAT in his bedroom for 12 years, posterized Novak in the second round. 

We expected the queen of tennis, Iga Swiatek, to make all kinds of news. She did.  She quietly won her second Indian Wells title. But it was an unnamed Queen Bee who made even more buzz when she decided to leave her hive. Thousands of her devotees followed. Chaos ensued. Tennis stopped. 

And tennis also stopped when the premier tournament in “It Never Rains in Southern California” did its best imitation of soggy Wimbledon. 

Today, there were more surprises.  When I was asking Carlos Alcaraz a question in the press room one of those annoying false alarm announcements suddenly started. “Attention, attention. An emergency has been recorded. Please cease operations and leave the building. Do not use the elevator.” The invasive warning repeated time and again. 

More to the point, time and again throughout the tourney we saw the young mastery of Carlos Alcaraz.

Yes, in today’s final against the Russian octopus Daniil Medvedev, the Spaniard again got off to a slow start. We saw little of the explosive shotmaking savant that had subdued Alexander Zverev and Jannik Sinner. The Spanish man-child was broken early in the first set and fell behind 3-0. Would we again be seeing the kid whose play for eight months had been spotty and whose belief had been torpedoed by doubts? He hadn’t won since Wimbledon. He lost to Medvedev at the US Open and, before Indian Wells, his confidence had dipped and unsparing social media critics threw shade and spears.

But not to worry, on a glorious afternoon, Alcaraz soon tapped into his glorious game. He broke back to even the set at 3-3. Then he completely whiffed on an overhead and madly scrambled to recover. Somehow the great escape artist miraculously got back into the point, before he hit a sizzling forehand passing shot. The crowd was in awe.

It was said that John McEnroe had to have at least one snit-fit per match. It seems there may now be a tennis law that requires Carlitos to create at least a couple of magical, mind-boggling, “that was totally impossible” shots per match. 

The No. 2 player in the world, Spain’s 20-year old bounding champ who gifts us with his smile, and the No.4 player, the savvy on-court chess master who is the best defensive warrior in the tennis world, almost inevitably battled their way to a tie-break.

As if on cue, Alcaraz blasted a punishing forehand and a flawless swinging volley, to score a mini break to start the tiebreak and when a Medvedev forehand flew wide, Carlos claimed the first set 7-6(5).  Courtside, and atop the stadium, Spanish flags waved. 

“Carlos Alcaraz is the sport’s glee-maker,” said one creative observer in the corner of the press box.

Carlos continually pounded Medvedev’s modest second serve. The Russian didn’t have much that could hurt the Spaniard, who used his speed, his astonishing reared-on-clay drop shots and an ascendent athleticism to prevail.

Yes, at one point during a spat about a replay, Medvedev mumbled, “Tennis is such a shit sport.” But overall we saw little of the in-your-face ‘tude’ Daniil likes to bring to matches. Where did his piss and vinegar go?  

Carlos unleashed a brilliant down the line backhand and a blazing forehand return of serve to break Daniil and go up 2-0 in the second set. He didn’t look back as he sprinted to win 7-6(5), 6-1 and claim his 12th straight BNP Paribas Open match. 

He became the first player since Novak Djokovic to win back-to-back Indian Wells crowns. Only he and another Spaniard you may have heard of, Senor Nadal, have won five Masters titles before they were 21. And Cariltos has already defended one of his titles three different times.

But today was far more than numbers. After eight months of bumps, setbacks, injuries, confusion and heartbreaking defeats (like his soul-shaking loss to Djokovic in Cincinnati,) the young champion was back in gear. His emotions soared.  

Tennis is amazing. Today, a chic California crowd of 16,000 fans shrieked with joy for Alcaraz. Never mind that the kid is from a little Spanish City, Murcia, some 5,967 miles away from this beautiful resort valley.

“It’s amazing having such a great crowd,” said Carlos. “Having such energy, love from the people, playing in another part of the world. I’m a lucky guy… receiving this energy in every match, in every practice, in every place that I’m going. It’s something crazy.”

And you know what else is crazy? Carlos Alcaraz.

Photo by Michael Kheir

IGA BAKES AGAIN: Richard Williams once said that his daughter should forget tennis and become a computer analyst. She’d make more money.

These days, Iga Swiatek might want to open a bakery. Five of her six matches here at Indian Wells featured a bagel or a breadstick. In her career, she’s won over 10% of her matches by a 6-0 scoreline.

But for about 15 minutes, we thought we might have a competitive final. Yes, Iga, the WTA’s dominant No. 1, had lost only 17 games in this year’s tourney. She’d been on court for only 5:56. We said there was a drumbeat of victory for Iga at Indian Wells.

And not surprisingly, the Pole, who’s only 22, rushed out to a 3-0 lead over the No. 9 seed, Maria Sakkari. 

But the resurgent, newly confident Greek, who has a new coach, scored gutsy wins over Emma Navaro and Coco Gauff here. And she fought back and won three games in a row to even the first set. 

Police sirens sounded in the desert. Was the Greek about to steal a win? But, at crunch time, Iga ran Maria from corner to corner, her topspin forehand did damage and she broke the Spartan to win the first set 6-4.

Then the dam broke, and Swiatek took an iron grip on the match and sprinted to a lopsided 6-4, 6-0 win.  It was an eerily similar (but even better) scoreline than the 2022 final, when she won 6-4, 6-1.

Analysts began to dissect Iga’s abilities: her forehand, her stutter step speed and athleticism. Iga herself told Inside Tennis her greatest strengths are “intensity… discipline and my topspin.”

“I needed to learn how to balance this intensity. When I was younger, I was more of a defensive player, and when I started working with Tomasz Wictorowski, he taught me how to be more aggressive…The discipline came when Daria [Abramowicz] came on the team and she taught me how to be more focused.”

At times at Indian Wells, it seemed as if Swiatek was toying with the field. She recorded four bagel sets. She rarely was behind. She won her eighth WTA 1000 title and is the ninth player to win two Indian Wells titles.

It would be a shock if some day soon she didn’t become the first player to win three titles here. 

As she left the court there was again a police presence on site. The tournament deejay played the Police hit, “Every little thing you do is magic.”

PARENTAL ADVICE OF THE TOURNEY: At 4-3 in first set of Alcaraz-Medvedev final the chair umpire Mo Lahyani turned to a fan struggling with her kid and said, “Please give the baby some love.”

STEPH AND NOVAK: One thing we know: Novak Djokovic doesn’t like to be out-done by Roger Federer. And after the Swiss met with the Golden State Warriors earlier this week, Novak Djokovic got going and went to the Lakers-Warriors game, where he gave a signed tennis racket  to Steph and the Warrior gave the ATP’s GOAT his No. 30 jersey. 

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