Sabalenka: The Luckiest Woman in the World Shows her Grit

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Photo by Harjanto Sumali

Bill Simons

INDIAN WELLS

The other day when I presented Australian Open winner Aryna Sabalenka a big poster of the cover of Inside Tennis’ current issue, the cover girl with her beautiful smile beamed and commented, “At that moment, I felt like the luckiest woman in the world.” 

Tonight an enthralled near-capacity Indian Wells crowd was lucky to relish what was the match of the BNP Paribas Open and just maybe the woman’s match of the year, as the world No. 2 showed her championship mettle against Cincinnati’s Peyton Stearns who could not convert four match points in a 2:53 corner-to-corner battle that long will be remembered.

After losing the first set 7-6, last year’s runner-up convincingly took the second set 6-2, but then faltered badly in the third set. She suffered a key double fault, endured a wretched fall, twisted her ankle and seemed destined to suffer a stunning shock upset.

But Sabalenka is no longer the fragile flower who could be counted on to implode at crunch time. Instead the two-time Slam champ showed an iron will, extraordinary focus, power serves and a howitzer forehand that pushed Peyton to distant corners.

Stearns, a quintessential 22-year-old American battler, who already this year had lost five three-set matches, also displayed speed, athleticism and grit. But it was the bigger, more powerful and experienced Belarusian who pulled away midway through the deciding tiebreak to win 6-7 (2), 6-2, 7-6 (8). Courtside announcer Andrew Krasny told Aryna that tonight we saw her blood, sweat and tears. Sabalenka pointed to her feline tattoo and said “I fought like a tiger.” The 27-year old added, “this is a magical place and magic happened to me tonight.”

NO, NOVAK DIDN’T EAT MAO’S NET: While Novak Djokovic is widely said to be the GOAT, Edgar Snow, the biographer of Mao Tse Tung, reported that the Chinese revolutionary leader liked playing tennis until a goat ate his net.

SUNSET FOR AN AMERICAN GENERATION: Orange County’s favorite tennis son, Stevie Johnson, retired Tuesday. It was a poignant moment. His wife and two daughters looked on. Some recalled that the former USC star had two of the best records in college tennis history – four team championships with Peter Smith’s USC teams and two individual titles. Others reminisced about his extraordinary relationship with his late father, Steve Sr., who would often bring him to Indian Wells when he was a boy. And there was a silly debate: did he look best clean shaven, with a mustache or the beard he’s now sporting?

America’s best male player, Taylor Fritz, spoke of his countless practice sessions with Steve. Fritz hated having to deal with Johnson’s nasty backhand slice.

Taylor also noted that Stevie’s retirement marked the end of the post Andy Roddick-James Blake era. In 2022, former Wimbledon semi finalist Sam Querrey stepped aside. At the 2023 US Open, the best American player of that era, John Isner, retired. Many recalled his long career and the longest match that has been or will ever be played in tennis – his fabled Wimbledon marathon against Frenchman Nicolas Mahut. For 11 years, Isner camped outside of the top 10. 

Late last year, Jack Sock hung up his sneakers (and, of course, his socks). The 30-year-old claimed the 2017 Paris Masters and reached No. 8 and No. 1 in doubles. Earlier this year, the feisty journeyman Ryan Harrison, who was known for having the toughest draws you could concoct, also retired. 

The group was a battling band of brothers. But let’s face it: the Americans had to deal with tennis’ golden era, dominated by Novak, Roger and Rafa. During that stretch, Americans weren’t able to claim a Grand Slam or a Davis Cup Championship (or in contrast to Taylor Fritz) were able to break into the top 5. Still Fritz spoke with deep appreciation for the now retired generation who welcomed him so kindly to the not always kind world of pro tennis. 

BAREFOOT IN THE PARK: The grassy user-friendly player field across the walkway from Indian Wells’ Stadium 1 is one of tennis’ great people-watching sites west of Wimbledon’s Henman Hill. Here you’re likely to see a feisty ATP soccer game. France’s Patrick Mouratoglou is a great goalie and his pupil, Dane Holger Rune, is a fabulous passer and has sublime footwork. Here you can see emerging WTA stars doing explosive sprints, a quiet loner kicking a ball to herself or a dreamy-eyed couple cuddling. 

Yesterday, of the 100-or-so folks on the lawn, only one player was out there in bare feet on the grass. And, of course,  that would be none other than a nature loving GOAT, Novak Djokovic, who no doubt  wanted to be in close contact with mother earth.

MEMO TO COCO FROM GAUFF – “RELAX AND ENJOY THE RIDE”: Any rocker worth their ego craves to be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. 

Coco Gauff loves music but she’s a tennis icon, not a rock star and has never been featured on Rolling Stone’s cover. But Coco is now rocking the cover of Vogue magazine – so glamorous.

Recently Inside Tennis featured Gauff’s athletic grace on our cover. And Coco says she hopes someday to get on the cover of Essence magazine. Plus, she will be on the cover of Time magazine. 

Today, the Floridian got her act together just in time. As she has done so many times, Gauff got off to a sluggish start. In the first set she sprayed shots around the bright Indian Wells court, double faulted far too many times and dropped the first set 6-2 to the unheralded Clara Burel, who’s No. 47. 

But, if nothing else, the 19-year-old is a battler. And in the second set, she cut down on her errors, swung free and prevailed 6-3. But Coco’s 22-year-old French foe recaptured the lead and was up 5-2 and serving for the match. Then, as she did at the US Open, Gauff stepped up her game, roared back and evened the match in the third set before she dominated in the tiebreak to win 2-6, 6-3, 7-6(4). 

Coco, who turns 20 Wednesday, claimed yet another record, winning her 50th Masters 1000 match as a teen. The still unspoiled youngster, who’s No. 3 in the world, whose advertisements are hard to miss on TV and who has a net worth of over $21 million, said “I’m happy how my teen years went.” She told Inside Tennis that the most fun she had as a teen was “just the friends I’ve made along the way so far and the cool people I’ve met.” She put Michelle Obama at the top of her cool people list.

Coco continued, saying, “One thing I would change…I would just tell myself just to relax a little bit more. That’s probably going to be the thing I need to tell myself my whole life. Just relax and enjoy the ride.”

THE GORILLA IN THE ROOM: Seemingly it was a breezy, innocent comment. While analyzing Coco Gauff’s match today, Tennis Channel’s Coco Vandeweghe quipped, “My mom had a saying: ‘Be a patient gorilla.” 

What fun, right?

But maybe not. The comment brought to mind the time at the 2017 Australian Open when ESPN commentator Doug Adler was covering a Venus match. And when Williams started to pick up her game and play aggressively, Adler said she was playing “guerilla tennis.”

Some took offense. The backlash was intense. Cancel culture can be more than fierce. Adler was fired. Then he sued ESPN. There was a settlement. He supposedly was going to get back on air. But he never has.

We surely doubt that Vandeweghe will be canceled for her whimsical quip. She sure shouldn’t be.

SPEAKING OF CANCELLATIONS: After two seasons, Netflix’s sometimes revealing Break Point series has not been renewed for a third season. The docuseries gave a sizable new audience an inside look at the game. But it offered few independent commentators and many were astounded when they did a deep dive program on Alexander Zverev and didn’t once mention his ongoing domestic allegation case.

BEST FAN APPAREL OF THE DAY: A Djokovic fan wore a T-shirt that read: Djokovic, Jordan, Messi.

NO PLAY, NO PROBLEM FOR NOVAK:  Novak Djokovic has played no ATP matches in six weeks. He hadn’t appeared in Indian Wells in five years. And  he lost a set to the considerable Aussie Aleksandar Vukic who is No. 48. But no problem, in the third set of his opening match the GOAT shifted into high gear and found his serve and prevailed 6-2, 5-7, 6-3.

RISING STAR FROM THE LAND OF THE RISING SUN: The comeback of Japan’s hard-hitting Naomi Osaka continued today as she downed the considerable No.15 Liudmila Samsonova.

WILL HE BE ON HIS BEST BEHAVIOR? Last year Daniil Medvedev went on endless rants about Indian Wells’ courts. One example: “Freaking disgrace to the sport! Should be banned!…What a shame to call this awful court a hard court.” But the other day he said, “I’m definitely not going to blame the court for anything I do.”

POP QUIZ: What do John McEnroe, Bob and Mike Bryan and Mats Wilander have in common? They have, or will be, playing their music at this year’s Indian Wells tourney.

GO FIGURE: Seven mothers entered the BNP Paribas Open.

YES, THAT WAS ROGER: To promote the 2025 Laver Cup, that’s coming to the Bay Area in 2025, Roger Federer appeared at San Francisco’s Chase Center with the city’s mayor, London Breed.

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