It was hard not to read into the darkened sky in Indian Wells today. A place that refers itself as tennis paradise isn’t one where you often see a dark, drizzly day like this. Just as the sky seemed like it would break open, it also feels like the tennis hierarchy is poised for some kind of rupture from a group of talented youngsters looking to move up. But, after a day of play, it seems the rain and the teens will have to wait for another day.
There’s something cruel about how fast one goes from next new thing to old next new thing, but that’s where Dominic Thiem found himself this morning, facing Stefanos Tsitsipas in the second round at the BNP Paribas Open. With a Wimbledon Junior title in 2016 and a win over David Goffin last fall in Antwerp, Tsitsipas is beginning to garner attention as he continues to adjust to life on the senior tour. After Thiem raced off to a 4-0 lead in the first set, it seemed that Tsitsipas might not be ready to challenge the top players yet. Yet, a break in concentration from Thiem, gave Tsitsipas a chance to settle into the match, and he managed to grab the second set, as well as the crowd’s support, and looked to have some solid momentum in the third set. Yet, as so many of this era’s ATP top ten players have done, Thiem used his experience to stifle the upstart’s effort, got an early break in the third set, and brought in the win. The jury remains out on whether Thiem will be able to win the big titles going forward, but today’s effort shows that he is a reliable and resourceful player — and one who will generally manage to win the matches he should.
It’s unusual to face an upstart who is older than you, but that’s the position Madison Keys found herself in on an overcast, humid day. And, despite having chances to force a third set, the conditions and a skilled opponent got the better of Keys, and she was unable to overcome the challenge posed by two-time NCAA champion Danielle Collins. Noting that she had lost training time and conditioning to a bout with the flu, Keys smiled ruefully when reminded of the fact that there are many younger players now challenging her, as she once challenged when she first broke through. “I remember when I used to be in that group,” she joked. While it’s hard to imagine that this loss will have any lasting sting, it’s a worthwhile reminder that the rush of breaking through is short, while the challenge of grinding it out is long.
Denis Shapovalov is learning that lesson now, it seems. After a breathtaking run at the Rogers Cup in 2017, followed up with flashy wins at the US Open and a strong showing at the Laver Cup, Shapovalov has become a crowd favorite in a remarkably short period of time. The flashy groundstrokes and oh-so-Canadian humility certainly don’t hurt, but after a couple of loose points, he lost his lead in the first set tiebreak, and was never the same player since. Pablo Cuevas, a solid, veteran player who garners a fraction of the hoopla of Shapovalov simply ground it out. The stat sheet won’t show a blowout, because it wasn’t — and Cuevas won’t be able to pull out as many highlights as Shapovalov will, but the Argentine ground the match out quickly and effectively, once the 18 year old Canadian lost the first set.
For all the glamour attached to them, Venus and Serena Williams got through in workmanlike fashion. Enough time has passed that the old estrangement from Indian Wells is more a footnote than the headline, and today’s matches were exercises in mental toughness — the ability to face adversity — often self-inflicted through errors, and continue to push through. Venus, as always, remained unflappable, and noted that, even when she fell behind in the second set, she continued to have opportunities to be even or ahead, so she simply continued working the points until she succeeded. Serena, on the other hand, dug herself out of an early hole, and simply willed herself to win. For all of the uncertainty in the air (and on the courts), here they stand, prepared to climb back to the top, yet again.
And for now, the challengers have been kept at bay.