After I returned home from Indian Wells to the still-snowy northeast, there were still plenty of remarkable moments to savor. Here are some of my favorites:
1. JJ Almost All the Way
It’s easy to get sidetracked by JJ’s colorful personality, but what brought her to the top in the first place is her top notch tennis. While she may not rule the roost anymore, her run to the final displayed her full arsenal of groundstrokes, and she didn’t fail to entertain along the way.
2. Hot Shot
I don’t know if she’ll become a household name, Ons Jabeur will live on in YouTube glory for this glorious shot in her loss to Caroline Wozniacki.
3. Not Quite Big Four
Among the men, the second week of the tournament held the potential of bringing Big Four only semifinals, but Milos Raonic hung on long enough to spoil the party. While still developing his weapons outside of his serve, Raonic out-gritted Rafael Nadal in a dramatic three setter that left Nadal happy with his form, and Raonic hungry for more. Sadly, the resulting semifinals were uneventful – Raonic was unable to get past an in-form Roger Federer, and Andy Murray turned in a dud of a performance against a patient Novak Djokovic that raised even more questions about Murray’s current path.
Sunday’s final between Federer and Djokovic lacked the final set drama of their battle in the desert a year ago, but it proved satisfying to both players and their fans. For Djokovic, who is in his absolute prime, anything less than a win on a court that favors his game, particularly given his recent losses to Federer, would have been unacceptable. Federer, on the other hand, has reached the part of his career where he is playing with house money. He’s clearly happy to be in the mix and able to hang with a number one player in his prime, but also realistic enough to know that he is going to come out flat sometimes. Not unlike their Wimbledon final last year, the match highlighted Djokovic’s hard-won steadiness, and Federer’s latter-day gritty street fighter, battling a tough opponent as well as his own faltering play. While the match had its uglier moments littered with double-faults and shanks, each player displayed enough swoon-worthy shot-making to convince me that this rivalry is the most compelling in the men’s game today.
4. Not Quite the Storybook
It’s hard not to talk about this year’s tournament without discussing the return of Serena Williams and her surprising exit. Before this year, it was hard to think of Indian Wells without thinking of the ugly scenes that accompanied Serena’s last visit to the desert. Her return showed not only her character in being willing to forgive, but also how far she and Venus have used their power to make the sport more inclusive. Anyone who has attended tennis tournaments over the past 20 years can attest to how much the success of the Williams sister has drawn a greater variety of people to tennis, both as spectators, and especially among the American contingent, as players. And, with Serena often cited as one of the greatest players of all time, and Venus as the most respected voice in the sport, one can forget the cold-shoulder they both faced at the start. Venus and Serena were able to overcome the shoddy treatment they faced at times, by being two of the best players the sport has ever seen, and by forcing the establishment to treat them better – not by overt pressure, but making themselves such a vital part of the tour’s success that the tour simply had to adapt.
Their mere presence at the top of the sport, without anything more, has given Serena and Venus the power to make those around them more accepting of not only Serena and Venus themselves, but of many other players of color to follow. As such, the perceptible self-congratulatory tone to discussion of Serena’s return, on how the world – or at least the Indian Wells tennis crowd — has changed and become more accepting struck me as incomplete. It’s premature to assume that the greater acceptance of elite sportswomen like Serena and Venus means that the issues accompanying their 14 year boycott of the tournament are no longer relevant. Rather, it shows that putting a greater variety of people in positions of power has the ability to effect meaningful change.
It was a combination of that power and grace that surrounded Serena’s exit from the tournament. With the magnanimity that great success can give, Serena insisted on addressing the crowd to explain her injury. The tournament, both eager to avoid a repeat of the 2001 disaster, and wishing to support one of its biggest draws, cossetted Serena in love and praise in setting the stage for her announcement. It certainly wasn’t the storybook ending that either side hoped for – but it’s an appropriate turnaround for Serena. Where she once found rejection, she basked in acceptance and love — a perfect ending for a tournament that, like its players, is relentlessly pursuing perfection.
Can we handle more JJ? What do you make of Serena’s prodigal return and surprising exit? WTHIGOW with Andy Murray?