Youth is served and other takeaways from Indian Wells

From Bianca Andreescu’s breakthrough to Dominic Thiem regaining the plot, Canadian youngsters coming to the fore and more...

Different players won the 18 ATP and 12 WTA tournaments this year heading into the BNP Paribas Open. So no one was surprised when yet two more different champions emerged at Indian Wells.

What shocked everyone, though, was that an 18-year-old wild card knocked off no fewer than five seeded players to seize the women’s title. Yet another surprise in this anything-can-happen season was the top-10 though slump-ridden man who entered the tournament with only three match wins and finished it with his first Masters 1000 title. Both party crashers treated sports fans to unpredictable, thrilling finals.

Here are 10 major takeaways from this unforgettable Indian Wells.

Bianca’s breakthrough

“I’m so tired. My feet are burning. I can barely move out there,” Bianca Andreescu told her coach, Sylvain Bruneau, during the third-set changeover. The Canadian teenager was down 3-2 and a service break against three-time major champion Angelique Kerber in the biggest match of her young career.

Then Andreescu uttered five words that epitomise all tennis champions: “I want this so bad.”

The crowd kept roaring for determined underdog Andreescu when she hit two forehand winners, a disguised lob winner and a put-away overhead to break Kerber’s serve. That made it 3-all. A veritable smorgasbord of shot-making earned Andreescu two more service breaks. Amazingly, she prevailed 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 against the sport’s best counterpuncher to claim her first Premier Mandatory title.

Zooming from No. 178 at the start of the year to No. 24, this Cinderella in the California desert became the first wild card to win Indian Wells and its youngest champion since Serena Williams 20 years ago.

Though a slight underdog against Roger Federer in the final, Dominic Thiem had won two of their four previous matches.   -  Getty Images

 

“It’s crazy,” Andreescu said afterwards. “Crazy is the word of the tournament for me. Just crazy. If you believe in yourself, anything is possible. The next [goal] is a Grand Slam [title]. Let’s see where this can take me.”

A year ago, another shock Indian Wells triumph became the springboard for 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, who then captured the US and Australian Opens.

What most distinguishes the undersized (5’7”) Andreescu is her uncommon combination of power and finesse, plus her precocious tactical acumen to use both at the right time. These elements worked brilliantly when she demolished two-time major titlist Garbine Muguruza 6-0, 6-1 in the quarterfinals and then, despite leg cramps, outlasted No. 6 Elina Svitolina 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 in the semifinals.

“Andreescu is such a complete player,” raved ESPN analyst and former world No. 4 Mary Joe Fernandez. “She has every shot in the book. She can attack. She can mix it up [with drop shots, moon balls and angles]. She moves well. And I’m impressed with her [kick] second serve, which is tough to attack.”

It will be fascinating to watch opponents try to solve Andreescu’s unorthodox, canny game and see how this smiling supernova, now a known quantity, deals with being the hunted rather than the hunter.

Thiem regains the plot

“I came from a really bad form in all categories, and now I’m the champion of Indian Wells,” summed up Dominic Thiem, who turned his season completely around by winning Indian Wells. Shrugging off a woeful 3-4 record before the tournament, seventh-seeded Thiem benefited from an easy draw, beating 27th seeded Gilles Simon and 13th seeded Milos Raonic and getting a walkover from the injured Gael Monfils, before the final.

For the past three years, Thiem has been an elite contender but never a major champion. Reaching the French Open final last year confirmed his clay court prowess, even though Rafael Nadal then trounced him. Thiem’s powerful first serve, wicked kick second serve and explosive ground strokes should also make him a major threat on hard courts, if he plays close to the baseline and improves his volley. The 25-year-old Austrian put all of the above together on the relatively slow Indian Wells hard courts.

Though a slight underdog against Roger Federer in the final, Thiem had won two of their four previous matches. The final, filled with dazzling shots, was dead even until 5-all in the deciding set. With Federer serving at 30-15, another routine hold seemed likely.

But strangely, Federer tried a low-percentage drop shot from the baseline and followed it to the net. Thiem passed him with a forehand finesse shot. Even more strangely, Federer tried the same losing tactic again, and Thiem countered again with an identical riposte. Thiem converted the 30-40 break point with a booming forehand cross-court winner. He then easily held serve for a well-earned 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 triumph and his most prestigious title.

As Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone perfectly put it, “When the match got tight, Thiem just kept swinging.” And Federer didn’t.

Oh Canada!

Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime is sometimes called “FAA,” and those initials could also stand for “fastest athlete around."   -  Getty Images

 

Hockey has always dominated Canadian sports, but tennis garnered some headlines this decade when Eugenie Bouchard reached the 2014 Wimbledon final and Milos Raonic the 2016 final. Both have fallen from their peaks, but their achievements undoubtedly presage Canada’s Greatest Generation in the 2020s.

Besides rising star Andreescu, the Canadian assembly line has produced two more terrific talents: Felix Auger-Aliassime, 18, and Denis Shapovalov, 19. At the 2018 US Open, Auger-Aliassime became the first man born in the 21st century to qualify for the main draw at a major.

Auger-Aliassime is sometimes called “FAA,” and those initials could also stand for “fastest athlete around.” At Indian Wells, he displayed his outstanding speed and other major assets to outclass another rising star, Australian Open semifinalist Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4, 6-2.

“The power this kid generates is amazing,” said Annacone, who formerly coached Federer and Pete Sampras. “He averaged 83 miles per hour on his forehand against Tsitsipas. He is solid with all his stroke production. He has a beautiful two-handed backhand and can also slice it. He volleys with good technique and has the right movements at net, keeping a still upper body. Most importantly, he has solid shot selection. So he has a pretty complete game.”

Federer falters again

Even GOATs are fallible, especially when they’re in the twilight of their careers. Make no mistake: 20-time major champion Roger Federer can still play luminous tennis, as he showed until the last 10 minutes against Thiem.

But Federer’s longtime inability to convert break points because of his vulnerable backhand — he won just two of 11 against Thiem — was compounded by nervousness. Yes, nerves afflict even the Great Ones. Choking comes in different forms, and surprisingly often it’s bad shot selection. With Federer serving at 5-all, 30-15, he foolishly hit two drop shots. Both were mediocre, and twice Thiem hit point-winning passing shots off them. That essentially cost Federer the match and the title.

Perhaps Federer was haunted by the memory of his 2018 Indian Wells final against Juan Martin del Potro. Serving for the championship at 5-4, Fed blew two of his three championship points with terrible shot selection: drop shots, one landing in the bottom of the net and the other near the service line, which Delpo easily put away. In the tiebreaker, Federer shockingly self-destructed again with two double faults and two unforced forehand errors and Delpo easily grabbed the tiebreaker 7-2 for a 6-4, 6-7, 7-6 triumph.

Federer owns a multitude of mind-blowing records and statistics. But one stat mars his brilliant career. In tournament finals, he owns a dismal 1-8 record in deciding-set tiebreakers.

Bencic is back

The 22-year-old Belinda Bencic displayed her stylish ground strokes and strong serve when she polished off No. 1 Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-1 in the Indian Wells fourth round.   -  Getty Images

 

Tabbed as a potential Grand Slam winner since she was voted WTA Newcomer of the Year in 2014, Belinda Bencic has often been derailed by injuries. The 22-year-old Swiss displayed her stylish ground strokes and strong serve when she polished off No. 1 Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-1 in the Indian Wells fourth round. It was no fluke. She also whipped Australian Open semifinalist Danielle Collins 6-4, 6-2 and edged No. 5 Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 4-6, 6-3.

The amiable Bencic, who peaked at No. 7 in 2016, credits her resurgence to having her father return as her full-time coach for the first time since 2016. “It’s definitely not a coincidence I’m playing the way I’m playing now,” she said.

In retrospect, Bencic also believes the serious injuries that dropped her out of the top 150 proved a blessing in disguise. “It changed my perspective,” she said. “I’m so happy to be on the court again. I’m actually enjoying I’m healthy, and I’m not putting the pressure on myself. I know how frustrating it was when I wasn’t able to play at all. It was very tough moments when your body isn’t playing along. But of course then you see all the other athletes, and actually it’s very normal. So many athletes, it’s just part of our life to have some injury, to have some setbacks. Tell me any top-10 player who didn’t have a surgery yet. Definitely it happened a little bit earlier for me.”

Downer for Djoker

Whatever happened to world No. 1 Novak Djokovic? Two theories emerged after a stunning, lacklustre 6-4, 6-4 third-round loss to No. 39 Philipp Kohlschreiber, a 35-year-old German whom he had beaten the seven previous times.

Djokovic either succumbed to a natural letdown after capturing his 15th major title at the Australian Open. Or he was distracted by tennis politics, namely the controversy surrounding the recent ousting of ATP president and chief executive Chris Kermode, who will step down at the end of 2019. Djokovic, president of the ATP Player Council since 2016, was non-committal, while his on-court archrivals, Federer and Rafael Nadal, publicly sided with Kermode.

Whatever the cause of his shock loss, the real Djokovic should rebound enthusiastically and effectively in the future.

Warrior princess

In only their second tournament together, Aryna Sabalenka’s power blended perfectly with Elise Mertens’ consistency, and the unseeded duo knocked off seeds 1, 2 and 5 to take their first title.   -  Getty Images

 

The irrepressible Aryna Sabalenka was nipped by eventual finalist Kerber 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 in the fourth round of the singles. But she showed her versatility in doubles with Elise Mertens. In only their second tournament together, the Belarussian’s power blended perfectly with the Belgian’s consistency, and the unseeded duo knocked off seeds 1, 2 and 5 to take their first title. In the final, they trounced Australian Open champs Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova 6-3, 6-2.

Sabalenka’s animated personality is as appealing as her dynamic game. “Aryna Sabalenka excites me the most,” said Mary Carillo, a leading Tennis Channel analyst. “She hasn’t really needed to learn a lot of defence yet because her offence is so sensational. She hits such a hard ball. She’s very big, very fit. I love her smile. I love her attitude. She’s very ambitious. She’s a warrior princess. She’s big babe tennis personified.”

Injury and illness anguish

Third seed Alexander Zverev was enervated by illness. Fellow German Jan-Lennard Struff, ranked 55th, easily defeated him 6-3, 6-1.   -  Getty Images

You can’t win them all, but nothing is more frustrating than an injury or an illness that forces you to withdraw during a tournament, especially when you’re playing well. Sports icons Nadal and Federer streaked through the draw without losing a set. Sadly, their eagerly anticipated semifinal never happened as Nadal’s sore right knee forced him to default. “It’s not the moment to complain much,” said the disappointed but philosophical Nadal. “With all this stuff, I’m still where I am today.”

Serena Williams, 37, still trying to regain the superstar form she had before giving birth to a baby girl 19 months ago, whipped Victoria Azarenka 7-5, 6-3 in a high-quality battle. She then led Muguruza 3-0, but a viral illness made her dizzy and exhausted. And after losing seven straight games, Serena retired from the third-round match.

Like Williams, third seed Alexander Zverev was enervated by illness. Fellow German Jan-Lennard Struff, ranked 55th, easily defeated him 6-3, 6-1. “I have been sick for a week,” Zverev revealed. “I think I just got unlucky, got a virus somewhere and that’s how it is.”

The giantkillers

Marketa Vondrousova, a 19-year-old lefty from the Czech Republic, enjoyed a coming-out party. The Next-Genner upset 2018 Indian Wells finalist Daria Kasatkina 6-2, 6-1, 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, and 2018 French Open champion Simona Halep 6-2, 3-6, 6-2. She also was impressive in a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 quarterfinal defeat to Svitolina.<EP>“You don’t get the sense that Vondrousova is a teenager,” said former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport. “She has a mature game, but she also has a mature attitude.”

Hubert Hurkacz, an imposing 6’5” power server with a nuanced game, also upset three seeds to make his first Masters quarterfinals. The 22-year-old Pole, ranked only No. 67, outlasted 28th seed Lucas Pouille 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, sixth seed Kei Nishikori 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 and 24th seed Shapovalov 7-6, 2-6, 6-3. Then Federer, his boyhood idol, stopped him 6-4, 6-4.

“I really like his game a lot,” said Darren Cahill, who has coached Federer and Halep. “There is a lot of Andy Murray about the way Hurkacz plays. His backhand is close to Murray’s. I like his court sense, his shot selection and the way he moves. His game has a lot of upside.”

Golden oldies

Venus Williams, who turns 39 in June, no longer has the strength, speed and stamina to win another major title. But, despite arm and knee injuries, she can still beat anyone on a given day.   -  Getty Images

 

Venus Williams, who turns 39 in June, no longer has the strength, speed and stamina to win another major title. But, despite arm and knee injuries, she can still beat anyone on a given day. Third seed Petra Kvitova, the Aussie Open finalist, found that out when Venus rallied to upset her 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 in the second round.

“I just love the battle,” Williams told the crowd afterwards. Martina Navratilova, another tennis legend, said, “Venus keeps surprising me and impressing me.”

Rohan Bopanna, another senior citizen, shone in doubles. The 39-year-old Indian teamed with Shapovalov, less than half his age, to upset the 2nd seed duo of Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares 6-4, 6-4. Bopanna is more than just a doubles standout. His family estate includes a coffee plantation, and he has his own line of The Flying Squirrel coffee: Rohan Bopanna’s Master Blend.

Even more ancient at 40, Ivo Karlovic became the oldest player to win a Masters 1000 singles match. He even reached the fourth round. The 6’11” Croat, with a speckle of grey in his beard, notched his biggest win over 11th seed Borna Coric, 6-4, 7-6.

“Obviously 40s are the new 30s, so I’m young again,” Karlovic quipped. “I like it. Every week I am the oldest at something, so I don’t know. Next week it will be the oldest ever to walk without implants in his hip.”