Vesnina the giantkiller and Federer the giant reign at Indian Wells

The BNP Paribas Open, especially the final, showcased Elena Vesnina’s resilience as much as her 14-year pro career epitomised her perseverance.

“Tennis is awesome, I can say.”Elena Vesnina, after winning the BNP Paribas Open

“This has been a fairytale week once again. I’m still on the comeback.”Roger Federer

In a sport where late bloomers keep sprouting, Elena Vesnina is the latest to prove “30 is the new 20 in tennis!” All four singles finalists were over 30, but the three others were multiple Grand Slam champions.

Vesnina’s quip came after she reached her first Premier Mandatory Event final at the BNP Paribas Open. Her rugged road to the top at Indian Wells was filled with major obstacles. She had to knock out 2016 French Open quarterfinalist Shelby Rogers, 25th-seeded Timea Babos, world No. 2 Angelique Kerber, ageless Australian Open finalist Venus Williams, and 28th-seeded Kristina Mladenovic.

This breakthrough tournament, and especially the final, showcased her resilience as much as her 14-year pro career epitomised her perseverance. The smiling Russian blonde had never reached a Grand Slam semifinal until Wimbledon last year in her 42nd try, the fourth-longest wait in the Open Era. Afterward, she confided, “I’m really happy that it didn’t break me up. I think the difficult times, every single player has to go through it because it makes you better, it makes you stronger.”

Vesnina finished 2015 ranked No. 111, her worst season-ending ranking since 2005, but never lost hope, even after losing in the first round of the qualifying event at Indian Wells a year ago. Supported by her father-coach Sergey and her new husband Pavel Tabuntsov, Vesnina turned her 2016 and her career around at Wimbledon and at the Rio Olympics where she and Ekaterina Makarova captured the doubles gold medal.

Svetlana Kuznetsova, who unwisely wore neither a hat nor used an ice towel during the changeovers to cool off, eventually wilted in the scorching heat.   -  AP

In the all-Russian women’s final at Indian Wells, Vesnina faced 2004 US Open and 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, whom she first met at a junior tournament in Soichi when they were 11. The husky Kuznetsova is renowned for occasional mental frailty in close matches and her physical strength — she likes to surprise players in the locker room by picking them up and putting them on her shoulders.

Kuznetsova came in as a slight favourite because of her superior record, her late-round experience at big events, and the possibility that Vesnina might suffer a let-down after her upsets over Williams and Kerber and thrilling 3-6, 7-6, 6-2 comeback win over Mladenovic.

It was bad luck, rather than fatigue or nerves, that hurt Vesnina at critical stages of the 3-hour, 2-minute duel under the broiling sun — the court temperature peaked at an ungodly 140-degrees F. The dramatic, hard-hitting opening set was climaxed by a tiebreaker that ended in the most anti-climactic way. On Kuznetsova’s third set point, she stroked a forehand that clipped the top of the net and dribbled over, landing inches away for a lucky winner.

Kuzy used the momentum from her stroke of luck to build a 4-1 second set lead. But the huge deficit seemed to energise, instead of deflate, Vesnina. Grunting “Hi-Ya” with every groundstroke, she broke Kuznetsova’s serve three straight times to go ahead 6-5. She then easily held serve with a backhand passing shot and an ace to seize the second set 7-5.

Vesnina bounced back from yet another deficit, 4-2, in the deciding set by forcing three backhand errors from Kuznetsova. She successfully used the tactics suggested by her father: hit more angles and come to net. Serving at 3-4, and down 15-30, Vesnina flashed her athleticism with the shot of the match, a leaping backhand overhead, one of the toughest shots in tennis, that landed in the baseline corner for a winner.

Kuznetsova, who unwisely wore neither a hat nor used an ice towel during the changeovers to cool off, eventually wilted in the scorching heat. Serving at 4-4, she escaped three break points. On the fourth break point, the tennis gods favoured her again with another forehand net cord winner, as the ball plopped unreturnably close to the net.

But fate was kinder to Vesnina on her fifth break point. She belted a forehand winner that kissed the outer quarter-inch of the sideline. Leading 5-4 and aided by new balls, she kept the tiring Kuznetsova on the run to hold serve. Game, set, and championship, Vesnina, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4.

“She came out mentally and emotionally the toughest,” praised Chris Evert, the 1980s superstar and now an ESPN analyst, about Vesnina, whose volatile temperament had sometimes undermined her in years past.

In her post-match press conference, Vesnina, who earned a degree in sports psychology, talked about how tennis is a metaphor for life, as have so many other players. “That was a big turnaround now for me, from first round of qualies and now being in the final. This is a dream.

“I hope it’s a great example for other players, you know, that everything can happen if you believe in yourself, you know that you have the game,” Vesnina pointed out. “Even when nothing is going your way, and you are losing in the first round of qualification, what can be worse?

“Don’t put yourself down and keep building these wins. Because last year, actually, I played a lot of tournaments from the qualies and it helped me. These kinds of things give you belief that you’re almost there. Your ranking is not there, but your game is there. I think this is the most important.”

She concluded with wise and timeless advice: “You have to enjoy what you’re doing. You have to appreciate what you have.”

Federer just keeps getting ‘betterer’

Just when you’re sure the best player this year — not to mention in tennis history — can’t get any better, he finds ways. Retired champion Andre Agassi recently called Roger Federer “regal,” perhaps the only superlative he hadn’t previously been showered with. His legerdemain at the Australian Open featured the only weakness in his game magically turned into a strength when he bombarded archrival Rafael Nadal with booming one-handed backhands in their epic five-set final. “It’s like the birth of a new great shot in the game,” gushed Sky TV commentator and former doubles star Peter Fleming.

 

The Mighty Fed hadn’t won the BNP Paribas Open since 2012, only his fourth title in the California desert. That year Federer contacted the ball on his backhand on average from two feet behind the baseline at Indian Wells, according to Hawk-Eye technology. In 2014, he switched from a smallish 90-square-inch racket head to a specially designed Wilson 97-square-inch model. That gave him not only a much bigger “sweet spot” to deal with Nadal’s viciously spinning, high-bouncing ball, but also more powerful serves and groundstrokes. As ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe noted, it still took even the preternaturally talented Swiss hundreds of hours of practice to perfect his revamped backhand. This year Federer hit his backhand on average three feet inside the baseline, allowing his opponents much less time to react to his shots. (Federer belatedly learned from 14-time major winner Pete Sampras, who confided his biggest regret was never switching to a much bigger racket, going only from a tiny 85 to 90 square inches.)

The bigger racket likely aided his serve, too. Baseball pitchers in their mid-30s typically lose some speed on their fast ball. Not Federer, who turns 36 in August, despite hitting more serves in most matches than pitchers average in a game every five days. He can still blast first serves over 120 mph with pinpoint accuracy and second serves with plenty of kick.

Entering the final against compatriot and good friend Stan Wawrinka, he won all 37 service games and faced only one break point. He also won an impressive 82% of his first serve points and an astounding 64% of his second serve points.

Federer’s complete arsenal was on display against the outgunned Wawrinka, whose one-handed backhand is widely regarded as the best in the business. Even there, Federer outdid him, whacking 10 of his 16 backhand winners in the first set. But it was Federer’s fabulous forehand, which along with Nadal’s is the crème de la crème in tennis history, that produced two winners to break Wawrinka and clinch the first set 6-4.

Perhaps it would not have made any difference, but Wawrinka mistakenly failed to challenge an out ball in that last game. Federer went on to win that point to even the score at 30-30. Thus, Wawrinka was robbed of a crucial point in a sport where players should never have to call their own lines. Once again, it’s clear that Player Challenges should be abolished, while Hawk-Eye should stay and make the (out) call immediately on the stadium scoreboard.

The third-seeded Wawrinka did manage to break Federer’s serve in the opening game of the second set, quite a feat these days. Both players often produced phenomenal shots, but Federer’s superior athleticism and improvisation spelled the difference as he conjured two more service breaks. A Federeresque forehand volley winner ended the match, a routine 6-4, 7-5 victory over a near-great opponent and three-time major winner, more than four years younger than he. His effortless, almost nonchalant, match-ending shot typified his free-swinging, ultra-attacking style this young season. “Stan missed a first serve and then it was second serve, step in and stay aggressive, come to the net and finish,” Federer said.

“You vision it, and you do it. And it’s so simple, and when you can’t play that way, everything becomes so complex. I know I’m riding a wave right now.”

On the latest wave in Federer’s incomparable career, McEnroe marvelled, “This kind of play at this stage of your career! Can you believe it?”

Before his first match at Indian Wells, the ever-engaging Federer fielded questions from 50 second-graders. When two kids asked him how old he wants to be when he stops playing, Federer joked, “I hope I want to be like 90-years-old.” After pausing to give it more thought, he said, “Maybe for another five years? That would be an absolute dream.”

If this tennis genius keeps performing at such a sublime level, it would be an absolute dream come true for sports fans, too.