The BNP Paribas Open, a combined ATP and WTA 1000 Masters showcase, kicked off October 5th, 933 days after the last ball was struck at the 16,100 seat center court at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, in the Southern California desert. Referred to by some as the game’s Fifth Slam, the setting is advertised as Tennis Paradise. The tournament that is usually held in March and was canceled in 2020 and then canceled again in 2021 thanks to COVID-19. Had Shanghai not suffered a similar fate when it was canceled on August 10th of this year, BNP Paribas Open would not have found an appropriate 2021 date to be contested.
The last matches played at the BNP Paribas turned out to be “First Firsts…” and we are not talking about academic honors offered in Great Britain. It is a way to call attention to a riveting conclusion to a ten-day tournament that was, in essence, astounding.
In the year’s longest women’s singles final, a three hour four minute breathtaking battle, No. 21 seed Paula Badosa of Spain had a bit more staying power than No. 27 seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, and in the end, Badosa was able to secure a 7-6, 2-6, 7-6 victory. The 23-year-old, who will be 24 on November 14, was the first Spaniard to reach the women’s final in twenty-five years, (Stefanie Graf of Germany was 7-6, 7-6 better than Conchita Martínez in 1996.), and the only one of her countrywomen to ever win the illustrious title.
Azarenka, the BNP Paribas Open winner in 2012 and 2016, was looking to be the first woman to be a three time champion. She came a few tight strokes close dropping serve at 5-4 with the victory on her racquet in the final set. The “stat count” showed she saved eight of 13 break points, hit four more winners and made eight fewer unforced errors. Badosa’s numbers reveal that she survived 10 of 17 break points, but, in the key to the match, where momentum was like a Yo-Yo going up and down, either out of desperation or cunning she clocked five winners in the final set Tie-Break to earn the trophy.
Badosa was born in Manhattan, New York because her parents, Josep Badosa and Mireia Gibert worked in the fashion industry. The family returned to Spain when she was seven. The highlight of her junior career was winning the 2015 Roland Garros Girls’ Singles. Having an affinity for Paris, she made her best showing at a major, reaching the quarterfinals of the 2021 tournament.
This spring she was a back-to-back semifinalist on clay at the Charleston Open and Madrid Open before winning her first tour title at the Serbia Open.
In the men’s trophy round, two twenty plus seeds faced off. No. 21 Cameron Norrie of Great Britain took on No. 29 Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia. They had played once previously in Rotterdam and Norrie lost merely three games. This time, it was much more of a contest, but the 26-year-old Brit was resilient winning 4-6, 6-4, 6-1. It was his second tournament win this year, having won Los Cabos in July, but by far his biggest victory, his first Masters 1000.
Basilashvili’s desert performance was staggering. Always known for his barraging groundstrokes, he didn’t play himself out of matches as he so often does. Until the Norrie match, he was able to pulverize opponent after opponent, most notably No. 2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 in the quarterfinals. Georgia isn’t known for developing tennis talent. In the days when the country was part of the Soviet Union, Alex Metreveli, who was born in Tbilisi as was Basilashvili, was the best Georgian player never to play under his appropriate flag.
From 2007-11, the 29-year-old trained in Sacramento, California at the Gorin Tennis Academy. Vitaly Gorin, the founder was born in Kiev, Ukraine. Gorin was an ordinary player and turned to teaching which has resulted in a very successful career. His work with Dmitry Tursunov, when the Russian was a youngster, led to both individuals becoming fabled in Northern California. Tursunov had an exciting pro career until injuries curtailed his competitive play.
Norrie has an encyclopedic background. He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. His father is a Scot and his mother is Welsh. When he was three, the family moved to Auckland, New Zealand. At 16, he became a London resident, then decided to attend university in the US. He ended up at Texas Christian University (TCU), in Fort Worth, from 2014-17. Then he turned pro.
On Sunday, he became a legend. Greg Rusedski, the Canadian who turned British, was defeated in the 1998 final by Marcelo Rios of Chile. Tim Henman was drummed in the 2004 title round by Roger Federer, and Andy Murray suffered a similar fate against Rafael Nadal in 2009. Norrie was the first from his country to take it all at Indian Wells.
The Men’s Doubles final was a contest of pairs specialists – John Peers of Australia and Filip Polasek of Slovakia – against a Russian combination made up of – Aslan Karatsev and Andrey Rublev – two singles players who, from time to time, have ventured into the partnering. The doubles practitioners, other than a mini-misstep, lived up to expectations and took the title 6-3, 7-6. The misstep, in reality, was a right ankle sprain that Polasek suffered in the third game of the second set. Once he was taped up during a medical time out, he gingerly played on successfully.
Hsieh Su-Wei, the blithe spirit from Taiwan, appeared on court for her post match interview wearing a dinosaur hat after she and Elise Mertens of Belgium defeated Leylah Fernandez of Canada and Coco Gauff of the US, 7-5, 6-4 in the Women’s Doubles quarterfinals. She explained that one of the physios, who had taken care of her over the past year, wore it in the training room on her birthday, which was the day before. Hsieh asked to borrow it to give her, and all the rest of those who keep the women’s players on the mend, a “Shout Out”.
Hsieh and Mertens ended up downing Veronika Kudermetova of Russia and Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, 7-6, 6-3, for the Women’s Doubles crown. Hsieh earned her first Women’s Doubles tournament title with Peng Shuai of China in 2014 and four years later she won again, this time with Barbora Strýcová of the Czech Republic. On both occasions she and her partner defeated the Russian combination, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina. The last time the tournament was played in 2019, Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus were the Women’s winners.
At the trophy presentation Kudermotova referred to Hsieh as the “Dragon Lady…” who in turn explained in her lively lighthearted way, “At the start of the year I said please, please, please play with me…” But Mertens didn’t become her partner until the beginning of the clay court season. This summer, they won The Championships Ladies’ title and with their Indian Wells triumph, Hsieh now has 30 winning trophies in her collection and Mertens has 14. Unbeknownst, to Hsieh there is a Dinosaur Museum in Cabazon, (where the hat may have been purchased), a 40 minute drive west, on Highway 10, from the tournament site. In the 1990s, the adidas Invitational was held, annually in January, at the same location the men’s event took place in March. Top juniors, such as Pete Sampras along with intercollegiate players like Rick Leach competed for wild cards in the men’s ATP singles and doubles tournament. Local teaching pros also participated in the championship. The best showing earned the player the Dinosaur Award, because it was assumed that those teaching the game were dinosaurs and no longer able to compete with the younger players in the event.
John Austin was “The Dinosaur”, in one stretch for three straight years. He is a member of the storied Austin family. (The United States Tennis Association Family of the Year in 2005.) He and his sister Tracy won The Championships Mixed Doubles in 1980. (They were the only brother and sister duo to do it until Wayne and Cara Black of Zimbabwe accomplished the fete in 2004 ). They were event finalists the next year and what’s more they were 4-6, 7-6, 6-3 winners the first year and lost by the same score the next.
The date change fits the tournament’s eclectic personality perfectly. Historically it has had seven different names and several different Coachella Valley homes. The first was the American Airlines Tennis Games, which began in 1974 in Rancho Mirage, California. Then it was a men’s event. The Virginia Slims of Indian Wells was the inaugural women’s championship partnering with the men in 1989 (and like the men also has a seven tournament name history). Before the current shared name the men and women played under a similar banner two other times.
It would be next to impossible to find a Masters championship where the eventual tournament founders played and won titles in a previous version of the event. But Charlie Pasarell and Raymond Moore, (who took over the Indian Wells Masters in 1981 and turned it into what is now the BNP Paribas Open then sold it to Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison in 2009), were trophy winners during the American Airlines Tennis Games days.
Pasarell teamed with Sherwood Stewart to win the Men’s Doubles in 1974. Moore, “the hippy” long haired South African who ended up settling in the desert, was a Men’s Doubles finalist with Dennis Ralston a year later. What made the result more eye-opening than the 2-6, 7-6, 6-4 score was that they lost to Raúl Ramírez, the “all arounder” from Mexico and William (Bill) Brown. Who? The tennis trivia answer is – Brown was from Omaha, Nebraska and attended Notre Dame University, known for its American football players but not its tennis stars. In 1976, Moore lost again in three sets, this time with Erik van Dillen. The last year of the American Airlines Tennis Games, in 1978, Moore came out a winner, teaming with Roscoe Tanner, the singles champion that year, to defeat (and it is absurdly fitting) fellow South Africans, Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan, 6-4, 6-4.
A Davenport…Not A Sofa
According to the dictionary a davenport is a large, upholstered sofa that can be converted into a bed. When Lindsay Davenport played the Indian Wells tournament she rarely lied down. She first won the Women’s Singles in 1997 when the tournament was the State Farm Evert Cup. She was a finalist the next year and the champion again in 2000 when it was the Tennis Masters Series. She was a triple finalist from 2003 to ’05 when it was the Pacific Life Open.
Back then, Davenport was from Palos Verdes Peninsula, California which is 140 miles or a two and a half hour drive from Indian Wells. The fact is relevant because she ended up with enough tournament Women’s Doubles hardware at her residence to open a trophy store. She won her first title with Lisa Raymond in 1993 and they defended the next year. She doubled again in 1997 and ’98 with Natasha Zvereva, a Russian who, at the time, was living in Orange County. In 2000, she trophied with Corina Morariu. Three years later she closed out her Indian Wells championship run, winning the Women’s Doubles again with Raymond. In 2021, Raymond teamed with Liezel Huber, a South African turned American, for her seventh desert title.
Over a seven year period (from 1987 until 1993) Frenchman, Guy Forget, never really had an opportunity to get anywhere near a davenport when the men’s doubles was being played. In ’87, he teamed with Peter Fleming of the US for the championship. He scored a tournament triple winning the trophy with countryman Yannick Noah the next year and finished off his three for three with Boris Becker (who was also the singles winner) of Germany in ’88. In 1990, he and Becker won again (for the German it was his third in a row having teamed with Jakob Hlasek of Switzerland for doubles honors in ’89). Forget, who became the Roland Garros Tournament Director in 2016, won his final Indian Wells doubles title with Henri Leconte, who is also French, in 1993.
Please Kim, It’s Time…
Over the past two years Kim Clijsters has been attempting to make a comeback and has yet to win a match. In October 2020 she had surgery on her right knee then in January this year she came down with COVID-19. She had hoped to play the Miami Open in March but pulled out because she wasn’t fit to compete. The Chicago Fall Tennis Classic was her first tournament of 2021 and she lost in the first round to Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan 3-6, 7-5, 3-6. At Indian Wells, Kateřina Siniaková of the Czech Republic was 6-1, 2-6, 6-1 better than the 38-year-old Belgian, who is not as fit as she was in her prime.
We have followed Clijsters during her career and have always been impressed by her talent, humbleness and appreciation of life. In 2017, we attended the Hall of Fame Induction in Newport, Rhode Island of our friend, journalist Steve Flink. Clijsters, Andy Roddick, Monique Kalman-van den Bosch and Vic Braden were also honored.
When it was her turn to address those attending the ceremony, on the very warm afternoon, in typical Kim fashion, she called attention to the talents and personalities of the others in the Class of ‘17. Then she offered, “Tennis has been so great to me. It has given me so many opportunities, and it’s taught me so many lessons, lessons that are applicable both on and off the court, lessons I often talk of with the students at my academy. I would like to describe them in eight words: dedication, caring, optimism, patience, respect, sacrifice, tolerance, and passion. Of those eight words, there are really three that are the most important to me and to all that’s happened, and that has brought me to this special place here today.
“The first is optimism. That is having the right attitude. As you deal with adversity and negative moments, it’s important to stay positive. I’m not just talking about tennis, but in life overall.
“The second is dedication, taking the time to really devote yourself to whatever you want to accomplish, fitness, mentally being ready, (along with) all the extra effort that it takes to succeed. That has been very important to me as well.
“Finally, but most importantly, comes passion. You can be optimistic, you can be dedicated, but most of all you have to bring that special energy and desire to anything that you do. Everyone that has stood on this stage before me and will stand here after me has had a passion for the sport of tennis. I found mine when I was five years old, and I [have been] dedicated to – and I’m dedicated to pass it on to the next generation.
“Those three words are so meaningful. I’ve learned them through my upbringing, my experiences, from the many matches I’ve played, the many people I’ve known and met through tennis.”
In 2005, she met Brian Lynch, an American basketball player who was a member of the Euphony Bree, the professional team in her hometown (Bree, Belgium). They developed a friendship because, as it happened, they both had the same kind of pet, a bulldog. Their relationship flourished and they married in 2007. Daughter Jada was born in 2008. A year later Jada enraptured the tennis world joining her mother on the Arthur Ashe Stadium Court for the trophy presentation after Clijsters defeated Caroline Wozniack of Denmark, 7-5, 6-3 in the US Open Women’s Singles final.
Kim and Brian added to the family when son Jack was born in 2013 and his brother Blake joined the team in 2016.
Maybe it’s time for her to let her extraordinary career speak for itself and retire…permanently. She and the family divide their time, living in Bree – home of the Kim Clijsters Academy – where she has devoted herself to helping Belgian youngsters improve including, (most recently, Elise Mertens); and the rest of the year they reside in Wall Township, New Jersey.
October 10, 2020 was memorable for Iga Świątek. That was the day the 19-year-old defeated Sofia Kenin of the US, 6-4, 6-1 in the Roland Garros Women’s Singles final. With the title, she became the first player from Poland to win a major singles championship. A year later, Świątek was 5,598 miles away from Paris and the No. 2 seed in the Women’s Singles at Indian Wells, California.
On the anniversary of her Roland Garros triumph, she swept aside Veronika Kudermetova of Russia, 6-1, 6-0 in the third round. Since Sunday, October 10, 2021 happened to be World Mental Health Day, following the match Świątek told the media she was donating $50,000 of the prize money she earned for the victory to the non-profit World Health Organization (WHO).
As most who follow the game know, sport psychologist Daria Abramowicz has accompanied the protégé for the past three years. She said having Abramowicz’s assistance has enabled her to be mentally tough on court. It is one of her strengths. In addition she pointed out, “…I know everybody has different paths, and it’s great that we can choose our path because I know that there are people who also don’t need psychologists. Basically, I’m not saying that, Hey, you should do that if you want to be the best, because everybody has a different personality and everybody has different needs.
“It’s just good to stay open-minded. If you need that kind of help, then go for it. If you’re up to it and if you’re open-minded, I think it helps a lot.”
Humorously Świątek concluded, “… I wanted to make a gift for my psychologist because usually when I lose, there is some drama. So let’s just say she has the day off today.”
(In the fourth round she lost to Jelena Ostapenko 4-6, 3-6.)
“Home Alone” Sort Of…
Every tournament has character in its history, a defining individual who may not have won a title but left a distinct impression. When it comes to the BNP Paribas Open, Goran Ivanišević is its “home alone…” personality. During his career, he appeared in the desert 13 times. His best showing was in 1996 when he was a semifinalist to Paul Haarhuis of the Netherlands.
Thomas Bonk, the widely respected Los Angeles Times sports columnist, covered the tournament for years and wrote a number of stories about the iconic Croatian wordsmith. A sampling of his quotes…
“…like paradise, but a lot of old people here. It is OK for holiday…not for tennis…The air is dead here”.
“…Everything is too slow, too easy. I am getting sleepy right now. I am going to bed at 9 and waking up at 7, like an old man.”
On restaurants… “You see two young people. Everybody else is 100 years old…I think somebody is going to die in a restaurant”.
Supposedly Ivanišević said that he was afraid to ride in a tournament car from his hotel to the site because he “didn’t want to be killed by a Q-tip…” meaning, in Goran-speak, one of the older people, with gray/white hair squinting over or through the steering wheel of an expensive car trying to stay in the lanes on the city roads. Ivanišević’s mind always listened to tunes that often only he could hear. (For readers a translation may be necessary – Q-tip was a reference to the thin implement with cotton on each end used to clean wax from an ear.) On one occasion, he explained that things were so slow at the tournament that he said, “I try golf…” (There are 11 golf courses in Indian Wells.)
The desert area around Palm Springs, California is known for being an upscale retirement enclave for those with major money. Indian Wells, which is one of the cities, has a Median household income of $85,000 a year while the US average is $53, 482. The tournament regularly follows Desert Decorum meaning, using the Ivanišević’s analogy, it is like Q-Tips in a box where most everything is aligned in neatly laid white rows. Here are some of the interesting Side-Bars…
John Isner was about to head to the court to play doubles with Jack Sock when he received a call from his wife, Maddy that their third child was being express delivered earlier than expected. He jetted home to Dallas. His departure also gave Jannik Sinner a free pass into the fourth round.
Like a number of players, Andy Murray follows a routine, taking his wedding ring off and tying it in the shoelaces of one of his “kicks” (shoes). After a practice he returned to his hotel and because his tennis shoes were soaked and he said, “they stink”, so he left them under his rental car to dry out…having forgotten to put his ring back on. The next day he returned to retrieve his shoes and ring and found that someone had absconded with them. He searched for the missing items. Checked with the hotel’s lost and found and security and nothing. He put out an Instagram post about what happened hoping that a “no questions asked…” return would result. It didn’t so he went back to hotel security asked them to examine the parking lot camera tape and added that he was going to file a police report.
Then…surprise, surprise a hotel employee found them and had taken everything to the lost and found…Ah ha…As a postscript Murray admitted the tennis shoes “…still stink”.
(Murray defeated rising Spanish star Carlos Alcaraz in his second match 5-7, 6-3, 6-2. In his next, a “no love lost…” between opponents No. 3 seed, Alexander Zverev of Germany, ended his stay in the desert, 6-4, 7-6.)
Normally when the BNP Paribas Open takes place in March, the temperatures during the day can be toasty and the nights are filled with “I need a warmup jacket” cool. The air is always dry and wind can be of quite a consequence. October at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden just exacerbates the March conditions, meaning days are warmer and the nights are cooler. The dryness is still there but the wind can be more treacherous.
The Climate Report is a necessary lead into discussions about the slowness of the courts. They are hard courts that played like Terre Battue… Murray said the courts are incredibly slow and the balls after a few games fluff-up, making it difficult to put a shot away. No. 4 seed Andrey Rublev of Russia after a night match emphasized, “…it’s super, super, extremely slow. It’s super tough to hit a winner”.
Top seed Daniil Medvedev after his 6-4, 4-6, 3-6 fourth round loss to Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria complemented the winner but added, he had never had his serve broken three service games in a row playing on hard courts, “This shows the courts are like clay…” Paul Annacone, a Tennis Channel commentator who works with Taylor Fritz, said, “The conditions are slower and balls heavier which makes it harder to hit through the court…”
The question must be asked for a Masters tournament played on hard courts – Why was the surface made sooooo European slow?
The pandemic has created a new “protocol” game. At the BNP Paribas Open, everyone passing through the gates (tournament staff, vendors, journalists, fans, etc.) had to have a digital health pass indicating proof of being fully vaccination. (Yet, the players and their team members went “proofless” which was interesting after Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, a non-vaxer who would have been the Women’s No. 1 seed, tested positive and pulled out of the event.) Children under the age of 12 were not permitted to enter the facility. Parking and admittance to the grounds required the proper app. Cash was out for purchases. Credit cards were in. Media interviews had an airplane in a hanger look. Players sat in a large empty space squinting at a television monitor while journalists Zoomed questions at them. Bill Dwyre, the former Los Angeles Times Sports Editor who was reporting for the newspaper, opined, “…It is the continuation of the slow death of sports journalism, which, hopefully for a while, will keep gasping for air”.
Tournament officials hoped that attendance would be roughly half of the 475,000 that appeared in 2019. One of the reasons was the “draw names” Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Naomi Osaka, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, along with defending men’s champion, Dominic Thiem of Austria didn’t appear. Another factor was the seasonal spring visitors weren’t coming in October. What’s more, the part-time residents who flee the brutal heat of the summer months had not all returned home. (Supposedly, more than 85 percent of those attending the 2019 tournament had come from outside the desert area.)
Was the tournament a success? It depends on the benchmarks used. In the case of “homeboy” Taylor Fritz, who was born in Rancho Santa Fe, California, a couple of hours drive away from the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, it was huge…He reached his first career Masters tournament semifinal losing to Basilashvili 7-6, 6-3 but on the way to the Last Four he defeated No. 5 Matteo Berrettini of Italy, 6-4, 6-3, then No. 10 Jannik Sinner by the same margin, and then miraculously he closed out his memorable run downing No. 3 seed, Alexander Zverev of Germany. 4-6, 6-3, 7-6.
Grigor Dimitrov played up to the long-held “he is going to be great” reputation edging No. 1 seed and US Open titlist, Daniil Medvedev of Russia, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 and following-up with another edging 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, performance against No. 8 seed Hubert Hurkazcz of Poland but, as has he has done in his up and down career, disappeared 2-6, 4-6 in the semifinal against Norrie.
In the “Jabeur’s unique…” section of “Fragmented Memories…From A Year To Forget”, the summary of 2020 that appeared on this website, we wrote “Ons Jabeur plays with a lot of style, an approach she has called ‘Crazy Shots…’ The Tunisian does it because of the joy the creative shot making brings to her. At the Australian Open, she became the first Arab woman in history to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event by defeating Qiang Wang of China, 7-6, 6-1. The round before, Jabeur brought Caroline Wozniacki’s career to a close, defeating the Dane, 7-5, 3-6, 7-5. (In the same round, Wang had been magnificent, surprising Serena Williams, 6-4, 6-7, 7-5). (Tournament winner Kenin slipped past the 25-year-old Jabeur, 6-4, 6-4, in the quarterfinals.)
“Jabeur earned further acclaim at Roland Garros by becoming the first Arab woman to reach the last 16 in Paris when she edged No. 9 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, 7-6, 2-6, 6-3 in the third round. In her next match, Danielle Collins of the United States was 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 better. More noteworthy, Jabeur finished the year at a career-high No. 31.”
At the BNP Paribas Open, seeded No. 12, she defeated Anett Kontaveit of Estonia 7-5, 6-3 in the quarterfinals and scored another first. But on this occasion it was a borderline implausible outcome for an Arab woman – she became a member of the Top 10. (It was almost incidental that she lost 3-6, 3-6 to Badosa in her next contest.)
With the tours still trying to find, then move on with a “new normal”, fortunately the 2021 BNP Paribas Open wasn’t Shanghaied.