Canada is the new tennis powerhouse. The BNP Paribas Open gave many fans their first live-and-in-person glimpse of Great White Northerners Felix Auger-Aliassime (18) and Denis Shapovalov (19) — the only teens ranked inside the ATP Tour’s Top 100. Powerballer Milos Raonic not only won the Eisenhower Cup, he returned to the semis for the second straight year. But who would have guessed that it would be an 18-year-old upstart who most of us had never heard of that would lead the Canadian charge? Welcome to the big leagues, Bianca Andreescu.
Team Thiem is no one-surface wonder. Sure, eight of his 12 career titles have come on clay. His breakthrough at the Slams came on the terre battue of Roland Garros. But Dominic Thiem continues to develop into a multi-surface force. Raised on the Viennese clay, the Austrian arrived in I-Wells with a new-look team and a commitment to put up results on cement. “It’s nice for me and also for my confidence to have really good results on the other surfaces,” he said. “I already have two hard-court titles, one indoor and one outdoor. I like that surface. But one thing will never change — that clay is my home.” Thiem showed some real grit in outlasting Roger Federer in three sets to capture the first ATP Masters 1000 title of his career.
Philipp Kohlschreiber is no journeyman. The ever-steady German, now 35, has made a career out of being overlooked. In his 18-year pro career, Kohlschreiber has just once reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal, has never cracked the Top 10, and is still seeking his first ATP Masters 1000 title. But the Austrian-born baseliner may just be the quintessential ‘dangerous floater,’ the guy whose name you don’t want to see next to yours on the draw. Just ask world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Gunning for a record sixth title in the desert, the top seed was shocked by Kohlschreiber in the third round, 6-4, 6-4. Said Nick Kyrgios, Kohlschreiber’s victim in the second round, “He’s an incredible competitor.”
Fedal XXXIX will have to wait. It was the match everyone wanted to see from the moment the BNP Paribas Open was announced: A Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal semifinal, what would be the 39th edition of the so-called ‘Fedal’ rivalry. But it wasn’t to be. After a morning practice session prior to the blockbuster matchup, Nadal, 32, withdrew with a right knee injury. Said the Spaniard, “[I have to] accept the situation, even if today is a sad moment for me.” It would have been their fourth encounter at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
Dr. Ivo is standing tall at 40. Ivo Karlovic has been a power-serving force on the ATP Tour for nearly two decades now. But the 6-foot-11 Croat shows few signs of slowing down, and is proving that age is just a number. Just days after turning 40, he punched his way into the Round of 16, taking out 11th-seeded countryman Borna Coric along the way — a player 18 years his junior.
Belinda’s back. A US Open quarterfinalist by 17, Belinda Bencic burst onto the scene with an explosive baseline game, a WTA Newcomer of the Year who scalped early wins over the likes of Serena Williams. She would crack the Top 10 in 2016. However, wrist surgery sent the Swiss in a downward spiral. Sidelined for five months, she fell out of the Top 300. But Bencic is again hitting opponents off the court. She defeated four Top-10 opponents en route to the Dubai title last month, and dethroned world No. 1 and defending champ Naomi Osaka to reach the semis in Indian Wells.
Naomi Osaka was dethroned. (But don’t expect her to go away anytime soon.) It was a whirlwind year for Ms. Osaka, who arrived at the 2018 BNP Paribas Open a capable but unproven commodity. The quirky Japanese-Haitian-American, ranked in the mid-40s, famously stormed her way to the title, then proved it was no fluke by going back-to-back at the US Open and Australian Open. The world No. 1 was upset in I-Wells by a resurgent Belinda Bencic in the Round of 16, but under new coach Jermaine Jenkins continues to play a confident, power-strike brand of tennis. She has points to defend in 2019, however, she’s more than up for the task. “All the people around me are very supportive,” she said. “They’re not talking about title-defense. We just want to keep moving forward. It’s not about defending; it’s about getting another one.”
At 38, Venus can still hit a mean forehand. Having survived a 6-Love set against Andrea Petkovic in the opening round, 38-year-old Venus Williams rode her forehand all the way to the quarterfinals. The Compton raised Williams, a seven-time Slam champ, showed flashes of the beaded wonder we first came to know in the mid-‘90s. The sentimental favorite outhit another power player, No. 3 seed Petra Kvitova, in the second round, but eventually ran out of gas against eventual finalist Angelique Kerber in the last eight.
Serena vs. Vika is primetime stuff. It felt more like a major final than an early-week, second-round encounter. And for good reason. The former No. 1s have faced each other 21 times, after all, more often than not on big-stage occasions. Stadium 1 was rocking for this mom vs. mom battle, an intriguing matchup that has produced the unlikeliest of friendships. “As much as she’s the toughest opponent I have ever played in my life, she’s my favorite person to play against,” said Vika, who fell to 4-18 against Williams, 7-5, 6-3. “On the court, it’s a fight. It’s a war. It’s a lot of intensity.But after the match, it’s over.”
These kids mean business. Indian Wells has become a launching pad for some of the sport’s most promising performers. Last year, it was Naomi Osaka overpowering Daria Kasatkina in a final battle of 20-year-olds. Amanda Anisimova, just 16, took out Petra Kvitova. Marketa Vondrousova, 18, took out Johana Konta. Both Anisimova and Vondousova are now ranked in the Top 100. In 2019, it was Canadian Bianca Andreescu’s turn to make a splash. The meditative 18-year-old wildcard dispatched Dominika Cibulkova, Qiang Wang, Garbine Muguruza, Elina Svitolina and Angelique Kerber in reaching her first WTA Premier Mandatory final.
The practice courts are the place to be. Ask hardcore tennis fans where the best seats are at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and they’ll tell you to haunt the practice courts. Where else can you get up-close-and-personal with Rafael Nadal on P1 and Roger Federer on P2 simultaneously? They may just be the best seats in tennis.
Danielle Collins gets fired up. We were introduced to the two-time NCAA champ on these same courts last year, when the fiery Collins stunned Madison Keys on her way to the Round of 16. Behind cacophonic cries of COME ON!!!!!!, she’s continued to make waves in her post-collegiate career. Earlier this year, the former UVA standout reached her first Grand Slam semi at the Australian Open, notching Top-20 wins over Julia Goerges, Caroline Garcia and Angelique Kerber, the last by a 6-0, 6-2 score.
Before her match, Danielle Collins takes on our Walk and Talk from #TennisParadise
— BNP Paribas Open (@BNPPARIBASOPEN) March 9, 2019
Novak Djokovic is a good sport. No one would have blamed Novak Djokovic if, after his shock third-round loss, the world No. 1 hopped the first flight out of LAX and headed eastward toward the Miami Open. But the top-seeded Serb stuck around to give it his all in doubles with the always entertaining Fabio Fognini. Not only did the Djokovic/Fognini combo reach the semis, but Nole stuck around for an impromptu hit-and-giggle with tournament director Tommy Haas, Pete Sampras and John McEnroe. We’re talkin’ 36 Slam titles on one court (with Jon Lovitz in the ump’s chair). The show of sportsmanship will only help Djokovic win over more fans.
Tennis players can sure play soccer. The emerald lawns of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden have long been a haven for soccer-loving Europeans. Fans revel in watching them juggling, passing, and kicking outside the practice courts. Asked to create a dream soccer team made up of tennis players, Dominic Thiem chose Rafa Nadal, Roberto Bautista Agut and Damir Dzumhur. But the Austrian might have erred in excluding Petra Kvitova, who flashed her ample futbol skills in Stadium 1.
— BNP Paribas Open (@BNPPARIBASOPEN) March 5, 2019
Politics creep into tennis, too. As much as it sometimes pains us, it’s not always about what happens between the lines. The men arrived in Indian Wells at an interesting time, just as the ATP Player Council was deciding the sport’s future. Council president Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were among those who were peppered with questions about the direction the sport would take. In the end, the council voted not to extend Chris Kermode’s run as ATP Executive Chairman/President.
The Eisenhower Cup was a blast. Who knew Tie Break Tens was so much fun? The BNP Paribas Open showcased the format in a one-night-only event known as the Eisenhower Cup presented by Masimo. Eight players —Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic, Milos Raonic, Dominic Thiem, David Goffin, Gael Monfils and Taylor Fritz — faced off in a fast-paced, knockout format consisting of 10-point tiebreak matches. The server was determined playground style — by a rock-paper-scissors shootout. When they weren’t in action, players kept loose on stationary bikes. DJ-spun music echoed throughout the stadium during breaks in play. And there was some courtside heckling from the participants themselves. In the end, Raonic was the last man standing. But he wasn’t the only winner. Proceeds will benefit local charities.
Angie’s a fighter. The lefthander broke serve seven times to beat Russian qualifier Vikhlyantseva in the third round. She roared back from a 4-1 third-set deficit to oust 9th seed Aryna Sabalenka in the Round of 16. She ended home-country favorite Venus Williams’ run in the quarterfinals. And Kerber stretched the final against Bianca Andreescu to three nail-biting sets.
Gladys Knight is a real Pip. It turns out that the Empress of Soul isn’t just a Williams Sisters Superfan, she plays the game, too. “I love the fact that it has the element of exercise, for me, because I need to keep it moving! This game has helped me so much. The competition of it is something that I really respect. On top of that, what the players have to go through to get prepared, to get fit, the thought process. Am I going to hit it left, am I going to hit it right? All of those things are exciting to me.”
Bianca Andreescu is a star. We learned she dabbles in meditation. Calms herself with measured breaths on the court. Sports a coiled hair-tie on her right bicep. Has fans from Bucharest to BC. Oh, and that she hits the cover off the ball. The 18-year-old Canadian won us over in short order with personality, a versatile game and an ahead-of-her-years confidence that should only lead her upward in the rankings. With her win in the desert, she shot up from No. 60 to No. 24. Will she pull an Osaka and raise a major trophy in 2019?