Elliott: Pro tennis is at a crossroads. Who will step up at the Paribas Open in Indian Wells?
BNP Paribas Open kicks off this week, just as professional tennis is at a crossroads heading towards an uncertain future without a big three rivalry Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal And Novak Djokovic with and without the male side Serena Williams‘ charisma and historical feats to set the standard for women.
Stars appear, bloom, set. This is the cycle of sports life on the court, ice, field or football field. But as the main game kicks off Wednesday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the sport is facing the absence – permanent or temporary – of many of its most recognizable stars from one of its biggest arenas.
Tennis urgently needs successful, compelling players to fill the void as an exceptional generation dies out. Carlos Alcaraz Spain, last year’s US Open men’s 19 champion, and Every Svyatek from Poland, who won the Indian Wells and US Open women’s titles last year, are talking about the next generation but haven’t proven their longevity. They’ll take the conversation a lot further by winning at Indian Wells, where each is seeded #1.
Williams, preferring to “evolve” rather than “retire”, walked away with 23 Grand Slam singles titles last year. Naomi OsakaSeemingly poised for a big career after winning four Slam titles, mental health issues slowed him down. She has now taken a leave of absence during her pregnancy. Ash Barty retired last year after winning her third Slam singles championship in her native Australia.
The male landscape is also radically different. Federer retired last year with 20 Grand Slam singles titles. Suffering from frequent injuries, Nadal has a foot problem that will keep him out of the hard courts in Indian Wells and Miami. He will fall out of the top 10 behind Indian Wells for the first time since April 2005.
Djokovic, who recently broke Steffi Graff’s record for most weeks by finishing first when he scored 378 points, retired from Indian Wells after being denied a waiver by government regulations requiring non-citizens to be vaccinated against COVID-19. before they enter the US. That rule is likely to be lifted ahead of the US Open, where he could break the tie with Nadal by winning 22 singles tournaments each, but his absence this week will add to the huge losses tennis has suffered since the “Big Three” became the Big Two. And in Indian Wells, a big zero.
“Our biggest curse and also our biggest blessing has been the dominance of these three great players. These guys are legends,” said Paul Annacone, a former tour player who commentates on the Tennis Channel and helps coach the defending champion Indian Wells. Taylor Fritz.
“What we are used to now has never been in the history of the game. You have three guys with over 60 major titles. This is the most ridiculous thing in the history of tennis,” Annacone added. “We are used to it. It seems normal because we’ve seen it for the last one and a half or two decades.”
Welcome to the new normal. It won’t be too bad if players take advantage of the avenues that open up in front of them in Slams and tournaments like Indian Wells, which is considered the fifth Major. Upstairs there is room for new faces.
Some are making good progress on this journey – among them is Swiatek, seeded at number 1 and in favor of defending her title. No. 3 Jessica Pegula is the top seeded American. No. 6 seed Coco Gauff is in the same bottom quarter of the bracket as No. 2 seed and recent Australian Open winner Arina Sobolenko. There is someone somewhere who will end the American men’s Grand Slam singles drought dating back to Andy Roddick’s victory at the US Open in 2003.
Nostalgia is good, but anticipation is also powerful. “Now, on the contrary, it’s very interesting to see the possibility of ‘Who’s next?’ Annacone said. “Now, as a tennis fan, I ask: “Which of you is capable?” And for me it’s exciting. It’s interesting as a fan. For me personally, as a coach, it’s interesting because I can see who’s doing the best in this environment.
“Which of you can handle such an opportunity and deal with not necessarily the physical skills that it requires? I think there are a lot of players who can handle it. But I think that very few people can handle the mental expectation and the mental pressure, and I think that the one who does it best will be the one who takes the step forward.”
That person could be Alcaraz, who proved his mental and physical endurance at the US Open last year. But he was troubled by a hamstring injury that caused him to miss a tournament in Acapulco, Mexico and an exhibition in Las Vegas, leaving his fitness level unclear.
Last Man Standing can also be Daniil Medvedevwho last year became the first person other than Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Andy Murray to be ranked No. 1 in the world since 2004. Dubai last week and three titles in a row.
It could also be Fritz, who is ranked #5 in the world and #4 in Indian Wells. Annacone is biased, of course, but said he thinks the Southern California native is ready to take a step forward after winning a title last year, reaching the Wimbledon quarter-finals, winning the Tokyo tournament and reaching the semi-finals of the tour at the end of the year.
“I think he is at the top of the list of all young guys in terms of his ability to manage big moments, trust himself at big moments and play his best tennis at big moments,” Annacone said.
The sooner such players appear in both rounds, the better. Not to make anyone forget Williams or the rivalry between Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, but to honor them by striving for their level of skill.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.