By Jane Voigt
March 9, 2018 — The BNP Paribas Open has become, without many views to the contrary, the nexus of tennis. It doesn’t step on the Grand Slams because it doesn’t rise to that level of respect. However, “Indian Wells,” its laid-back name, brings together fans, players and sports in their view of the event … simple the best outside of the majors.
Larry Ellison, the owner of the tournament, is the man who elevated it to that status predominantly through his own wealth — he is the co-founder and CEO of Oracle. Nothing seems to be too much when improving the Indian Wells’ product. Want Hawkeye on all the eight show courts. No problem. Want tony restaurants rimming the interior of Stadium 2. Let’s get going.
Any tournament, though, can only be as good as its players.
The biggest marquee name this year has to be Serena Williams. It’s her first big tournament — she did play Fed Cup last month — since giving birth to daughter Alexa Olympia Ohanian five months ago. In her first match last night, Williams struck gold with a quick 2-set win over Zarina Diyas of Kazakstan, 7-5, 6-3. However, her 15-month break took its toll in the ranking department, meaning she is not seeded at Indian Wells. Because of that she has earned the designation of a dangerous floater. If she gets past Kiki Bertens (No. 29) in round two, Serena will more than likely face big sister Venus who has a lofty seeding of No. 8.
“I almost cried before the match (laughs),” Serena told the press afterwards. “I texted Alexis and was like, is it normal that I want to cry because I really miss her. Playing at night really helped because I know she goes to bed; she goes to sleep. So I know I can’t play with her right now so there’s nothing I can do.”
Serena first won Indian Wells in 1999 and then again in 2001. She did not play the tournament again for another 14 years due to a calamity of scenes, some that were truly racist, which drove the family away. Her return in 2015 and Venus’s return the following year have certainly patched holes in a draw promoted as “just below a Grand Slam.”
Another new mother, 2-time Grand Slam champion and former number one, Victoria Azarenka, also returned to the game last night after not having played since Wimbledon due to injury and legal complications surrounding custody of her son. (California law forbids her to leave the state, during custody procedures.) Azarenka also is a 2-time Indian Wells champion (2012, 2016).
“I’m glad to be here, glad to be in a routine,” she said, as reported by the WTA, after defeating Heather Watson, 6-4, 6-2. “Probably the hardest thing to do was to lower my expectations today and just to go out there and try to enjoy the moment, and, for once, be nice to yourself on the court.” Ironically, Watson was the last player Azarenka beat before her time off.
Have the two former number ones chatted over children? “She’s been incredibly helpful,” Serena said of Azarenka, according to the BNP Paribas Open website. “When I was pregnant I would text her and ask her questions. She’s always been so helpful. She’s such a great mom.”
Roger Federer (No. 1) will begin his title defense tomorrow against Argentine Federico Delbonis. The 20-time Grand Slam champion is one of two members of the so-called Big Four ready for competition. Novak Djokovic, even with elbow problems a continuing issue, is seeded number ten. But Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka won’t be competing because of lingering injuries. Without a doubt, that puts Federer at the top of the list to once again take the title. It would be his sixth in the California desert.
The three other top seeds are: Marin Cilic (No.2), Grigor Dimitrov (No. 3), and Alexander Zverev (No. 3). Looking at the draw, Down The Tee will go out on a limb and project Federer as a semifinalist. And, if Grigor Dimitrov has anything to say he’ll be his opponent. After losing to Federer last month in Rotterdam, the Bulgarian is out to stop the Federer express.
“I’ve been more consistent,” Dimitrov said, according to Express.com. “I wouldn’t say I’m at peace. I don’t want to be at peace. I’m only 26. It’s war. All jokes aside when I get to the court I want to push myself to the maximum.”
Dimitrov’s goals must surmount, though, the reality of his record in the Coachella Valley. He’s only progressed to the third round in six appearances.
Kei Nishikori (No. 22) will also be on deck for his first big return, after taking off the remainder of 2017 following his first-round loss to Gael Monfils at the Canadian Open in August due to a persist and nagging wrist injury. Nishikori has played Challenger-level tournaments to get back his match toughness. He also played in Acapulco at the end of February, but lost in the first round to up-coming Canadian teen sensation, Denis Shapovalov.