Defector Tennis Bureau Indian Wells Closing Dispatch: Out Of The Desert

The action at Indian Wells, one of the season’s biggest tournaments in men’s and women’s tennis, wrapped up this past Sunday. Defector tennis bureau chief Giri Nathan and correspondent Patrick Redford were on the grounds all week, and they’re back to close out Defector’s coverage with one last chat, this time about impromptu rich people dance parties, Iga Swiatek, and tennis fashion, as well as to present some awards.

Giri Nathan: How did we get three days of serious rain in a desert that averages 5 or 6 inches a year? Plus 2,500-3,000 bees. Cumulatively, I think that was about seven hours of delays. And a false-alarm emergency in the stadium during Carlitos’s press conference just to top it off. But it was all sensational.

Patrick Redford: Are vaguely biblical plagues having a moment? I’m excited for an army of frogs to invade a big match next year, forcing the Coachella Valley’s premier amphibian removal expert into action. It was a shocking experience to get blasted with rain over and over, though it certainly made the experience 15 percent more epic than I imagine it usually is. By that, of course, I am referring to the DJ at the tequila-sponsored tent by Stadium 2 making the most of his moment and going sicko mode on the decks to the ecstatic pleasure of the only enraptured crowd he probably drew all week. 

GN: Generally I was baffled by the people who were just sort of roaming around the grounds on days where there was no tennis out there—you came all this way just to go to a marked-up Nobu embedded in a stadium where no tennis is being played?—but during the rain delays there was nothing better to do. The impromptu dance party was an act of collective desperation that passed the time nicely. And after each rain, the air smelled so nice. I almost suspect that the rain delay increased the drama and quality of Friday’s semifinal between Coco Gauff and Maria Sakkari. Not just because we got to watch a choreographed band of squeegee moppers and air-blowers dry the courts, but because whoever stuck around through the delays was invited to come sit courtside, and because Sakkari and Gauff were extremely well-matched.

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PR: That match was perhaps my favorite of the whole week, partially because the back-and-forth nature of the game and the agonizing timesuck of the rain delay made it extra dramatic, but mostly because the style matchup was so good. Gauff, whose serve was wonky all week and once double faulted five times in one game, seemed to be totally cooked at 2-5 in the second set, only to kick into gear and play some of that inspired, muscular defense that helped her win the U.S. Open last year. Gauff’s forehand is still not any kind of offensive weapon, her serve seemed only to score her aces or miss by feet, yet watching her get to every ball and slap challenging backhands when she was fighting for her life was thrilling. Any match that involves three saved match points by a player hitting just 53 percent of her first serves is not going to be a high-quality technical thriller, it’s going to be a war. The comeback was cool, though I also admired Sakkari for regaining her composure, raising her level in response to Gauff, and hitting pure forehands en route to a comfortable third set win.

And we got to see it all in the front row alongside a pal who initially bought a ticket in the very top row of the upper bowl! What did you like in this one?

GN: Insofar as drawn-out rallies are part of what makes a tennis match exciting, sometimes iffy or at least not-unreturnable serving makes for an exciting match. We really saw both players have to rely on their baseline sturdiness to get it done. Late in the second set, Coco was playing in that totally liberated way that’s only possible when down match point, fending off the end of her tournament with winners. And Sakkari hasn’t always historically handled pressure well, so it was nice to see her hold onto this one, even if it only earned her a brief cameo in a one-sided final against Iga Swiatek. If you left the court to get a bite when Sakkari was serving at 4-5 in the first set, you might have returned to total carnage. Iga won 6-4, 6-0, and is clearly on a separate tier from all her opponents this week, losing only 21 games in six matches.

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PR: While the final was not thrilling, it was cool to see the best player in the WTA totally roll someone. We hadn’t seen a bagel all week until Swiatek won the second set in what felt like 15 minutes, which was probably not what anyone wanted from the final. The night before, you predicted Sakkari would win seven games, and at 4-4, it seemed you’d been conservative. The forehand was really working for her, and while it seemed to me that Swiatek would have to raise her level, actually, no, she’s so much better. I didn’t think it was even possible to win eight games in a row like that while only surrendering five points in the second set.

But I also didn’t think the stupid band inexplicably playing during the semi would soundtrack that beatdown with a sub-wedding-grade cover of “Cake By The Ocean.” What was more absurdly disrespectful, Swiatek smoking Sakkari or the organizers’ ersatz ignorance of sonic interruptions?

GN: It’s hard to say. It was deeply embarrassing to watch Swiatek and semifinal opponent Marta Kostyuk acknowledge the sound of the cover band wafting into the stadium. They’d be about to serve, only to make out the sounds of Bruno Mars, and you could almost see them wonder out loud, is this really happening? They deserved better. This is one of the most important tennis tournaments in the world! Blessedly, there was no outside music audible during the men’s semifinals, and the state of the Jannik Sinner-Carlos Alcaraz rivalry is strong. We’ve covered the match itself, but what are your broader thoughts on that rivalry, and how did they change, if at all, after I exposed you to some weapons-grade late-aughts Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal highlights?

PR: It’s funny, before you started me off on my expanded tennis curriculum, I thought Alcaraz-Sinner at the U.S. Open, the first step in my conversion experience, was not that far off from peak tennis. But after watching a game or two of Nadal and Federer at the 2009 Australian Open and seeing what the peak actually looks like—my mind expanding like Lady Jessica off that psychotropic worm goop—it made me way more hopeful and excited about the possibilities of another decade of what we started calling Vandiamos tennis. It’s clear that they expect this matchup to define their foreseeable futures, though both guys have a ton of room to grow and the potential to add a bunch of critical new wrinkles to their games. Alcaraz showed a new level of tactical maturity in his revenge tour, though I’m still left wondering how much further Sinner would have pushed him if he hadn’t injured his elbow. What I really want to see is less who takes the edge in the now-even rivalry, but what medium-term and long-term tactical shifts they can force out of each other. 

For Sinner and Alcaraz, the way in here is Federer’s one-handed backhand, a stroke I didn’t know existed until you showed me that highlight reel. I had to pause a couple minutes in to ask, “What is that???” The way Nadal would hammer that shot and rallies would proceed from there was a beautiful tactical entry point, almost as beautiful as the capris Nadal was wearing while murdering his knees chasing down every ball. What, I wonder, will be the defining shot exchange of the Sinner-Alcaraz battles to come. I don’t think we’ve seen it yet.

GN: I think it’s pretty fitting that you’d just finished watching about 30-40 hours of tennis from very close proximity and then still, on first exposure to Federer-Nadal 2009 Australian Open footage, paused the video to observe the following: “Federer is making me feel like I don’t understand how tennis works.” That’s the normal physiological response, yeah. And watching those two in their primes is a useful reminder that Alcaraz and Sinner, at age 20 and 22, have yet to hit the physical-technical peaks that we were seeing in that video. We don’t fully know what that will look like, how each player will entangle and elevate the other, and we already have a whole smorgasbord of comical points. Their U.S. Open matchup is my favorite tennis match of this decade so far, and I have no idea what their tennis could possibly like when they’re both five years further along in the gym and in their minds. One thing that’s clear, after we revisited young Rafa in pirate swag, is that these two need more distinct sartorial identities. Their sponsor is phoning it in.

PR: Carlitos’s pattern-clashing look is fun but exists neatly on a spectrum with Sinner’s cleaned-up look. That’s not OK! This rivalry has the biggest leg-size-gap of all the great rivalries, and that needs to be emphasized. Get Carlos on the Holger Rune shorts diet. Deck Sinner out in a ski-suit, or better yet, Gucci. I left the week wishing for more risk-taking in tennis fashion. The On stuff was boring, the Hugo Boss-Taylor Fritz situation was baffling, but Adidas was particularly offensive. Isn’t your bare logo on a black shirt essentially an anti-endorsement?

GN: I still want to see Daniil Medvedev in a white tank and sweatpants but I don’t know if that’s really Lacoste’s style. It just feels spiritually appropriate for him.

PR: Who will be the first player brave enough to accept the Levi’s sponsorship and compete in denim? Imagine blasting a date-walnut shake while watching Stefanos Tsitsipas sprint around in a denim vest. Chills…

GN: Don’t let Andre Agassi hear you say “first”! My man was crushing backhands in Rune-short jorts. An icon.

PR: Take it up with my teacher! He was too busy showing me footage of peak Justine Henin, who strikes me as one of the realest hoopers of the past 20 years, going toe-to-toe with a young Serena Williams. As a cycling person, it doesn’t sit quite right with me that a Belgian ever could have been such a great tennis player, but she has to be one of the purest ball-strikers ever to hold a racquet, right? Maybe that’s Marat Safin, a gigantic beast cursed with perfect technique, or Fabrice Santoro, tiny genius. I suppose it’s probably ideal to start me on a diet of ornate artistes, though I think the arc of my long-term fandom will also bend towards Rafa at some point. Maybe the only thing more impressive than perfection is a blood-and-thunder freak who can will himself into being even more perfect. I was so sad that he withdrew from Indian Wells, if only because it might have been my only chance to see his volcanism up close.

GN: There’s nothing like him. Within a few minutes of watching young Rafa, you noticed how hard he was going for every single ball—as if someone once told him “don’t give up” as a child, and he interpreted that as a lifelong command. That’s continued to define his entire tennis career. I hope there’s still a little more of it to watch, and that you can catch it in person somehow. But the more optimistic way to look at it is that you’re now tennis-pilled and can be talking exactly that wistfully about Carlitos someday as an old head.

So, what’s your overall review? Is tennis good?

PR: I will answer it this way: I have an alarm set to watch Diane Parry at Miami this afternoon. Tennis is so good it deserves to win the James Naismith Memorial Award for Best New Sport. Congrats to tennis! I think we should wrap this up by handing out a few more awards. Would you care to read the nominees for the Rafael Nadal Award For Explosive Muscularity?

GN: Sakkari tied with Jiri Lehecka; Holger Rune as a close runner-up. Who was the Best Player You Only Saw Lose?

PR: Congratulations to Parry, Alex de Minaur, and Caroline Garcia for participating, you all did well in Stadium 2, which is where we saw this year’s winner Sebastian Korda lose to Medvedev in a hilarious anti-serving, winners-only three-setter that featured 16 breaks.

We have to move to a sad one next, the Bianca Andreescu Award For Saddest Injury.

GN: That goes to Tommy Paul, who was up a set on Medvedev, and dead-even with him in a second-set tiebreak, when he landed gruesomely on his left ankle. He got the ankle wrapped up between sets, but the rest of the match was miserable—so much so that we left the venue early for the only time all week—and he’d just stood on the cusp of one of the biggest wins of his career. That would’ve set up a final against Alcaraz, whom he beat in one of two extremely competitive matches last summer, so there are a lot of hypotheticals to ponder for poor Tommy.

Now can you take us home by announcing the winner of the Carlitos Alcaraz Award For Most Sweetest Person?

PR: Swiatek made a valiant effort, Medvedev mounted a dark horse candidacy by egging the crowd on late in the final, but the champion is the champion for a reason: Come on down Carlitos. I can’t wait to see if you can defend both titles next year.

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