Entries in BNP Paribas Open (29)


Donald Young finally finds satisfaction on court

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The battles are over now. Donald Young against the tennis establishment. Against himself. And on Tuesday, with the temperature reaching 96 degrees, against favored Louis Pouille.

For the first time, Young was into the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open.

Not for the first time, a career that was too full of potential, of obscenities, of second-guessing, brought forth that most agonizing of phrases in sport: Oh what might have been.

Let us say this, at age 27, too late to reach the heights but not too late to achieve satisfaction, Young, who was going to be the Tiger Woods of tennis, a young black man who was the No. 1 ranked junior in the world — not just the U.S. — apparently has found contentment.

No more letters loaded with profanities castigating the United States Tennis Association, the organization that governs tennis in this country and that six years ago a frustrated Young felt was governing his life.

No more winless streaks, as in 2012 when Young went 17 matches without a victory.

No more questions from the media on why and how the kid who was labeled a prodigy, coached by his mother, a teaching professional, didn’t live up to expectations, ours as much as his.

Pouille is 15th in the world rankings, an upset winner last summer over Rafael Nadal in the U.S. Open. Young is 60th. When Young blasted out in the second set Tuesday, then allowed a 5-0 lead in the third to start getting away, the result could have been predictable.

Instead, it was unforgettable.

Young was a 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 winner. This after a surprising triumph in the previous match over Sam Querrey, who won the Acapulco Open a few days back and had stunned Novak Djokovic in the third round of last year’s Wimbledon.

“My hand was shaking quite a bit toward the end,” said Young of the situation against Pouille, “but I was happy to pull through. The other guy had more (total) points, but I’m winning.”

And he’s smiling, unburdened by what others thought, an individual at peace with himself, loving where he is finally and loving what he does. That certainly is a change from the painful times six and seven years ago when the USTA wanted him under its control and his mother, Ilona, and Young refused to accede.

Maybe it’s the same thing now with the Ball brothers, the basketball players whose father calls the shots as his sons follow his directions, at least off the court. For Young the instruction also came on the court, and there was a conflict.

He dashed off a tweet, with no swear words deleted, that said the “USTA screwed me for the last time.” That was in 2011, when Young should have been at his peak as a tennis player, although in retrospect he may have peaked at age 15.

Young was moved up to face older, stronger athletes. He lost matches. Surely he also lost his confidence.

“Yeah,” he said, when asked if he would change the early years looking back. “At the time it seemed right. Now, knowing, I wouldn’t take away all of it, but  ... I wouldn’t blame anybody. It was a first time. There were a few decisions. They thought I would do well at a faster pace. Hindsight is 100 percent.“

Young wished he had other Americans of his age to compete against and develop friendships, as Taylor Fritz and Francis Tiafoe have now. He was alone. And he was African-American in a sport that was predominately white.

“The kids now, they’re playing each other,” said Young. “They have a chance to get their feet wet. A great group of guys. It’s a different generation. They trash talk each other, say anything and get away with it.”

But if there was bitterness, it has gone with the years and matches.

“You live for days like this,” said Young, responding to a question. “It’s my job. I love it. When I’m gone two, three days I miss it. What else better could I do?”


Rafa flexing his muscles

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The bicep is the clue, the left one, so much bigger than the right, stretching the sleeve of Rafael Nadal’s post-match T-shirt. Tennis players, like blacksmiths, pound with one arm, hour after hour, day after day, season after season.

The serve, the forehand, all done with Nadal’s left. The two-handed backhand doesn’t make much difference. There’s an imbalance between the two arms, as there is for anyone who’s spent a lifetime in the sport.

Nadal is 30 now, old — veteran of more than 1,000 pro matches over 14 years, and winner of 14 Grand Slams — and yet in today’s world of improved diet and exercise techniques, he is young.

Roger Federer, beating Nadal in the final, won the Australian Open a month and a half ago at 35. And Nadal, apparently free of one injury after another, said, “I am playing at a very high level.” That includes his 6-3, 6-2, win Sunday in the BNP Paribas Open over an Argentinean named Guido Pella.

The great ones just keep playing: Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray — yes, great, even though Murray, the No. 1 seed, No. 1 in the world rankings, was upset Saturday night by Vasek Pospisil. 

Playing against the other stars. Playing against themselves.

Tennis is their life, as well as their job. Tennis is what they do, what Rafa Nadal does, until someday he won’t be able to do it any longer.

They are competitors. They are globetrotters. Starting in December, Nadal has been in Dubai, Australia, Mexico and now the California desert. It beats being trapped in an office cubicle, especially when you’re able to beat most of your opponents.

Is it unusual that in tennis, as in golf, fans cheer for the favorite, not the underdog? They want Federer to win, Nadal to win. When that happens the paying customers are satisfied they got what they expected, what they wanted. “Hey, saw Djokovic break serve.”

Hard to know what the players want other than good facilities (the Tennis Garden at Indian Wells is one of the finest), good health and an effective game. They are nomads, facing the same people across the net or in the media rooms, trying to get a little more topspin, trying to do a little less explaining. Not that they don’t understand what comes with the territory.

Most of the better players, no matter if they’re from Switzerland, Serbia or Shanghai, speak English impressively. Nadal, however, used translators for his first several years. He has picked up the language, although with a strong accent, and sometimes his thoughts as well as his words are confusing to the listener.

To his credit, what Nadal, along with others of his skill level, has learned is he must deal with all sorts of questions from the press, some professional, some personal, some stupid.

On Sunday, after Nadal said he thought he played a solid match against the 166th-ranked Pella — “For a few moments I played well; for a few moments I played less well” — he was asked where the sport would be in the future. Would the men all be 6-foot-5? Would there be limits on racquets?

Nadal doesn’t want a serve and volley game, but one in which shots go back and forth, long rallies. “People can think it’s because it helps me, but I am talking about the sport overall, no? ... I think good points, if we want to maintain a good show for the people.”

With his frantic movements and his wicked forehands, Nadal presents an exceptional show. He’s a scrambler, a battler, not as graceful as Federer but arguably more exciting to watch.

“In Melbourne,” he said, meaning the Australian Open, “I played some great matches. In Acapulco (where he lost in the final to Sam Querrey) I played well. In Brisbane (before the Australian) I played well. In Abu Dhabi (Dubai, the end of December) I played great.

“Four events I played at a very high level. Very happy the way I started the season. Now there is another opportunity.”

An opportunity to continue flexing his muscles.


Venus makes more history at Indian Wells

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The little sister — is it fair to describe Serena Williams that way? — withdrew a few days earlier because of an injury. And now, despite chants on her behalf from the crowd, it seemed Venus Williams was also out of here, a second-round loser in the BNP Paribas Open.

Venus was crushed in the first set, and after first falling behind 4-1 in the second set she was facing match point, as well as facing a competitor she knows all too well, Jelena Jankovic.

“There’s a lot of history out here with us,” Venus would say later  And on this Saturday, when the temperature reached 92 degrees, Williams would create more, rallying for a 1-6, 7-6 (5), 6-1 victory.

She’s always had the determination and now, three months from her 37th birthday, Venus still has the game.

Two California girls, in a way, Venus, born and raised in Compton, the tough suburb of Los Angeles, and Jankovic, the Serb who with her winnings and endorsements built a 20,000-square-foot home in Rancho Santa Fe, where Phil Mickelson resides, west of the San Jacinto miles from this desert locale, near the Pacific Ocean.

This is the first big tournament every year following the Australian Open, with both men and women in competition, like the four Grand Slams. 

Back in 2001, when the world was different, and people less understanding or forgiving, the Williams sisters were to meet in a semi here at Indian Wells.

The day before, Elena Dementieva accused the girls’ father, Richard, of deciding who would win family matches — she later said it was a joke — and when Venus pulled out four minutes before the scheduled start the crowd was outraged.

Boos filled the stadium. Two days later, when Serena defeated Kim Clijsters, the derision continued. Richard Williams said the predominantly white crowd booing his African-American daughters was pure racism. The Williams sisters refused to enter the event, not yet known as the BNP, year after year. Finally in 2015, Serena, after soul-searching and many discussions, returned, and then last year Venus did, to the delight of the tournament and the fans.

The spectators, thinking Venus was done Saturday, started chanting and applauding rhythmically, as if they were at a football game, “Let’s go Vee-nus. Let’s go Vee-nus.”

She went. And in their 13th meeting of a rivalry that began in 2005 and was even at six wins apiece, Williams found her game. Jankovic, once No, 1 but never a Grand Slam winner, lost hers. And the match.

“At match point she was off to the side,” the 32-year-old Jankovic said of Venus, “and all I had to was hit it. It was a big mistake, a bad error. I’m still nervous after coming back from injuries last year. Venus played well. I had my chances.”

In any sport, particularly tennis, one must take advantage of those chances. They come so infrequently that when squandered — particularly against a champion such as Venus, who was in the final of the Australian two months ago, losing to Serena — a victory turns into defeat.

“Venus is a great champion,” said Jankovic, “She plays so well.”

In her first tournament since Australia, Venus started slowly, to be kind. In the desert, dry and hot, balls fly farther than in more lush, humid areas. Williams was spraying shots long and wide.

“That’s why they have a second set,” said Williams, who then forced a third, appropriately ending that the match with a service ace.

“I think the biggest takeaway from the Australian for me,” said Venus, “was just even more confidence. That's the biggest takeaway. I definitely look forward, like, all right, I want to build on that and continue to play well and to just improve my game, which is what I worked on.

“So I'm not necessarily living in the past. It just makes me more excited for the future.”


French win proved all too satisfying for the Joker

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The Joker, they call him, and there were times that Novak Djokovic — yes, the “D” is silent — with his skill at mimicry could make us laugh. But now, after a year when triumph was muted by disappointment, he sees life and tennis from a different view.

Once at the top, of course, as the line goes in the musical Evita, it’s a long, long way to fall. Djokovic didn’t tumble that far, but not only did he fail to win either of last two Grand Slam tournaments, after winning the previous four in succession, he dropped from the No. 1 ranking to behind Andy Murray.

Progression worked against him. A great start, an unsatisfying finish. Four straight Grand Slam victories, beginning with the 2015 Wimbledon and climaxing with the 2016 French Open, his first win there.

Satisfaction worked against him. Asked if after the French he subconsciously relaxed, Djokovic unhesitatingly answered, “Yes.”

And why not? Since the start of the Open era in tennis, April 1968, only four men had won each of the four Slams: Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Now this agile Serb had become the fifth.

“It was the crowning achievement for me,” said a candid Djokovic. “The French was a priority, but it took a lot of emotion out of me.”

He was sitting in the interview room Thursday at the BNP Paribas Open, the defending champ, seemingly relaxed, unquestionably honest — with himself and the media. It was hot outside, 91 degrees in this desert community some 15 miles southeast of Palm Springs, but inside the air conditioning was working its magic.

“Generally, I see myself in perspective from the end of last season,” said Djokovic. He will be 30 in May, and despite the struggles after the French, relatively speaking — a third-round loss at Wimbledon, a finals loss at the U.S. Open, a quick departure from the Rio Olympics — he was still considered the man to beat.

“I feel much better in terms of my game from the mental side, than I was some months ago,” he said.

The pressure never ceases, pressure to advance when you’re young, pressure to persist as you become established.

“No doubt there’s pressure,” agreed Djokovic. “It’s part of the work. It means we’re doing something that is worthy and has value.

“Something that I always dreamed of doing on such a high level. Certainly as one of the top players, one of favorites to win a Grand Slam, you put pressure on yourself.”

Until winning the French, until making history.

The years and the service returns and the forehands caught up with him. It was as if he said, “Phew. That’s over.” But in the competitive world of tennis, it’s never over until as long as you’re on the court, especially when you have a reputation to enhance.

“I don’t regret things in my life,” said Djokovic, who has won 12 Slams, fourth highest behind Federer, 18, and Nadal and Pete Sampras, 14 each.

“But maybe I should have taken a long break after the French to recharge emotionally. It didn’t happen. I just kept going.”

Not very far in results but, Djokovic said, a considerable distance in his mind.

“It was a lesson to be learned,” he said. “I think those four to five months the second part of 2016 were very important to me, for my growth as a player, as a human being.

“Particularly after the U.S. Open. Then I had those couple months where I wasn't myself on the court. Now I'm at the better place and I believe that I'm headed in the right direction."

Djokovic is in the tough part of the draw at Indian Wells, a tournament he’s won five times previously. In his bottom quarter are Federer, a four-time winner, Nadal, a two-time champ, and Nick Kyrgios.

“I haven't had too many draws like that," Djokovic said. "It's quite amazing to see that many quality players are in one quarter.”

You might say it’s no Djoke.


No ‘next man up’ in tennis

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The words went straight to the heart and — no less important in today’s sporting world — the television ratings. “Sadly, I have to withdraw from the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and the Miami Open,” said Serena Williams in a statement.

Of course it was in a statement. That’s the way stars dole out bad news these days. In a statement, or in the case of Tiger Woods, on his web site. As little direct contact as possible.

So we accept it. The way Serena has to accept her knee problems.

The way people in charge of the BNP tennis event have to accept the reality that the world’s No. 1 women’s player will not be entering what is the sport’s first big event since the Australian Open, which Serena won, defeating older sister Venus in a historic final.

The way that golf people accept that Tiger Woods is battling the same difficulties as Serena, relative old age leading to constant ailments that never heal.

There's nobody to blame. There are injuries in every sport, as we’re all too aware with Kevin Durant. “Next man up” is the litany. The trouble in individual sports, dependent on stars and personalities, sports without team loyalty, is there may not be a “next” man or woman.

There’s only one Serena. Only one Tiger.

The older you get, the more you’re injured. The fact is undeniable. The years of swinging a tennis racquet or golf club take their toll.

Tiger was different, special. He brought non-golfers to golf, attracted a new, expanded following, crossed ethnic and social barriers.

It wasn’t the game itself that proved fascinating. Some didn’t know a birdie from a bogey. But they knew Tiger.

Knew he was winning, knew he was spectacular, knew he was unique.

Now Tiger, 41, after two back surgeries, rehab and painful attempts at playing, is idled in Florida.

Three weeks ago in the Genesis Open, the former Los Angeles Open, an event benefitting the Tiger Woods Foundation, an event for which Woods was the unofficial host, he was ordered by his doctor not even to appear at Riviera Country Club to address the media but to stay horizontal. That’s serious.

Serena’s condition, the left knee that bothered her at the U.S. Open last summer, seems less critical. However, Williams is 35 and has had knee troubles in the past. That she waited until two days ago to announce her withdrawal from the BNP Paribas is somewhat bewildering. Did she think the knee would heal in a few days when she hadn’t played in a tournament since the Australian at the end of January?

Indian Wells already was missing Victoria Azarenka, on maternity leave; Maria Sharapova, who has one month left in her 15-month suspension for taking a drug banned by the WTA but available in her native Russia; and two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, recovering from stab wounds inflicted during a robbery of her apartment in the Czech Republic just before Christmas.

The advice in these situations from some is not to write about those who aren’t in a tournament but those who are. Yet Serena and Sharapova truly are bigger than their sport, just as Tiger is in his. They can’t be ignored. 

People who wouldn’t cross the street, or the base line, to watch tennis would very happily choose to see Williams. Or Sharapova.

Even in team sports it’s all about the individual, about Tom Brady or Steph Curry or Alex Ovechkin, the stars who make the money and the headlines, which certainly describes Serena.

Bill Veeck, the late team owner and promoter, used to say if you had to depend on baseball fans for support “you’d be out of business by Mother’s Day.” You’d better bring in the curious, the outsiders.

Veeck did it with gimmicks, sending a midget, Eddie Gaedel, to bat for the St. Louis Browns, holding disco night with the Chicago White Sox.

Tennis has to rely on famous players. In America, maybe the world, there’s no woman tennis player as famous, and successful, as Serena Williams. She’ll be missed.