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Indian Wells: A desert paradise for some; an unfathomable puzzle for others
Not everyone excels when the tennis Tour moves to the desert, for a variety of reasons
A trip to the California desert in the early spring sunshine and playing tennis in temperatures in the 20s Celsius (usually), what’s not to like? Tennis players have always been lucky that their Tour generally follows the sun and so when they arrive for the BNP Paribas Open in early March each year, they are usually in good spirits, enjoying the weather and ready to go for the Sunshine Double of Indian Wells and Miami.
However, mastering the conditions well enough to win the title, or go deep in the tournament is far from easy.
While Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have each won the men’s title five times, no woman has won it more than twice, which is surprising on paper, given the fact that all the greats played it regularly (Serena Williams aside, for well-documented reasons, although she still managed to win it twice too).
Faster through the air, slow off the ground
Though the sun is more than pleasant for the players, conditions there are not easy. The ball bounces higher than almost anywhere else, while the altitude of 42 metres, while not in the same ball park as some venues, means the ball travels faster through the air.
However, the court surface is notoriously slow in Indian Wells, which makes for a difficult adjustment; when the ball flies off the racket but then checks on the court, it takes time to make that change and players can often get caught out.
Andy Murray reached the final in 2009 on one of his first visits, losing to Rafael Nadal in a sandstorm in the final. (oh yes, it can also be windy) Other than that, though, he’s only been past the quarter-finals once.
“It’s not that easy to control the ball here,” Murray told reporters a few years ago. “No matter how many days you spend here, that’s always going to be the case, because the balls are lively. When it’s warm…it’s tricky.”
Problems are sometimes in the mind
Daniil Medvedev is another who has struggled in the desert. The Russian, who arrives this year on the back of three straight titles, has always found it tough going, having never made it past the fourth round in five visits.
In an interview with Tennis Majors, Medvedev’s coach Gilles Cervara explained why his man has yet to get to grips with playing at Indian Wells.
“He’s never really liked playing in the desert, but Doha and Dubai just swept that aside,” Cervara said. “He thought it was impossible to play well there. It’s not. But it’s going to be different because playing in Indian Wells is very specific with the surface, the heat, the cold, the dryness, the balls.
Others players thrive
One player’s nightmare is another’s paradise. For the latter, read Daniela Hantuchova. A hard-hitting, flat ball-striker, Hantuchova simply loved playing in the desert, winning the title twice, in 2002 and 2007.
“It’s just a whole atmosphere,” she said in 2009. “I’m so relaxed here, and at the same time very focused. There are no distractions. I come here, I practice hard, I go back to the hotel, and go to play golf sometimes. It’s just very, very focused.
“And even things I have to do for the tournament doesn’t seem that it’s taking any energy from me. So, you know, whatever I do here, I just seem to really enjoy it the whole time.”
Ljubicic: “If I had to play a match for my career, it would be here”
Ivan Ljubicic beat Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick to win the title in 2010, a year he summed up his love for the desert.
“I like playing in these conditions,” he said. “I say that million times, and I’m gonna repeat it. It’s great for me to play in the desert. Slow courts, very high bounce so I can use my rotations, and dry air so the ball is…going through the air quite quickly so I can use my first serve as well and hard shots. If I have to play match of my career, it would be somewhere around here.”
For others, the fact that Indian Wells is often the place where most sponsors want to do their photoshoots can be a distraction.
“This is the tournament I like the least. You have 128 women, 128 men, it is a magnificent event,” he said in 2021, quoted by firstsportz.com “They want to pay more than any other tournament. They are doing all they can. It’s just that every brand needs a photo op and you don’t have time to practice. It’s four or five hour photo ops and you’re completely tired. Tennis is secondary. I hate that.”
Indian Wells is not for everyone, it seems, but the cream tends to rise to the top. In the past few years, there have been a few surprise winners, with Dominic Thiem, Cameron Norrie and Taylor Fritz winning the men’s event while Paula Badosa got her name on the winners’ trophy in 2021, the year it was played in October due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Whoever comes out on top, though, one thing is certain. They will have done so by embracing the conditions, not by fighting them.