There is often a Groundhog Day feel to the early rounds of a major tennis tournament, and there is no question that this BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells is major in all ways other than an official designation from the sport.
Sunday, there were three superstars on the menu, all playing in the massive, and packed, 16,100-seat stadium.
Serena Williams took the court at mid-afternoon, followed by
Williams beat a 21-year-old from Kazakhstan, Zarina Diyas. It was Serena over Zarina, 6-2, 6-0. Diyas had just slightly more of a chance to pull off an upset in this match than she did to win the California State lottery. The match took a merciful 53 minutes.
Federer brushed aside Diego Schwartzman, 22, of Argentina, 6-4, 6-2. Schwartzman's time would have been better served filling out one of those NCAA brackets with a billion-dollar prize if you get them all right. Federer was more charitable in his execution of the obvious, winning in 1 hour 3 minutes.
Under the lights, Nadal banged around Igor Sijsling of the Netherlands, who is just one year his junior at 27. The score was a predictable 6-4, 6-2, and, because Nadal plays a bit more slowly and fidgets a lot on the court, the match time was 1:12. Sijsling was No. 134, and it was the Green Bay Packers against Palm Desert High. Nothing unexpected and slightly unfair.
This is not meant to denigrate the other players. Someday, Diyas, Schwartzman or Sijsling may rise to No. 1.
OK, scratch that.
The fascination in this sport, as many others, is with the big stars. Just a chance to see them is enough. An actual competitive match would be an unexpected bonus.
Another fascination is that so many fans are willing and happy to watch these early-round bloodlettings at high prices. In defense of Indian Wells, they have made the grounds here, and the accompanying amenities, so appealing that a couple of 6-2, 6-0 matches at $20 a game somehow seems worth it.
That's why the daily grounds passes have become so popular. Out on those courts, you really can't be sure about the outcome.
The brackets must be served. The often predictable march to the exciting matches at the end are inescapable. There are only so many seats for semifinals and finals.
Diyas, as young as she is, was not a newcomer to a big crowd and big stage. She was playing for the first time here, and was nowhere near her current No. 32 ranking when she faced U.S. junior star CiCi Bellis at the
Bellis, 15, had upset a seeded player,
This time, Diyas was the grizzled pro, winning in three sets, and, most likely, learning from the experience. Not enough, however, to avoid double faulting repeatedly, and in key spots, against Williams.
"It definitely felt back to normal out there," Williams said afterward, referring to the emotion Friday night over her first match back here in 14 years. But the quote also addressed how she and the big stars feel in the early rounds.
Federer's opponent, Schwartzman, was looking for his third win of the season. Before his first-round match here, he had never won at this level, the
"I'm happy I got the first match out of the way," Federer said. The "out of the way" part likely also summarized the sentiments and goals of Williams and Nadal.
This was Sijsling's third attempt to win a match here, and when he did so in the first round, the next look at the draw had to spoil his excitement somewhat. He has a 1-10 record against top 10 players and had lost in the first round of six of the eight tournaments he entered this year.
Nadal said he was pleased with his movement, that it was a good first match.
"I played with not many mistakes," he said.
So, the day went predictably for three players who will all be in any discussion of the bests of all time.
Their familiar mandate to themselves was simple: Play a few feel-it-out points early. Then go to your big shot when it gets the least bit sticky —Williams her serve, Federer his serve and forehand, and Nadal some extra topspin off the ground so the ball bounces so high that the opponent is semi-helpless.
The rest is even easier.
Get through the match, do the on-court interview, sign three tennis balls and whack two of them into the upper desk.
Check your watch to make sure dinner reservations can be met. Then come back in a couple of days and do it again.