Here’s to the pluggers, the runts of the underdog litter, and to those who toil to come back from injuries as much for their own satisfaction as for the fame of a No. 1 ranking that might never be theirs.
Here’s to Philipp Kohlschreiber, a 35-year-old German who has never ranked better than 16th in the world, usually respectable but never good enough to beat a No. 1 player until he booted Novak Djokovic from the third round of the BNP Paribas Open on Tuesday. Everything had to fall in place perfectly for Kohlschreiber to win the continuation of a match that had been suspended because of rain Monday night with Djokovic holding a 1-0 lead. Somehow it all clicked, and the result was a stunning 6-4, 6-4 victory.
“I’m not unhappy that I’m not in the spotlight. I’m a very quiet guy,” Kohlschreiber said. “Of course, you wish to have maybe a top-10 ranking once in your career, but if I’m not able to achieve that, I’m very happy how my life is going on.”
And here’s to Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, once a promising junior player whose progression was stalled by a succession of debilitating injuries. With her misfortunes in the past, she won a tournament in Dubai last month and followed that up by ending No. 1-ranked Naomi Osaka’s bid for a second straight title at Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Bencic was in control throughout her 6-3, 6-1 victory on noisy Court 2, forcing Osaka into an uncomfortable defensive posture while demonstrating the skills that distinguished her as someone to watch before she was overtaken by problems with her back, thigh, and wrist.
“It changed my perspective,” Bencic said of being unable to compete. “I’m so happy to be on the court again. I’m actually enjoying [that] I’m healthy and I’m not putting the pressure on myself. I know how frustrating it was when I wasn’t able to play at all.”
Kohlschreiber was refreshed by the extra rest he got Monday night and knew the sunny, dry conditions on Tuesday would work in his favor. As he’d hoped, the warmth made the ball bounce high and Djokovic didn’t adapt well to its bounds and spins.
Djokovic looked flat-footed, nothing like the dominant winner of the last three Grand Slam titles. It was 3-3 in the first set when Kohlschreiber realized the great opportunity he had. “Getting closer to the set, holding my service games, which is not easy against Novak because he is such a great returner,” Kohl-schreiber said. “So I know from that point on it’s going to be a very interesting match.”
An understatement from an understated guy. Kohlschreiber broke Djokovic’s serve for a 4-3 lead, closed out the set without difficulty, and gained another break in the first game of the second set. Kohlschreiber broke again to go up 5-2 and the crowd stirred when Djokovic broke back and held, but Kohlschreiber wasn’t about to let this moment slip away. He won on a forehand Djokovic unsuccessfully challenged. “I’m not the biggest guy on tour,” said Kohlschreiber, who stands a compact 5-foot-10 and 154 pounds. “I’m not serving out easily some matches so I have to work very hard for my victories.”
Djokovic didn’t have the inclination or time to brood. He headed almost immediately to play a quarterfinal doubles match on court 3 with Fabio Fognini. “I must admit I was thinking about it,” Djokovic said of his early exit in an event he has won three times. “When I hit a good return I was wondering why this didn’t happen in singles.
“It’s just one of those days. You just have to congratulate your opponent and move on.”
Kohlschreiber advanced to a fourth-round match against No. 18 Gael Monfils. Djokovic advanced to the doubles semifinals. “It’s good for me that I’m participating in doubles here because I get a chance to rectify the wrongs, if you want,” Djokovic said.
Osaka also praised her opponent, whom she first faced in 2013. “She was just playing so well and she’s such an incredible player,” Osaka said of Bencic, who will face No. 5 Karolina Pliskova. Osaka also made a point of saying she wasn’t sad about a loss that might have gnawed at her in the past. Winning back-to-back Grand Slam titles has accelerated her maturity, sustaining her through a coaching transition from Sascha Bajin to Jermaine Jenkins. “I feel pretty good right now,” Osaka said, “because I think, given the circumstances, I tried my best and I don’t really have any regrets.”