Column: Teenage dream: Youngest player at Indian Wells delivers striking upset

This was all so new that Amanda Anisimova couldn’t resist breaking her routine to peek at the wonderfully strange scene around her Sunday morning.

She saw thousands of spectators soaking up the gentle sun at Stadium 1 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden while they waited for her to face Petra Kvitova, and she was impressed, though not intimidated. She was startled by only one aspect of being on the premier court at the BNP Paribas Open.

“All the TV screens,” Anisimova said of the monitors placed high above the playing surface. “I would see myself on the big screen. I wasn’t used to that.”

Anisimova at 16 is giddy and giggly but all business when she has to be. She’s powerful but smooth, owner of a potent backhand but not partial to it, intently focused on tennis but curious enough to look beyond the lines. She has used her Twitter feed to praise equal-rights advocate Billie Jean King and support stricter gun-control measures based on the experiences of a friend who attends Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and escaped the shooting that killed 17 people last month. Anisimova is finding her voice and finding new levels of her game.


Her striking 6-2, 6-4 upset of Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion who was seeded No. 9, left New Jersey-bred Anisimova shaking in disbelief. But it also strengthened her confidence that she can be a teen phenom who doesn’t burn out or fade away, as many do in a sport that is as mentally challenging as it is physically draining.

Anisimova, who won the U.S. Open junior title last year, is the youngest player in the draw and the youngest to reach the fourth round since 2005. Before dismissing Kvitova she lost only nine games in defeating world No. 94 Pauline Parmentier and No. 23 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. A year ago, Anisimova’s Women’s Tennis Assn. world ranking was 717. She arrived here at a career-best No. 149. She will leave that in the dust.

“Playing U.S. Open juniors, when I won that, that gave me a lot of confidence going in here, but I realize that it’s completely different in the WTA,” said Anisimova, who is coached by her father, Konstantin. “And I have just been adjusting and it’s been really different. You know, I have been doing pretty well, so ...”

She didn’t have to finish that sentence. It’s clear she’s thriving.

On Sunday, she zoomed to a 4-1 lead in the first set and ended it in 28 minutes with a devastating backhand down the line. Kvitova, trying to extend a 14-match winning streak, got an early break in the second set and got out to a 3-1 lead but Anisimova capitalized on her third break point in the sixth game to pull even at 3-3 and broke Kvitova’s serve again for 5-3. Kvitova broke back but Anisimova prevailed when Kvitova netted a forehand.

“I have no pressure going onto the court and all I can think about is having fun, whatever happens,” Anisimova said. “That’s definitely an advantage.”

By contrast, Sloane Stephens has faced plenty of pressure since she won the U.S. Open last September. Playing in the U.S. for the first time since that milestone, Stephens broke Victoria Azarenka’s serve on each of her first five chances and earned a 6-1, 7-5 victory at Stadium 2. It was the first triumph for No. 13 seed Stephens in four tries against Azarenka, who hasn’t played much since she became embroiled in a custody dispute over her young son. By any measure it was an emphatic step forward for Stephens after a slow start this year, including a first-round exit from the Australian Open.

Stephens was pleased but businesslike Sunday.

“To get a win here, it’s not easy having a bye and then playing somebody who has already played a match,” said Stephens, who acknowledged her life became busier after the U.S. Open due to new opportunities. “Feeling good. Everything’s all good.”

Good isn’t giddy, like Anisimova was Sunday. Stephens knew exactly how she felt. In 2010, Stephens, then 17, played a close match on the same court against Vera Zvonareva, soon to be No. 2 in the world.

“For me that was, like, the greatest thing ever,” Stephens said. “So I could only imagine playing somebody like Kvitova on center court, as an American. That had to be amazing for her.”

The more Anisimova wins, the more expectations she will face. If she treats them as a challenge and not a burden, she might have many more days like this.

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen