Commentary: Men’s final matchup at BNP Paribas Open feels flat, and that’s fitting this year

Cameron Norrie reacts after defeating Grigor Dimitrov in a semifinal match at the BNP Paribas Open on Oct. 16, 2021.
Cameron Norrie, above, beat Grigor Dimitrov 6-2, 6-4 in a semifinal match at the BNP Paribas Open. He will face Nikoloz Basilashvili in Sunday’s final.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Picture this scenario. As a tennis fan, you found yourself wandering through a Las Vegas sportsbook recently, looking for some action on the upcoming BNP Paribas Open. You probably had a few too many drinks, took a flier and bought a big ticket that had Cameron Norrie playing Nikoloz Basilashvili in the men’s final. Now, you can pay off your mortgage.

This tournament, the most prominent stop on the Masters Series 1000 — a tour within the ATP Tour that features a series of events just a notch in prestige beneath the four majors — has been considered the fifth major and has almost always been a showcase for the big names of the sport. This has been, over the years, showtime for Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic and many of their well-known challengers. Ticket buyers and TV programmers could count on big names to drive big sales and big ratings.

Like she did at the U.S. Open, Leylah Fernandez won over the crowd at Indian Wells with her on-court spirit and tenacity.


That means that this 2021 version, an October fill-in for the regular March event forced by the pandemic, will be labeled forever as an outlier. If the change in dates doesn’t confirm that, the presence of Norrie and Basilashvili in Sunday’s final does. Make no mistake, both are fine players, but don’t expect incredible buzz or media gushing for this one. Neither is a household name in the sport, or certainly in the sports world. At least not yet. To become one, players have to start somewhere. Indian Wells, however, is not the usual place. Stars are not born here. They are enhanced.

Norrie, who was born in South Africa, raised in New Zealand, played his formative tennis at Texas Christian University and resides in London, knocked veteran Grigor Dimitrov off the court in their semifinal. Norrie won, 6-2, 6-4, and Dimitrov of Bulgaria, who had upset top-seeded Daniil Medvedev earlier, looked every day of his 30 years against Norrie. That meant that Norrie could become the first Brit to win here, even though a Brit has played in four previous finals — Andy Murray once, Tim Henman twice and Greg Rusedski once.

Medvedev had said, after his loss to Dimitrov, that if Dimitrov played the rest of the way as well as he played against him late in their match, he would win the tournament. Dimitrov did not and now will not.

Basilashvili, of the country of Georgia, saved seven break points along the way and used his powerful backhand to bludgeon young Taylor Fritz, 7-6 (5), 6-3. This was the deepest advance in an event of this size for the young Fritz, 23, who is from Rancho Palos Verdes and is among the future hopes for American men’s tennis. The hope was that this match would give him a big boost, but it mostly proved he is not quite ready yet for prime time.

Nikoloz Basilashvili returns to Taylor Fritz in a BNP Paribas Open semifinal match Oct. 16, 2021.
Nikoloz Basilashvili returns to Taylor Fritz during their semifinal. Basilashvili won 7-6 (5), 6-3.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

“I had lots of chances,” Fritz said, “but it was just hard to pull the trigger on big shots. He hits his backhand harder than anyone on the tour. It just comes through the court so flat and deep…”

Basilashvili said that he survived all those break-point situations “because I just stayed relaxed.”

This is Norrie’s sixth final this year. He has won just once, but steadily climbed the rankings.

The Paribas Open at Indian Wells and other tennis venues have embraced technology that has erased most of the fun, fiery tantrums and controversy from the court.

“He is not nice to play from the baseline,” Basilashvili said. “I will go tonight and make a plan for tomorrow.”

Saturday’s semifinals marked the first time here since 1990 that all four players were ranked outside the top 25. Norrie came in at No. 26, Dimitrov at 28, Basilashvili at 36 and Fritz at 39. As the day began, in usual warm and sunny weather in the desert, the highest-ranked player still standing was No. 4 Andrey Rublev of Russia, who was No. 4. He was still alive in doubles.

That may stand as the most apt description of Indian Wells, October 2021.

Bill Dwyre is a former Los Angeles Times sports editor.