Column: Pro tennis is at a crossroads. Who will step up at the Paribas Open in Indian Wells?
The BNP Paribas Open begins this week just as professional tennis hits a crossroads, navigating toward an uncertain future without the great rivalry among the “Big Three” of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic on the men’s side and without Serena Williams’ charisma and historic feats to set standards for the women.
Stars emerge, peak, decline. It’s the cycle of athletic life on the court, ice, field or pitch. But as main-draw play begins Wednesday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the sport is facing the absence — whether permanent or temporary — of many of its most recognizable stars from one of its biggest stages.
Tennis urgently needs successful, magnetic players to fill the void as an exceptional generation fades out. Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, last year’s U.S. Open men’s champion at 19, and Iga Swiatek of Poland, who won the women’s titles at Indian Wells and the U.S. Open last year, lead the next-generation conversation but haven’t proved their longevity. They’d move the conversation significantly forward by winning at Indian Wells, where each is seeded No. 1.
Williams, preferring “evolve” to “retire,” exited last year with 23 Grand Slam singles titles. Naomi Osaka, seemingly poised for a great career after winning four Slam titles, was slowed by mental health issues. She’s now taking time off while pregnant. Ash Barty retired last year after winning her third Slam singles championship, in her native Australia.
The men’s landscape also is dramatically different. Federer retired last year with 20 Grand Slam singles titles. Nadal, plagued by frequent injuries, has a leg problem that will keep him out of hardcourt events at Indian Wells and Miami. He will fall out of the top 10 after Indian Wells for the first time since April 2005.
Top-ranked men’s tennis player Novak Djokovic has withdrawn from the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells after losing his bid to enter the U.S. unvaccinated.
Djokovic, who recently broke Steffi Graf’s record for most weeks ranked No. 1 when he hit 378, withdrew from Indian Wells after he wasn’t granted a waiver from government regulations that require noncitizens to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before they enter the U.S. That rule likely will be rescinded before the U.S. Open, where he could break his tie with Nadal at 22 Slam singles titles each, but his absence this week will magnify the great loss tennis has absorbed since the Big Three became the Big Two. And, at Indian Wells, a big zero.
“Our biggest curse and also our biggest blessing has been the dominance of these three great players. These guys are legends,” said Paul Annacone, a former tour player who does commentary for Tennis Channel and helps coach defending Indian Wells champion Taylor Fritz.
“What we’re used to right now has never been seen in the history of the game. You have three guys that have, between them, over 60 major titles. That’s the most ridiculous thing in the history of tennis,” Annacone added. “We’re accustomed to that. It feels normal because we’ve seen that for the last decade and a half or two decades.”
Welcome to a new normal. Which won’t be an entirely bad thing if players seize the paths opening to them in Slams and tournaments like Indian Wells, which is widely regarded as the fifth major. There’s room at the top for new faces.
Some are well along in that journey — among them Swiatek, seeded No. 1 and favored to defend her title. No. 3 Jessica Pegula is the top-seeded American woman. Coco Gauff, seeded No. 6, is in the same bottom quarter of the draw as No. 2 seed and recent Australian Open winner Aryna Sabalenka. Somewhere out there is someone who will end a Grand Slam singles drought among American men that stretches back to Andy Roddick’s 2003 U.S. Open victory.
Nostalgia is fine, but anticipation is powerful too. “It’s also now conversely really exciting to see the possibility of, ‘Who’s next?’ ” Annacone said. “Now, as a tennis fan, I’m like, ‘Which one of you is capable?’ And to me, that’s exciting. It’s exciting as a fan. Intrinsically for me, as a coach, it’s exciting because I get to watch to see who can manage that environment the best.
“Which one of you can handle that possibility and deal with not necessarily the physical skill that it takes? I think there’s a lot of players that can deal with that. But I think there’s very few that can deal with the mental expectation and the mental pressure, and I think whoever does that the best will be the one that steps up.”
That person could be Alcaraz, who proved his mental and physical endurance at the U.S. Open last year. But he has been bothered by a hamstring injury that led him to skip a tournament in Acapulco, Mexico, and an exhibition in Las Vegas, leaving his fitness level unclear.
The last man standing also could be Daniil Medvedev, who last year became the first man other than Djokovic, Federer, Nadal or Andy Murray to be ranked No. 1 in the world since 2004. Seeded No. 5, he’s riding a 14-match winning streak that includes a victory over Djokovic in Dubai last week and three straight titles.
Novak Djokovic will be allowed to play at the Australian Open to kick off an important 2023 season that could see him take the men’s Grand Slam lead.
It also could be Fritz, who is ranked a career-best No. 5 in the world and is seeded No. 4 at Indian Wells. Annacone is biased, of course, but said he thinks the Southern California native is prepared to step up after winning the title last year, reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals, winning a Tokyo tournament, and advancing to the semifinals at the year-end tour event.
“I think he is right at the top of the chart of all the young guys in the ability to manage big moments, to trust himself in big moments and play his best tennis in big moments,” Annacone said.
The sooner players like that emerge on both tours, the better. Not to make anyone forget Williams or the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic rivalry, but to honor them by aiming for their level of excellence.
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