Revelations from a week in the desert

3/23/2009 - Tennis
Rafael Nadal played with sheer will and moxie in winning Indian Wells. Jeff Gross/Getty Images

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- If tennis' majors are the wall-sized murals that cast giant shadows, then perhaps the smaller events can be viewed as carefully chiseled portraits -- which can sometimes be even more revealing. Nearly a quarter-century ago, at the 1986 ATP tournament in Stratton Mountain, Vt., champion Ivan Lendl, then at the height of his powers, was joined in the semis by teenager Boris Becker, enduring Jimmy Connors and midlife-crisis-addled John McEnroe. Also in the mix, losing in the quarters, was a 16-year-old from Las Vegas, Andre Agassi, quickly dubbed by Lendl as "a haircut and a forehand."

This level of condensed revelation doesn't happen often, but this past week's BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells was yet another case. Here's a look at what surfaced:

Roger Federer: Ignore the legacy, look at the mirror

By losing to Andy Murray 6-3, 4-6, 6-1 in the semis, the accomplished Swiss' third loss of 2009 was also his third final-set meltdown of the year. "I'm old. He's young," Federer said following the match in a rare short and pained news conference. Flip as that comment came off, more disturbing was the subdued manner in which Federer competed once Murray grabbed the lead. It's one thing to lose; it's another to seemingly stop competing.

With the Federer debate as the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) off the table, he is just another part of the tour; for sure, he's a brilliant, accomplished member, but as a deposed king, his days and nights must be spent thinking less about building his legacy and more with day-to-day improvement.

Might Federer find a coach who could help him better understand himself? Might he take a long look at these losses and see what occurred in between the lines? And why has it been necessary for such a gracious warrior to let word get out about his injuries, a level of excuse-making he knows is poison to the Aussie legends Federer reveres?

No longer can Federer's slumps of recent times be tossed off as hiccups. And yet for all that, Federer's brilliance, his manner and all he has accomplished give hope that perhaps he indeed can dig deep, figure out how to actually derail the likes of Nadal and Murray and charge himself up once again. That kind of soulful effort would prove exceptionally inspiring.

Andy Murray: Tipping toward the top

It was a shame that a horribly windy day drastically tipped the final in Nadal's favor. Murray can still be prone to passive periods, his counterpunching game making it tough for him to dictate play over players as physically forceful as Nadal (and the man who beat Murray in Australia, Fernando Verdasco).

But those moments are becoming increasingly rare. For a long time, Murray has been a tennis connoisseur's delight, more adroit at the tactical aspects of the game than any contemporary player. Even if Murray still seems to be growing into his body, the physicality he has brought in the last year has added significant heft to his game. Watching him dismantle Federer was no aberration, no transcendent case of a challenger hitting a strong patch. It's hard to see Murray slowing down at the forthcoming Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla.

Andy Roddick: The journey continues

There have been coaches and there have been losses. Anyone who has once been No. 1 in the world and held a Grand Slam trophy as Roddick has surely must be frustrated at not having been to another Slam final in more than two years.

But Roddick soldiers on. New coach Larry Stefanki's recommendation that such a strong and fit world-class athlete lose weight was a stroke of genius -- and testimony to Roddick's commitment. His quarterfinal routing of defending Indian Wells champ Novak Djokovic eloquently showcased airtight tennis, exemplary movement and strong focus. In a way, at this stage in his career, Roddick's hope is that as long as he keeps working hard and competing vigorously, good things can happen -- and even if they don't come in the form of huge titles, Roddick will know in his heart that he left no stone unturned. It's a distinctive contrast to the ways the likes of Marat Safin have squandered their gifts. Unlike Safin (and many others), Roddick will never look back at his approach to tennis and ask, "What if?" On the other hand, given the incredible and diverse skills of Federer, Nadal and Murray, he might well ask, "How come?"

Novak Djokovic: New lows for Nolo?

What a difference a year makes. By May 2008, with wins in Australia, Indian Wells and Rome, Djokovic was the best player of the year. However, Indian Wells 2009 only continued his skid of beguiling play. It's unfortunate, because this is a man who strikes the ball with wonderful depth and pace. But perhaps there are also limitations to his game. Djokovic is not as comfortable at the net as he could be. Watching his well-crafted strokes, it appears the problem moving forward is less technical than tactical. It's more a function of Djokovic's seemingly controlling nature and even something in his high-flying nervous system that leaves him prone to camp back and eventually miss or be forced out of the point. Of late, he has seemed distracted (his family is now in charge of an ATP event) and less able to zero in and compete with the effectiveness that makes him such a pleasing, engaging ball-striker.

Rafael Nadal: Building the distance

What more can you say? Tired as Nadal appeared at the end of 2008, he's back with even more competitive passion, all backed by his willingness to try to improve everything from his serve, his volleys, his backhand (that slice creates all sorts of nasty problems) and even his forehand. A year ago, Nadal was pummeled in the semis of Australia and Indian Wells. This year, he has earned titles at each. And with his beloved clay-court season coming soon enough, the fear generated by Nadal among his peers -- compounded with the delight he garners among fans -- will elevate his stature even more.

Throughout Indian Wells, Nadal was a thoroughly captivating No. 1. While he certainly hits his share of amazing shots, racket work is secondary to the unequivocal will and engagement Nadal brings to competition. He is rapidly nearing the stage when merely breaking his game apart tactically isn't enough. The question Federer posed his rivals came from the head: Do you have enough skills to beat me? Nadal's comes from the heart: Do you have enough guts?

Beyond these five, the cast of men's tennis continues to be filled with powerful, engaging players. The likes of Verdasco, David Ferrer, Juan Martin Del Potro and David Nalbandian -- who held five match points versus Nadal in a round-of-16 match that finished well past midnight -- played superb tennis. And yet, the sheer depth of the ATP World Tour is a double-edged sword: Beat one guy today and there will be another rough customer staring you down tomorrow. When played over a two-out-of-three-set match on hard courts where on-court temperatures often exceed 100 degrees, the challenge is quite vivid.

As far as the women go, Indian Wells, alas, showed that aside from Venus and Serena Williams, the rest of the women's field is in competitive disarray. Maria Sharapova is still injured and was able to play only one doubles match.

The top two seeds, Dinara Safina and Jelena Jankovic, went out earlier than expected, each looking lackluster. Defending champ Ana Ivanovic reached only her second final since June but failed to capitalize in losing to Vera Zvonareva. The resurging Russian has played well since last fall but is still prone to debilitating negativity.

Perhaps the best way to view Indian Wells is to spot the rising teens, most notably quarterfinalist Caroline Wozniacki and semifinalist Victoria Azarenka. Wozniacki is a pleasing grinder looking to enhance her game and focus. Azarenka, at this point, is a more complete player, graced with a fine set of groundstrokes, a sleek serve and a willingness to strike boldly. Engaging as it is to see potential future stars, the Williams sisters' continued boycott of Indian Wells has been a form of competitive napalming, which leaves it hard for this prestigious event to be as rich a showcase of the women's game as it deserves to be. Hopefully, fans will get far more in Key Biscayne.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.