Ljubicic, Jankovic laugh last
Indian Wells produced its share of excitement, dejection and upsets. Here are five things we learned at the first Masters event of the year:
1. Surprise can sometimes be even better
As invariably happened with such long-lasting No. 1 players as Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras, Roger Federer has reached the stage of his career where winning titles such as the BNP Paribas Open is hardly meaningful for his résumé. Ditto, albeit in a wholly different manner, for Serena Williams. If the downside is that the enduring impact of an Indian Wells title is less significant, the upside is that a wide range of contenders of many ages can make an emphatic statement for themselves in the desert. Certainly that was the case for both champions. Thirty-one-year-old Ivan Ljubicic -- winner of his first Masters 1000 title -- and 25-year-old Jelena Jankovic are both battle-tested warriors. Ljubicic has been ranked as high as No. 3 in the world, while Jankovic finished '08 at No. 1. But neither has ever won a Grand Slam, so their respective victories were each deeply meaningful.
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2. Too much defense is not a good thing
Contemporary tennis is primarily won from the baseline, an attrition-based playing style predicated on superb movement and steady, forceful groundstrokes. Couple that with the Indian Wells Tennis Garden possessing the slowest hard courts in the world and a thin desert air that makes the ball jump up, and what you have, in large part, is a clay-court event without the dirt. So for most of those expected to go far -- defending champ Rafael Nadal, '09 finalist Andy Murray, world No. 2 Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick, women's finalist Caroline Wozniacki, Jankovic and semifinalist Agnieszka Radwanska -- defense figured to be the order of the day. But not entirely. In the end, it was the big serving of Ljubicic and surprisingly enhanced offense from Jankovic that made the difference. Even on these courts, fortune favored the bold. It's one thing to contend. It's another to triumph.
3. Williams sisters' exile haunts and hurts
On the surface, it seemed the women's field was deep enough to sustain the absence of Serena and Venus Williams. But as one upset after another decimated the draw, the bright lights dimmed and a troubling question surfaced once again: Why don't these two great champions return? As angry as the Williamses are at what happened in 2001 -- regardless of whether this is justified -- it would be great to see them a decade later return to California and compete for this near-Slam title.
4. Women's tennis: anarchy
Call the WTA Tour the Wild West. With Serena Williams skipping both Indian Wells and Miami (the latter due to an injury), with former world No. 1s Dinara Safina, Kim Clijsters, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, Justine Henin and Ana Ivanovic all still searching for sustained consistency, the opening is there for a number of players to soar up the charts, snap up a great many wins and build confidence for fine runs at the year's next three Slams.
5. Indian Wells will endure
Since moving to this new venue in 2000, the tournament has endured a number of challenges that hindered its growth and even threatened to end its status as the premier North American tennis event outside of the East Coast. Everything from a horrible ATP sponsorship arrangement with marketing firm ISL, to the economic impact of 9/11, to debt incurred by the building of a massive stadium, to lackluster leadership from a series of investors, to offers from abroad, battered away at the tournament's stature and identity. But last year came the arrival of the biggest sponsor in tennis, BNP Paribas. Then, even more significantly, in one fell swoop, billionaire Larry Ellison purchased the entire event and facility -- making him probably the wealthiest person to invest in tennis since Lamar Hunt created World Championship Tennis (the unofficial ancestor of the ATP) in the late '60s. Though Ellison largely laid low this year, if his work in the software industry and his victorious effort with this year's America's Cup sailing team are any indication, the Indian Wells Tennis Garden figures to take on many new shapes in the years to come. Best of all for American tennis zealots, don't expect it to abandon the continent.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.