The winter North American hard court season ends with back to back ATP Masters 1000 and WTA Premier Level tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami. Upon completion of these tournaments players head to Europe for the clay season, which will culminate in Paris at Roland Garros at the end of May. The resurgence of Roger Federer has created a lot of interest on the men’s tour. Serena Williams’ record-breaking Major win in Australia had created interest in the women’s tour. However, both the men’s tour and the ladies’ tours are dealing with some crucial issues.
Indian Wells presented by BNP Paribas
As Indian Wells tries to become the “fifth major” of the never-ending tennis season, the tournament site–the Indian Wells Tennis Garden–has undergone major renovations. The original stadium holds 16,000 Spectators and it is now joined by a new permanent stadium that holds an additional 8,0000 spectators. Many of the outside courts feature temporary stands and these stadiums can hold hundreds of spectators. Over the course of the tournament, stadiums one through six are all show courts. The adjacent practice courts are also fan friendly with signs indicating players that will be practicing on each court. Although various attendance records were broken this year, the bleachers were nowhere near filled to capacity. Stadium two contains reserved seating as well as general admission seating. And on a beautiful desert day midweek, featuring a match with Kei Nishikori and Gilles Muller followed by Dominica Cibulkova and Anastasia Pavlychenkova, the stadium was nowhere near capacity. The majority of the seats in the reserved sections were empty and the entire upper stands were deserted.
Similarly on the outer courts, there were lots of empty seats in the reserved sections and plenty of room in the general admission sections. From a fan’s perspective this is great. Spectators have the ability to move from court to court without having to line up to get into each court. This is in contrast to the US Open and Roland Garros, where there is very minimal seating at the outer courts and lines extend out as people try to get in at each changeover. But half empty-stands take away some of the atmosphere of a tournament match and suggest that perhaps the expansion plans are a little ahead of their time. There are apparently more plans to expand facilities further in the upcoming years.
Indian Wells is one of the few tournaments outside of the Majors where the ATP and the WTA compete simultaneously. The differences in the state of the men’s and lady’s tours were made clearly evident in the desert. The ATP had all members of the so called big four (Murray, Djokovic, Federer and Nadal) vying for the title. The ever-popular Juan Martin del Potro was also in the main draw. The players being referred to as the next generation also made their presence felt. Fans filled the stadiums to watch the future of tennis with Alexander Zverev, Nick Krygios, Grigor Dmitrov, and Jack Sock proving to be challenging opponents. Although, notably absent was Milos Raonic, who once again was on the injured list.
In contrast the WTA lacked all of its top names. Serena Williams–the World #1–citing a knee injury, withdrew after the draw was made, leaving organizers scrambling to remedy the situation. Maria Sharapova, who normally brings in the crowds to her matches, is still completing her doping suspension and will not return to the tour until April in Stuttgart. Victoria Azarenka gave birth to her first child a couple of months ago. Although Azarenka is preparing to compete again there has not been a date for her return announced as of yet. Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova is still recovering from the injury to her hand. The injury occurred when Kvitova was attacked in her apartment during an attempted robbery. There is no timetable set for her return to the tour. And Eugenie Bouchard, a crowd favorite, lost early in the tournament. Although the Canadian draws lots of press, she has yet to return to the form that saw her shoot up into the top ten in 2014.
The absence of the big stars means that any of the higher ranked players have a fair shot of taking home a title. Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki, both former #1 players, had excellent showings in both tournaments. But Venus’s more subdued personality does not draw the crowds the way Serena does. And although Angelique Kerber has retaken the No. 1 ranking from Serena again, her play in 2017 has been less than spectacular. The lack of recognizable names on the WTA tour could perhaps explain why the stands emptied out after each ATP match concluded and a WTA match commenced, but in reality it is part of a much bigger problem.
Fans in the United States are able to view both ATP and WTA matches on the Tennis Channel. For many tennis fans the online site TennisTV has provided year round viewing of men’s and women’s matches. Late last year everything changed. TennisTV became ATPtv and WTA matches were no longer available, although there was no drop in price. For months now the WTA has been promising a new platform that will allow fans to view matches but that has yet to happen. So for many fans, Indian Wells and Miami were ATP events only. Viewers in Canada could view ATP matches on TSN but there were no WTA matches televised. Tennis Channel is not available in Canada. Tennis Channel Plus, the online site, could not be accessed from Canada.
Indian Wells is a tournament where a lot of players enter the doubles. This year Rafael Nadal played alongside Bernard Tomic. Novak Djokovic paired up with countryman Viktor Troicki. Nick Krygios teamed up with doubles champion Nenad Zimonjic. Andy Murray teamed up with fellow Brit Daniel Evans. On the women’s side the ever popular duo of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova lost in the semifinal to Martina Hingis and her new partner, Yung-Jan Chan.
Although doubles matches do not get the television exposure the singles matches receive, they provide great sports entertainment. With sudden death deuce points and super tiebreakers instead of third sets the matches move along at a quick pace. The majority of players in amateur tennis leagues play doubles. Both the men’s and the ladies’ tours need to do a better job of promoting these draws.
Miami Open presented by Itau
The setting of the Miami Open in Key Biscayne is idyllic. But, the back to back arrangement of these two tournaments make a very difficult assignment for the players. Players must adjust from the conditions in the desert to the conditions on Key Biscayne. The hot dry desert heat allows the ball to fly through the air. The very gritty courts of Indian Wells accentuate spins used on the ball. In contrast, the air in Miami does not reach the temperatures seen in the desert at this time of year, but the humidity presents its own problems. Players find it much more difficult to push the ball through the heavy humidity. Players have to work a lot harder to get depth on their shots. At the same time the excessive perspiration caused by playing in the humidity can often lead to dehydration and cramping.
The stress on the players was evident as qualifying matches played out. On one day, at least four players retired mid-match. Players retiring mid-match continued through the tournament. Alexandr Dogolpolov retired mid-match again, this after he had retired mid-match in Indian Wells. Milos Raonic returning after injury won his first match. Roanic however, had to withdraw prior to his next match, due to a recurrence of the injury. But even more worrying was the withdrawal of both World #1 Andy Murray and World #2 Novak Djokovic. Murray apparently has a minor tear in his elbow and is unable to serve. Djokovic has also cited either elbow or wrist issues, but many feel it may be more of a psychological/motivational issue.
Perhaps the most unpredictable events at the Miami Open were the appearances of the oversize iguanas. Tommy Haas could not concentrate on the match when the creature appeared over the top of the scoreboard, but he does have a selfie of the incident.
Final thoughts on the Sunshine double
1–Roger Federer’s comeback that now includes the title at the Australian Open and both titles of the sunshine double means that the next generation of ATP superstars are still just that, the next generation. In fact, each of the title matches featured old rivalries. Two of the matches were against Nadal and the other against Wawrinka. The current (or previous, really, given the age of Federer and Nadal) generation still has a tight grip on the big titles.
2–There is a lot to look forward to in terms of new tennis talent on the men’s side. The next few years will most likely see a changing of the guard. Kyrgios and Sascha Zverev, met in each tournament, and this is a developing rivalry, that will provide great showdowns in the future.
3–The WTA should embrace the return of the its top screamer in Maria Sharapova and its top shrieker in the form of Victoria Azarenka. The women’s tour is in desperate need of some media visibility with names that are familiar to the public. With Elena Vesnina winning Indian Wells and Johanna Konta taking the title in Miami, there are no established rivalries drawing in casual fans like the ATP currently has.
4–The withdrawals, retirements and various injuries continue to point at a season that is too jam packed with mandatory events and opportunities to earn big dollars.