You can’t ask for much better than Del Potro vs. Federer, two of contemporary tennis’s best known faces, in the men’s final, and Osaka vs Kasatkina in the ladies’.
The desert tennis paradise of Indian Wells owned by Oracle’s Larry Ellison hosts one of the mighty Masters 1000 tournaments, 128-name draw, two weeks, and the mix of old men and young women in the finals makes quite a treat to the BNP Paribas-sponsored event this year.
The old and the new. The male and the female. The classical and the classical. This last point breaks my list’s symmetry but I must stick to the facts and nothing but. I cannot substitute “radical” for “also classical.” I would be lying. This is where sports writing is head and shoulders above political reporting — in the former you cannot fake anything because the whole world is watching. Thanks to the fantastic coverage of the NCAA finals and the tennis tour, now available on whatever device you want, for a fee: not live, but not bad.
However, what I meant was, to make my little style game work it would have been more better if these two young ladies — both 20 — had newfangled games, to contrast with the deliberate and, to these old eyes, beautiful classicism of Roger Federer and Juan del Potro, world No. 1 and 8, respectively.
To be sure, Delpo and Fed have their own styles, but they are founded on the doctrines of the all-court attacking game of yore, designed to prepare the player for most tactical situations, including a retreat to just-keep-the-point-alive defense that Federer turned to in the semis here, against a hyper-aggressive young Croatian player. This has served both of them extremely well, though del Potro has won fewer tournaments due to long injury lay-offs. It may also be argued that they both returned from such layoffs (Federer took much of 2016 off and came back to a sensation two-Slam-winning 2017 season) because of the grace with which they play, arguably less stressful on their bodies than the contortions to which others have resorted to achieve overwhelming speed and power.
The women’s game has evolved along with the men’s, mainly due to Venus and Serena Williams. The California-raised daughters of Oracene Price and Richard Williams, a stubbornly individualistic man who, in his young manhood, would have been called a striver in the black community, introduced levels of power-hitting, reliance on big serves in clutch situations, and degrees of resilience and determination that confounded their rivals for 20 years and counting.
The parlor game amongst tennis fans and the slow-day default theme for sportswriters has therefore been picking the next Venus or Serena, depending on which you prefer, or both.
Serena has been substantially more successful than her sister, busting every record in the book and now standing atop something like 23 Slam wins in singles, a number that puts her up there with the likes of Sandy Koufax and Tom Brady. Venus, however, at 37 a year or two the older, was the one who blazed the way with her aces, her winners to the lines, her running volleys, her overhead smashes, her speed. Serena followed, perhaps more reliant on forehand shots no one could reach and a first serve no one could see.
The “next Williams” was expected therefore to be a big girl — they are both big girls, Serena stronger in the legs and upper-body, Venus longer and more lithe but mighty big and strong when seen from the sidelines or post-match.
In this regard, the Latvian teen (now a post-teen) Jelena Ostapenko, last year’s French Open winner, would be the ideal candidate, with her all-power all-the-time game of exuberance and heedless joy, except that she has not yet developed the balancing consistency and control.
It will come; unless it does not. This is also the problem with Madison Keyes’, America’s favorite candidate for the mantle, who keeps coming up short in the big matches despite a game that resembles Serena Williams’.
Naomi Osaka is the teen-next-door. Answering a reporter’s prying into her personal life at a press conference she said, “Well, I play, like, computer games. And also I watch Netflix, but I just finished a series, so now I’m kind of stuck on what I should do.”
But on court, she is a hurricane. (There is actually a player on the tour named Hurricane Black, very promising, not present so far this season.)
She’s got the size, she’s got the moves, she’s got the brains to judge what’s needed when, and she stormed through the draw like a tornado. (Miss Hurricane’s sister is, in real fact, named Tornado, also under the radar this season.)
Miss Osaka knocked out a famous immigrant superstar (take that, Steve Bannon) in the first round — five-time Slam champ Miss Sharapova, an icy Floridian due to her Siberian origin, appears out of form due to 15 months served for doping, a questionable punishment, to wit: too harsh? too soft? too hypocritical? — then she knocked out the most stylish (and one of the smallest) of the top players, Poland’s own Agnes (Aga) Radwanska. (I commiserated with Mr. Pleszczynski, as we are both of Polish ancestry, but he said stoically, “’tis a hard and sad land,” but I said he was trying to sound Irish and reminded him to get real.)
Young Naomi went on to beat another promising young American, Sachia Vickery, who showed huge smarts and grit in advancing over Canada’s preppie queen and SI model Eugenie Bouchard and Spain’s Garbine Muguruza, a Roland Garros and Wimbledon title holder, with a smile to melt the coldest sportwriters’ brains, which is actually easier to do than you might think. She then disposed of Karolina Pliskova, the latest in a long line of Czech superstars who was seeded 5th here; her twin Krystina, however, was unseeded; sad.
Observe in passing that Miss Pliskova had stopped a fantastic run by Amanda Anisimova, a New Jersey-born and raised daughter of Russian immigrants (take that, Bannon) who wants to be a doctor when she grows up, but for now, at 16 — 16 — last year’s U.S. Open Junior Girls champ is tearing up the courts with a form that shows that maybe she — a tall blond more, you know, less, less icy, version of Miss Sharapova, much sweeter face if I may say so — is the next one. She is steady at all moments, recovers quickly from wild shanks on the slow but sometimes breezy courts of Indians Wells, with a dignity that, all right, is also reminiscent of Maria’s, and like Maria all-intensity when playing the point — blessedly without the screeching.
Ah, they are something else these young athletes. But let us stay calm. The fact is, Miss P. was no match for the unstoppable Miss Osaka, who went on to beat the pugnacious little No. 1 from Romania, Simona Halep, another heartbreak for one of the bravest little tennis players around these days. She is the one Miss Ostapenko beat in Paris last summer, in a come-from-behind that was painful to watch because I was sitting next to some Romanian pros with whom she trained. I stayed, however, fact-focused, fair: unbiased, as the record will clearly show. Wish they would cover the Trump presidency with the same professionalism, but what is it, one Neumayr against a thousand Maddows? Fat chance.
Speaking of which, it has to be admitted Serena Williams looked a bit heavy — but I could be wrong, TV distorts everything, including perception and diet — in her loss to Venus in the second round. I put it down to my own theory that they are basically the two top players in the world so it has to be now one, now the other.
But, then, time cureth all, and Venus, who had a great season last year but kept falling just short of trophies, seemed well back in form here, after a first round loss at Melbourne in January to the young Swiss Belinda Bencic.
And keep in mind that both Miss Williamses are recovering athletes; that is to say, they both suffered injuries and illnesses that could have ended most people’s lives, not just their careers. They fell off the charts in the late ‘00s, and had to build back; Venus remains prone to debilitating bouts due to a chronic condition that she faces with stoic determination. Like their father, they are strivers, and, it may be worth noting here, we may hope they inspire Tornado and Hurricane whose own health problems and their mother’s — and they are far from wealthy — have sidelined their careers, for the time being.
Which reminds me: both Mr. Tyrrell and I are patients of one of the legendary geniuses of sports medicine, Dr. Robert Nirschl of Virginia. He, I do not doubt, could fix an orthopedic injury that Miss Black incurred and cannot, under present circumstances, afford. This is not an argument for national health insurance, but for the civic- and community-minded charity that, in the end, is the best response to socialist health administration. Look it up on Tornado Black’s gofundme site and, TAS reader, be generous.
Miss Williams, Venus I mean, nearly got to the showdown with the next Miss Next, but Daria Kasatkina, same age as Naomi Osaka, got her in a thrilling three-set match that went to 7-5 in the third set. It was a battle of the nerves as well as of the steady strokes, including the ability on both sides to recover from mistakes at the worst moment, often a morale-killer.
Miss Kasatkina comes from a town named after an Italian named Palmiro Togliatti. He was, in his way, a great man, and it is not clear why both the WTA and the gold standard of trade mags, Tennis (owned by Chris Evert), should mistranslate his Russian (ex-Soviet) urban namesake Togliatti, instead of Tolyatti. If you knew Russian, as does Mr. Pleszczynski, you would know why the Russians, ex-Soviets, do this. But it’s hopeless (viz. a recent piece on mistranslation, which suggest alarmingly that even worse than the sloth responsible for this scourge, we are threatened by a plague of misreading, i.e. stupidity, but that is a whole other problem.
Palmiro was a man of loyalties, sometimes misplaced, though you have to consider, as our friends, as well as ex-friends, over at the American Conservative, do in every issue, whether men with names like Cord Meyer and J. J. Angleton — American names, Bannon — did not go overboard in nation-building back in the day, when, possibly due to mistranslations of spy agency intercepts between Rome and Moscow, they intervened secretly, though everybody knew it, in the free-and-fairs and blocked the man his compatriots called il Migliore from coming to power.
You know, all things considered — but never mind.
At any rates, the Russians have not forgot. Stalingrad is called Volgograd and Leningrad St. Pete, but Tolyatti stands producing automobiles and darlings like this little Daria, who is five-seven to Naomi’s five-eleven, with a stunning mental game and a combination of backcourt power and shot-selecting finesse, which translated means you never know if the ball is going to kick off sideways or up into yer face.
Miss Kasatkina, whose parents are blue collar but also world-class athletes, like Rafa Nadal’s and Novak Djokovic’s I might note, beat three Grand Slam champs in a row to get to this desert final. She beat Australian Open champ Caroline Wozniacki in the round of 16, dispatched U.S. Open champ Angelique Kerber in the quarters, and beat U.S. and Wimbledon champ Venus Williams in the semis. So, whew. Does she have anything left to throw against the hard-hitting Miss Osaka?
Meanwhile on the men’s side, despite efforts by the likes of Hyeon Chung, who is 21, and Borna Coric, same age, it looks like the “next-gen” breakthrough is still a-bornin’. There was a good run by America’s Taylor Fritz, and I do not doubt the kids, in general, are all right. But it is still the generation born in the 1980s that has the lock on the biggest tournaments.
These two young men are good, but Roger Federer beat them both, quarters and semis, and now is facing his old friend and rival Juan Martin del Potro, the man of Tandil, who beat him twice at the U.S. Open, including last year as summer folded into fall over Flushing Meadows, not far from where Louis Armstrong had a house. Many years ago. When music was music. But never mind. It will be worth watching, if you have the device and paid the money. If Delpo keeps his mighty serve under control and outmoves Roger to give himself enough forehands, he can win yet again.
If not, the maestro gets several more records (Indians Wells wins, total Masters 1000’s wins, career finals, etc.). Some killjoys mention that he benefits from Rafa Nadal’s absence (injury), Andy Murray’s absence (injury), Stan Wawrinka’s absence (injury), Novak Djokovic, beaten in first round by Chung (elbow injury), Gael Monfils, retired during third round match (injury).
I have no answer, except that tennis is mental. Which I know is not satisfactory but it is the best I can offer. Delpo is good enough but, at the end of the day, it depends on who of two sports giants stays more balanced in the space between the eyes.
Naomi Osaka ran over Daria Kasatkina in two quick sets, overwhelming her with baseline power that never let the Russian lass into the match, 6-3, 6-2. Maybe the match against Venus Williams, on top of her remarkable run, took the gas out of this child of a Soviet-era Western-built auto-town. That said, Miss Osaka had a fantastic run and it is wonderful her first tour win should be at such a high level, a Masters 1000.
Juan-Martin del Potro’s needed almost three hours to stop No. 1 Roger Federer’s perfect run this year at 17 wins as he edged him in the match of the tournament, 6-4, 6-7 (10-8), 7-6 (7-2), saving three championships points in the tenth game of the third set and then running away with the last tiebreaker, 7-2. With all due respect to the great maestro, it could not have happened to a more deserving or nicer guy, sidelined with crippling injuries for several years before returning to the top at age 29.
It will be a fine season.
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