The BNP Paribas Open kicks off this week as professional tennis reaches a crossroads, navigating an uncertain future without much competition from the “Big Three” of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic on the men’s side and without the charisma of Serena Williams. historical feats in setting standards for women.
Stars rise, peak, decline. It is the cycle of sports life on the court, ice, field or field. But as main draw play begins Wednesday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the sport is dealing with the absence, permanent or temporary, of many of its most popular stars on one of the biggest stages.
Tennis needs magnetic and successful players to fill the void as the extraordinary generation fades away. Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz, last year’s US Open men’s champion at 19, and Poland’s Iga Swiatek, who won the women’s titles at Indian Wells and the US Open last year, lead the conversation for the next generation, but have not proven their longevity. They would advance the conversation significantly by winning Indian Wells, where each is ranked number one.
Williams, who prefers to “evolve” rather than “retire,” left last year with 23 Grand Slam singles titles. Naomi Osaka, seemingly poised for a stellar career after winning four Slam titles, was slowed by mental health issues. Now she is taking time off while pregnant. Ash Barty retired last year after winning his third Slam singles championship in his native Australia.
The men’s landscape is also incredibly different. Federer retired last year with 20 Grand Slam singles titles. Nadal, often plagued by injuries, has a leg problem that will keep him out of the hard court events in Indian Wells and Miami. For the first time since April 2005, he will drop out of the top 10 after Indian Wells.
Djokovic, who recently broke Steffi Graff’s record for most weeks at No. 1 when he hit 378, pulled out of Indian Wells after not being granted an exemption from government regulations requiring non-citizens to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before entering the United States . That rule is likely to be lifted before the US Open, where he could break his tie with Nadal for 22 Slam singles titles, but his absence this week will magnify tennis’ heavy loss since the Big Three became the Big Two. And, in 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 is helping defending Indian Wells champion Taylor Fritz.
“What we are used to has never been seen in the history of the game. You have three guys who between them have over 60 major titles. That’s the funniest thing in the history of tennis,” added Annacone. “We are used to it. It seems normal to us, because we have seen that in the last decade and a half or two decades.’
Welcome to a new normal. That won’t be all bad if players take advantage of the avenues open to them at the Slams and tournaments like Indian Wells, which is considered the fifth major. At the top there is room for new faces.
Taylor Fritz hits a forehand against Denis Shapovalov during a match at the Mexican Open tennis tournament in Acapulco, Mexico on March 1.
(Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press)
Some are doing well on that trip, including Swiatek, the top seed and favored to defend his title. Number 3 Jessica Pegula is a top American woman. Coco Gauff, the 6th seed, is in the same bottom quarter of the draw as the 2nd seed and recent Australian Open winner Aryna Sabalenka. Somewhere along the line is Andy Roddick’s 2003 US Open victory that will end a Grand Slam singles drought among American men.
Nostalgia is fine, but anticipation is also strong. “Now it’s also exciting the other way around ‘Who’s next?’ to see the opportunity.” Annacone said. “Now, as a tennis fan, ‘which one of you is capable?’ And for me, that’s exciting. It’s exciting as a fan. Naturally, for me, as a coach, it’s exciting because I get to see who can handle that environment best.
“Which of you can handle that opportunity and not necessarily face the physical skill it requires? I think there are a lot of players who can handle it. But I think there are very few who can resist mental hope and mental pressure, and I think the one who does it best will be the one who takes the step.”
That person could be Alcaraz, who proved her mental and physical stamina at last year’s US Open. But a groin injury that forced him to skip a tournament in Acapulco, Mexico and an exhibition in Las Vegas has troubled him, leaving his fitness unclear.
The last man standing could also be Daniil Medvedev, who last year became the first man other than Djokovic, Federer, Nadal or Andy Murry to be ranked No. 1 in the world since 2004. Ranked 5th, he is playing in 14 games. Last week’s win over Djokovic in Dubai and a winning streak that includes three consecutive titles.
It could also be Fritz, who is ranked No. 5 in the world and No. 4 in Indian Wells. Annacone is biased, of course, but he said he believes the Southern California native is ready after winning the title last year, reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, winning a tournament in Tokyo and advancing to the finals at the year-end tour event.
“I think he’s at the top of every young guy’s list in terms of handling the big moments, being able to trust himself in the big moments and play his best tennis in the big moments,” Annacone said.
The sooner such players appear on both tours, the better. Not to forget Williams or Federer-Nadal-Djokovic, but to honor them by aiming at their level of excellence.