Along the northern perimeter wall of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, for this year’s tournament, there was installed a kind of shrine. Affixed to plastic greenery were near life-size cutouts of Roger Federer and Serena Williams, both absent from the tournament due to injuries and both, perhaps, gone for good from tennis very soon. There were cutouts, too, of Naomi Osaka, who is on an extended hiatus from the game, and of Ash Barty, the top-ranked player in the women’s game, who went home to Australia after the U.S. Open and chose to stay there, having spent much of this year on the road, thanks to that nation’s strict covid-19 quarantine rules. There was a cutout of Novak Djokovic, too, who has won at Indian Wells five times but who withdrew from this year’s tournament in late September, without providing a reason. Maybe he wanted more time to recover from his loss in the U.S. Open final last month, which cost him the coveted Grand Slam: winning all four majors in the same calendar year. Maybe he didn’t want to face questions about the covid vaccine, which he has said should not be mandatory for all the tour’s players, many of whom reportedly remain unvaccinated. Djokovic has refused to say whether he got the vaccine, although in August, he was photographed in Central Park at a Summerstage concert that required those attending to be fully vaccinated.
A lack of tennis stars may partly explain why attendance at Indian Wells this year was way down, with two main stadiums each day and night half-filled at best. Another reason was that the tournament, normally held in March, when the Coachella Valley is thick with snowbirds, was held in the fall. Its usual spot on the calendar, along with its location just miles from Palm Springs, has played a part in its emergence as a “fifth Slam.” The free-spending ways of its owner, Larry Ellison, and its chief sponsor, the French bank BNP Paribas, helped, too: among tournaments with combined men’s and women’s competitions, the total prize money at Indian Wells has lately only been surpassed by purses offered at majors. Tournament officials made a brave call in cancelling the event in March of 2020—it was the first really big sporting event called off due to covid—and in postponing it, this past spring, as the Delta variant spread. They made another bold decision in choosing to mount it this month, knowing that attendance and TV viewership was bound to be lower. With China’s usual fall tournaments cancelled for a second year, players would have a source of prize money and ranking points. Vaccinated fans who could make it to the Coachella Valley would be able to watch live tennis in one of the world’s prettiest tennis venues.
Early on, a good deal of that tennis was not necessarily what ticket holders bargained for. Emma Raducanu, the teen-age U.S. Open champion and—just like that—global sensation, lost her first match, to an opponent ranked No. 100. Top women’s seeds fell one after another, and the top men’s seeds lost, too, by the end of the quarterfinal round: none of the men’s semifinalists were, when the tournament began, ranked in the top twenty-five. Still, fans roared for Andy Murray, who was awarded a wild-card entry, and who summoned his best tennis since the hip surgery he had, in 2019. (He lost in the third round, in a tight two-setter, to Alexander Zverev. Murray’s compatriot, twenty-six-year-old Cameron Norrie, would win the men’s championship, the biggest triumph of his career.) And, late one afternoon, as a setting sun purpled the mountains that ring the tennis grounds, the steep metal bleachers on modest Court 3 were jammed with eager and noisy fans, rooting for the first-time doubles pairing of the young stars Coco Gauff and Leylah Fernandez. They lost, to the eventual women’s doubles champions, Belgium’s Elise Mertens and Taiwan’s Su-Wei Hsieh.
Another surging talent on the women’s tour, the twenty-three-year-old Spaniard Paula Badosa, took the Indian Wells women’s singles title, in a final that was the match of the tournament—not because of its elegance or execution but because it was exhaustingly fraught. Badosa is a champion for this moment: she has spoken candidly about her struggles with depression and anxiety, which began not long after she won the French Open juniors’ championship, as a teen-ager. Tennis is designed to be unnerving, and winning, at the élite level, does nothing to alleviate that: you are merely expected to win more. As the Times noted last summer, Badosa is talked of in tennis as being “extremely marketable,” which is how potential sponsors describe an emerging talent who is close to six feet tall and whose parents both once worked as fashion models. This has only added to the pressure on Badosa. Then, in January of this year, she tested positive for the coronavirus, after travelling on a chartered flight to Melbourne for the Australian Open with passengers who turned out to be infected. Badosa was quarantined in a tiny room with windows she couldn’t open. This could tax anyone’s mental health. This was tennis in the age of a pandemic.
Last spring, Badosa, then ranked No. 71, pulled off a stunning upset of Ash Barty, who was top-ranked, in straight sets at a tournament in Charleston, South Carolina. I watched the match on TV. Barty had been playing an awful lot of tennis—she’d just won the Miami Open—and I didn’t have a clear sense of Badosa’s game, except that she had a big first serve when she could land it. At Indian Wells, on her run to the final, she defeated four top-twenty players, two of them winners of majors, without dropping a set. She seldom strayed from the baseline, but, for a woman her height, she had a quick first step and could move well laterally. She could hit her forehand flat or with loopy top spin, deep or rolled short. She could absorb pace with her backhand, and redirect balls with it. And she courted risk: she had a nervy game, not a nervous one.
Her opponent in the final was Victoria Azeranka, another major winner and a two-time Indian Wells champion, from Belarus, who has spent most of her tennis-playing years in Arizona and Southern California—the ninety-degree heat and dry desert air are like home to her. She’s thirty-two now, and has not played anything like her best tennis in 2021, but she is, always, a fierce competitor. In the sparsely filled Stadium 1, she had the crowd with her from the start.
In the first set, there were few stretches of inspired tennis, but there was plenty of tense and fiery play. The set lasted an hour and twenty minutes, and ended in a tiebreak that Badosa eked out, 7–5, with a stinging backhand winner. The second set was nearly all Azarenka, as Badosa’s energy and focus seemed to dissipate. The third set was the first set, redux, but at a higher level: opportunities were created with more creativity and verve. But the squandering of those opportunities continued. Badosa, serving at 4–4, made three straight unforced errors, two on balls hit into an open court, and was broken. Azarenka then served for the match, and went up 30–0, only to reel off four straight unforced errors of her own, and was broken back: 5–5. A pair of relatively easy holds led to the second tiebreak of the match. In this one, nearly three hours into the match, Azarenka showed signs she’d been outlasted. Badosa was moving and swinging in ways that Azarenka no longer could. The match ended with a crosscourt forehand winner from Badosa that Azarenka barely moved toward. Badosa collapsed to the court, and did not rise until Azarenka walked to her side of the net to give her a hug.
“It was a roller coaster, mentally and emotionally,” Badosa said afterward, speaking of the match. But she could have been speaking to the last year and a half of everything, tennis included. You don’t want to read too much into sports. But don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s an escape.