March 12, 2020

The Weeks That Were

With the Miami Open now officially cancelled, the ATP suspending play for six weeks, and the entire spring tennis season completely up in the air, everyone's got a lot of questions.

Of course this outbreak affects so many more people outside the tennis world, and in much more dire ways than a schedule thrown out of whack. And the response we're seeing, from the shutdown of Disneyland to the entire country of Italy going on lockdown, shows just how far-reaching an impact the coronavirus is having. But I'm not going to start expounding on the health, political, or economic ramifications of what's going on -- I get to do enough of that in my day job -- and since I can't write about the on court action at Indian Wells and Miami, I instead am going to take a look back at some of the champs we've seen at these events over the last few years and where they are now.

As you know, I've been a little out of the loop -- and fittingly got back in the mix just in time for the whole thing to shut down (#sarcasm) -- so some of these results were a surprise to me. And in hindsight they took on a deeper meaning than they might have at the time. I mean, check out the list of players who've been crowned recently:

Indian WellsMiami
YearMen's ChampWomen's ChampMen's ChampWomen's Champ
2016Novak DjokovicVictoria AzarenkaNovak DjokovicVictoria Azarenka
2017Roger FedererElena VesninaRoger FedererJohanna Konta
2018Juan Martin Del PotroNaomi OsakaJohn IsnerSloane Stephens
2019Dominic ThiemBianca AndreescuRoger FedererAshleigh Barty

I was frankly shocked to realize it's been four years since Nole won at either of these events. It wasn't long ago that he'd been dominating them -- he'd swept the Sunshine Swing, historically difficult given the huge difference in climes between the California desert and the Florida tropics, first in 2011, and then from 2014-16. And given how much of a force he's been at the Majors and other Masters -- he's won a combined twelve since that last one in Miami -- it seems insane that he hasn't repeated. On the other hand Vika, who'd been similarly strong during this stretch, hasn't won a single singles title since then. Of course, she's had a baby, a grueling custody battle, and injuries that have kept her off court more than any of us would like. But seeing her name on the list certainly brought back memories. And it was great to see Fed not only doubled up in 2017 -- which came as he was reactivating his Grand Slam streak -- but took home his 28th Masters in Miami just last year.

But it was some of the other names that caught my attention.

Elena Vesnina?! The Russian doubles star had a baby last year, so has been out of contention recently, but that 2017 trophy in Indian Wells was by far her biggest singles win. It came not long after her Major breakthrough -- after never really having any success on her own at the Slams, she somehow made her way to the semis at Wimbledon in 2016. The title in California, which came with wins over Angelique Kerber, Venus Williams, and Svetlana Kuznetsova, did a lot to prove that showing was no fluke.

And then of course, there's John Isner, who, as you know, has long confounded me. That performance in Miami earned him what's so far his only Masters title, and set him up for the unlikeliest of runs to the Wimbledon semis in 2018 -- I remember watching that 6:30 hour match against Kevin Anderson and thinking, "There's no way John Isner is going to make a Grand Slam final, is there?!" Well, he didn't, and he's never made it to another Major final four -- before or since. He has admittedly had some other decent showings, though, at least getting back to the Miami final last year. But as we've seen, it's been a struggle for him since.

It's been rough going for Juan Martin Del Potro too, but for different reasons. The one-time U.S. Open champion has been plagued by one injury after another and is currently recovering from a knee surgery that kept him out of the most recent Australian Open. But I was encouraged to be reminded that it wasn't so long ago that he was at the top of his game, and it gives me hope that he could be once more.

The wins by Sloane Stephens and Johanna Konta also came at interesting points in their careers. Stephens had just won the U.S. Open title a few months earlier but then went winless for months. Then after winning in Miami, she struggled on clay and then somehow reached the French Open final. More recently she's again in a funk, managing only one win this year, over a player barely ranked inside the top 500. Konta similarly hasn't won a title since her Miami run, but she's arguably been a little more consistent, reaching a Major semifinal and two quarters last year. Still for two players who seem to hold a lot of hope for their respective countries, we might have wanted to see a little more hardware to show for their efforts.

And finally are the women whose wins really set the stage for the biggest successes of their careers. Naomi Osaka had never won a title before Indian Wells, Barty had just a couple small trophies under her belt, and Andreescu was ranked #60 in the world ahead of her run. But all three went on to capture Grand Slam gold in a matter of months -- Osaka got two titles. She's struggled a bit this season, though, and Andreescu's been dealing with injury, but all three are young -- oh my God, so young -- and there's no reason to believe they don't have a lot of time left to make more splashes. And when they do they could be big ones.

It's a shame we won't be able to crown another set of winners this year in either Indian Wells or Miami and follow their stories over the years. But one day, hopefully soon, this pandemic will pass, and we'll all be back on the courts again, and there will be plenty of great champions to come. So until then, let's enjoy the memories of what we've had and take comfort in the fact that a whole lot more is still to come.

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