Tennis

Winners and Losers from the 1st Week of Indian Wells 2014

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2014

Winners and Losers from the 1st Week of Indian Wells 2014

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Maria Sharapova returned to Indian Wells tennis after her Winter Olympics hiatus—and with a vengeance. But she was not the only WTA player serving up dessert. What did this mean for Agnieszka Radwanska?

    In the ATP, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray staved off second-round challenges, while Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka seem to be having a great time pairing up for doubles, at least for now.

    There were also noteworthy upsets and disappointments amongst the also-rans of the ATP. The Top 10 is reserved for only the most consistent winners, and even then it is not always smooth sailing.

    It's the first part of our Indian Wells "Winners and Losers," as the party gets rockin' down in the desert of Southern California. Find out who took the Golden Breadstick award and who will be traveling to Miami with the ignominious Burnt Bagel.

    This is your guide to the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in tennis.

Winner: Agnieszka Radwanska Eats Cheesecake

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Agnieszka Radwanska cashed in with her love of Oreo cheesecake, signing a sponsorship deal with The Cheesecake Factory. She happily posed with several slices of cheesecake at the Rancho Mirage location.

    Then she went out and won 6-4, 6-3 over Heather Watson.

    Good thing, because had she lost, the cheesecake's extra calories might have been cited as the culprit. Furthermore, she will continue to need more matches if she is to stay fit for the next edition of ESPN's The Body Issue. A depressing first-round loss would have been an ideal excuse for more trips to The Cheesecake Factory.

    So far Radwanksa has proved that she can have her (cheese)cake and eat it too. As long as her ranking stays slim.

Loser: Victoria Azarenka's Painful Loss

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    It's not too surprising that Victoria Azarenka lost her opening match at Indian Wells to Laura Davis, 6-0, 7-6. It's more surprising that she was even out there playing, and the risk may prove to do more damage than good. If we learned one more thing about Azarenka, she's as determined as ever to do things her way.

    Azarenka played with pain in her left foot all five of her matches in the Australian Open. She was forced to trade in her racket for a walking boot, and was unable to compete until the Davis match.

    It's obvious she wants to compete and halt a slide in the WTA Rankings (Slots No. 5-10 are closing in on Azarenka's No. 4 ranking), but she has also heard the whispers about her frailty with injuries. She played through back pain in the WTA Championships and "admitted that the discussion about her perceived frailty influenced her decision to keep playing," according to SI.com.

    So much of what drives Azarenka is her fierce competitiveness and high-octane adrenaline. Many tennis fans do not like her grunting-screaming groundstrokes, but if these are prickly emblems of her tennis drive, she is not going to let up because of disapproval.

    And it's this kind of stubbornness that has her coming back to play at Indian Wells without adequate training, conditioning or readiness. Otherwise, she would not have been bageled by Davis in the first set and then complained about foot pain to her coach.

    It's a long season ahead, and every player must respond in her own ways to injuries, but Azarenka could be walking a fine line, boot and all, on the edge of of a frustrating and disappointing 2014.

Winner: Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka Play Doubles

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Maybe Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka are just teaming up for possible doubles in Switzerland's next round of Davis Cup play.

    Perhaps Federer wants to keep a closer eye on his fellow Swiss in case he needs some sort of psychological edge to build on his 11-match winning streak in head-to-head play.

    Maybe Wawrinka figures he can wash away any lingering awe of Federer by hanging around him more often and building up his own confidence that he is now "The Man."

    Whatever.

    For fans at Indian Wells and those who stream in digital tennis, this is a reason to watch doubles. It may feel more like exhibition tennis, but it's excellent to watch them use their hands and reflexes to create new angles and shots not typically seen in singles. It's entertainment, and a great opening act to many of the impending singles wars we will see.

    But if Federer and Wawrinka do go on to face each other in the round of 16, the tenor of the match will undoubtedly change. The gloves will be off and the relationship will harden, as it must.

    Will it be Ironman Stan, the new Australian Open champion? Will a resurgent Federer keep charging forward with his all-court genius?

    That's the one tennis fans really want to see.

Loser: David Goffin

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    Who is David Goffin, and why must tennis fans concern themselves with a player ranked No. 95 who lost in the first round at Indian Wells?

    Briefly, Goffin is a 23-year-old Belgian with a wonderfully gifted game. He is very adept at hitting the ball on the rise, creates imaginative shots, moves well and has shown mental toughness often enough that he would figure to challenge for a Top 20 ranking.

    It was only in 2012 that Goffin battled Roger Federer in the fourth round at the French Open. He eventually reached No. 42 in the rankings.

    But Goffin is only 5'11" and about 150 pounds. He does not have a powerful serve or the kind of physicality needed to bludgeon stronger and more seasoned players. There's only so much he can do, unless he turns into Andre Agassi.

    He must fight through tough opening-round matches. His 7-6, 4-6, 7-6 loss to Nikolay Davydenko is a bitter example of how hard it is to string together several tournaments with fourth round or quarterfinals appearances.

    There will always be a place for tennis professionals who have excellent tools, and Goffin is a superior player in most capacities to players like John Isner or Kevin Anderson. But large stature and big-serving make it so much easier to win, and players like Goffin need to be more perfect.

    Goffin is the kind of player who could have perhaps thrived two or three decades ago. Will the Goffin mold of player eventually become extinct? The future of tennis is getting bigger, but meanwhile we could see some talented players fall by the wayside.

Winner: Saturday ATP Stars Who Survived

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Tennis fans rightfully think of Rafael Nadal's extraordinary tenacity and unique tennis skills. There is endless to praise to go around. But it's not always so easy, and there are plenty of forgotten matches over the years in which the Spanish Bull has had to struggle his way past journeymen challengers.

    His first match at Indian Wells found saw him lose the first set, 6-2 to Radek Stepanek. Midway in the third set, he faced triple break point, but found a way to hold serve, much to the relief of tournament owner Larry Ellison, who clapped and looked skyward at these critical saves.

    This was an ugly win on a day Nadal hit too many short balls. He was threatened by the aggressive mindset of Stepanek, who looked to come into net whenever the moment seemed favorable. Usually it worked, but the difference proved to be Nadal's penchant for well-timed passing shots.

    Nadal served mechanically, his form stiff and awkward. He had eight double faults and said in BBC Sport that "I was a little bit scared for the back. I am not feeling yet 100 percent confident with my serve."

    It was a similar story for Andy Murray, who also lost a first set to a player ranked in the middle of the Top 100 from the Czech Republic. Murray turned things around quicker, cruised through the last two sets and finished off Lukas Rosol 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.

    "I tried to play more aggressively in the second set," Murray added in BBC Sport. "Lukas hits the ball extremely hard and if you allow him to dictate the game then it becomes very hard.

    Nadal and Murray must prepare to fend off players who bring an aggressive approach. That's the book on trying to beat the two superstars, but on the first day they survived and moved on.

Loser: Tomas Berdych

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Understand that most tennis fans want to root for Tomas Berdych. He is often gracious in interviews and with his on-court mannerisms. His smile and kind eyes give the hard-working Czech a gentle-giant type of image. Here is someone who should be rewarded for his career efforts.

    He has played well in 2014, getting to the Australian Open semifinals, winning Rotterdam and losing to Roger Federer in the Dubai final.

    And then we had to jinx him by discussing the possibilities of him winning a Grand Slam title. Maybe we need a mulligan on that one.

    Unfortunately, that's Berdych in a nutshell. We just never know. One match he is blasting powerfully accurate strokes like heat-seeking missiles. The next week he is losing to Roberto Bautista Agut in his first round at Indian Wells.

    Berdych summed up the match, giving credit to his opponent and owning up to his own poor play, as reported in ATP World Tour:

    He (Bautista Agut) was a tough opponent… [and] really handled the tough situation today really well. Anything I touched today was basically bad and was wrong. It [was] definitely my worst match that I had this year. I was late everywhere. I was not hitting the ball cleanly and that's it.

    Honesty is great, but what a missed opportunity for the second-highest seed in the weaker bottom bracket. We have no choice but to pack Berdych's bags for the next flight to Miami. He might want to try the airline food, unless he prefers to snack on the Burnt Bagel we included.

    Bon voyage, Berdych.

Winner: Maria Sharapova

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    In the past five weeks, Maria Sharapova spent more time covering other athletes at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and resting from tennis. It was reasonable to expect that she would be rusty, especially with questions about her troubling shoulder and serve.

    But there she was ripping big baseline shots past the dangerous Julia Goerges as if she were in No. 1 form. He forehand consistently hooked powerful shots into the deuce corner pocket, and her backhand widened the court. It was as if she had been training, competing and peaking at midseason form.

    It was stark contrast to the time off and injuries that plagued Victoria Azarenka in her first match. And that's the curious thing about tennis. Injuries and time off are never quite predictable. In Sharapova's case, she looked rejuvenated and fresh, as if her tennis game had come back tanned and happy from Tahiti, not repressed in Sochi.

    It's a great sign for Sharapova moving forward for Indian Wells and 2014. She moved to the front of the line and grabbed this week's Golden Breadstick award.

Loser: ATP Seeds Who Lost in the first Weekend

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal often find ways to win when things are not going well. It's the difference between the very top players and the potential stars. Right out of the gate at Indian Wells, we give you the short list of head-scratchers:

    1. Juan Martin del Potro waited until the last minute, but decided that his left wrist was too painful to give it a go. He withdrew.
    2. Jerzy Janowicz may as well lose the sunglasses. His own performance did not generate enough energy to power a light bulb, let alone be mistaken for a star performance. He was extinguished after a third-set tibreaker to Alejandro Falla.
    3. Philipp Kohlschreiber was out in just over an hour following a dispirited 6-2, 6-2 thrashing at the hands of 49th-ranked Yen-Hsun Lu.
    4. Vasek Pospisil also managed to top one hour, somehow, in getting destroyed 6-0, 6-2 to 58th-ranked Mikhail Kukushkin. This is not the blueprint to climbing into the Top 20.
    5. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga does not seem ready to win a major anytime soon, falling to Julien Benneteau 6-4, 6-4.
    6. We covered the Tomas Berdych Disaster in a previous slide.

    Yes, upsets happen in every tournament, so these are merely the latest casualties of the week. But for players who would wish for more press and career advancements, this is an illustration of why tennis fans would rather talk about Nadal, Murray, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Winner: Marquee Matchup of the Week

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Give credit to Eugenie Bouchard. She got bounced last week in Mexico by 77th-ranked Caroline Garcia, and then was faced with a tough early-tournament match versus 9th-ranked Sara Errani.

    How would she react to the adversity, grind and disappointment of losing as a favorite?

    Flying colors. Her 6-3, 6-3 win was the kind of effort that speaks volume for an 18-year-old potential star. Get up and get going again. It's not about the last match but the next one. Bouchard is growing with every match and respect is gaining on hype.

    But it doesn't get any easier. Next up is another young star, Romanian Simona Halep who has thrown her own hat into the WTA mix of top players.

    Halep vs. Bouchard will be the first meeting of their young careers, and perhaps one of the great rivalries of the future in women's tennis.

    Don't miss this one!

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