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Novak Djokovic, Flavia Pennetta and the Winners and Losers at Indian Wells 2014

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2014

Novak Djokovic, Flavia Pennetta and the Winners and Losers at Indian Wells 2014

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Indian Wells tennis was spectacular once again, this time showcasing a heavyweight bout between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. The difference between defeat and victory was mighty slim, but Djokovic captured the first Masters 1000 tournament of the year.

    An applause for Flavia Pennetta is no less deserving. She had to defeat a heavy lineup of top players, but in the end she was the one holding the glass trophy that looked somewhat like a replica of The Leaning Tower of Pisa.

    Big stars were bit by the upset bug. Which ones will need deeper runs at Miami's Sony Open?

    There were also some very spectacular shots you do not want to miss.

    Check out another week of the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in tennis. This is your "Winners and Losers" column.

Loser: Rafael Nadal

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Maybe Rafael Nadal's third-round loss does not look quite as bad after his conqueror Alexandr Dolgopolov continued to win all the way to the Indian Wells semifinals. There is always plenty of Nadal coverage, win or lose, dealing with anything from his form to his No. 1 ranking.

    Nadal was more succinct in his self-assessment about the difference in being an average or great player, as stated in his post-match interview transcript at BNP Paribas Open:

    I had enough breaks to win the match, but I didn't play enough well from the baseline then to be solid with my serve.  Is not a problem with my serve.  Was more problem with my baseline shots.  I didn't go for the points.  I played with too many mistakes.

    ...But when the ball comes back short I am not able to have the winner or to play a shot that gonna give me that advantage.So then the match ‑‑ then I become a really normal player.  I am not anymore a great player.

    Sometimes it's that simple. Dolgopolov was more aggressive in landing more of his flatter, speedier shots, and Nadal was not able to hit with enough depth to set up enough of his own winners. He was outplayed.

    On to Miami.

Winner: Alexandr Dolgopolov

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Casual tennis fans were at least awakened to catch a glimpse of Alexandr Dolgopolov's explosive talent and long-forgotten potential. The pint-sized Ukrainian stands a shade under six feet and weighs about a buck 57, according to ATP World Tour profile. It's hard to believe those measurements are not exaggerated, even with the kind of power he can generate with his sinewy arms and legs.

    In January 2012, Dolgopolov reached as high as No. 13 in the rankings, but had fallen prey to his usual inconsistencies and penchants for trying to create winners from low-percentage shots. He was only ranked No. 55 to begin 2014.

    His conquest of Rafael Nadal in the third round at Indian Wells reminded all tennis fans of what an unusual and entertaining talent he is. He can lean and whip his body into serves that routinely top 200 kph, and his quickness allows him to throw his entire body into a shot.

    He's a surprisingly graceful and powerful combination who choreographs unusual body leans and balances, as if he were both the source and extension of the shot. He can glide and leap into his backhands and cut flat power as if he were Novak Djokovic.

    At least this happens when everything is working. He also hits silly, inexplicable shots and throws away easy opportunities. He nearly gave away the Nadal match, and he struggled early against big-serving Milos Raonic. In the semifinals, he couldn't serve to save his life against Roger Federer, only 39 percent on first serves and getting out-aced 7-2.

    Right now, Dolgopolov has brought up his ranking to No. 23 through better power efficiency and desire. It's etched on his face. He had a great tournament, all things considered.

    Best of all, tennis fans are treated to his exciting style of tennis. He can serve, return and play with charisma and flair. Winning sure helps validate this success, and may continue to bolster his confidence.

    Just how far can the Dog Man climb in the next few months? Can he keep it up at Miami and then wreak havoc on clay? As long as his new traveling companion is Consistency, there could be more big wins.

Loser: Andy Murray

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Never mind that Andy Murray got rocked by Milos Raonic's big serves. That will usually happen to anyone on a given day who faces the big Canadian. And given Murray's comeback and incremental recovery from back surgery, it was not entirely unexpected.

    But it's a little disconcerting that Murray has struggled to close the door on some of his leads. He won the first set against Raonic, but slipped in the second set. He was up a break early in the third set, but faltered the rest of the way.

    Maybe the absence of Ivan Lendl's workouts has removed some of the steely support and focus that is needed to tip the balance in his favor. They will reunite in Miami for the first time since the Australian Open.

    Murray has dropped to No. 6 in the rankings and must now defend 1000 points at Miami. Then he must consider his commitment and possibilities at winning on clay.

    All of this and more will be subjects we consider next week in a forthcoming article about Murray.

Winner: Serveborgs

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Serveborg players were a subject we covered before the final weekend at Indian Wells. For a review of this discussion and definition, click the opening link.

    John Isner, Milos Raonic and Kevin Anderson all had successful runs at Indian Wells, backed largely by their cannonading arsenal. No one is suggesting they will take over tennis and win Grand Slam titles anytime soon, but their impact on future tournaments could be significant.

    Serveborgs are dangerous on one given match. They are capable of bombing the top seeds, even if they must inevitably self-destruct a match or two later. They are upset-specials, if not true contenders, and every ATP professional likely wrinkles his brow and grimaces at the prospect of seeing him in their draw.

    Some tennis fans might enjoy the sheer, mechanical power of the big servers as an awesome feat of nature and physics. It certainly chops away many potential rallies and tennis rhythm from players who look to dominate from the baseline. And for the tennis fan who enjoys tiebreakers, serveborgs are a reliable source for increasing the odds of overtime set deciders.

    But not all fans would prefer to watch the serveborgs. American Isner heard New Yorkers cheer for his second-round opponent, Gael Monfils, at the 2013 U.S. Open. Clearly, the consensus was that Monfils was a more entertaining player than the robotic Isner.

    ATP professional Mahesh Bhupathi tweeted out his opinion of that match, per SI.com:

    Why So much shock about crowd supporting Monfils?? He's an entertainer and the crowd came to be entertained, and watch some tennis too.

    It will be interesting to see what kind of an impact the serveborgs make during the clay-court season in Europe, but come Wimbledon the rumblings could get louder.

Loser: Stanislas Wawrinka

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    His fourth-round defeat to serveborg Kevin Anderson was his first loss of 2014 in 14 matches, but Stanislas Waswrinka missed taking another step forward as the No. 3-ranked player in the world.

    First, he lost to a more one-dimensional, albeit dangerous, player that he should have handled. If Wawrinka would like to close in on Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, he needs to routinely win fourth-round matches at Masters 1000 tournaments and look to snag a couple titles there.

    He also lost the opportunity to take on his legendary Swiss compatriot and banish some of the demons in that haunting 11-match losing streak. He had been riding a wave of confidence, improved fitness and footwork. It would have been interesting to measure his progress against a career nemesis.

    Right now, Federer is breathing down Wawrinka's neck for the No. 3 ranking. Welcome to reality, Stan. Will the carriage turn back into a pumpkin? Miami is a chance for redemption.

Winner: Great Shots at Indian Wells

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    Indian Wells featured several breathtaking shots, and we will display four of the best for you to see. Which one would you vote for?

    1. Grigor Dimitrov lost to Ernests Gulbis in the third round, but the Bulgarian turned an awkward retrieval into a behind-the-back save, eventually leading to a sliding winner (video featured on top of this page). Fantastic, even if Gulbis would later critique Dimitrov on the Tennis Channel: "Everyone talks about him as the next number one. I think he still has a long way to go."
    2. Tommy Haas is 35 years old, but showed remarkable speed and determination to track down Roger Federer's corner shots. In the end, he created the perfect winner, as seen here on ATP World Tour. Unfortunately for Haas, he lost his fourth-round match, 6-4, 6-4.
    3. Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska played a semifinal match with several imaginative shots. In the opening game of the second set, they got locked into a tussle, before Halep pulled the string on this beautiful drop shot. Halep lost the match but moved up to No. 5 in the WTA rankings.
    4. Again from ATP World Tour, and an impressive shot from Federer against Alexandr Dolgopolov in the semifinals. It was keyed by fine defensive footwork. He ended up at the far regions of the deuce corner, and probably closer to the parking lot, before his forehand flick found perfection.

    Which shot is the best? Do you like apples, oranges, pineapple or kiwi? Indian Wells certainly provided enough ingredients for the ultimate fruit salad.

Loser: Media Scrutiny of Camila Giorgi

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Camila Giorgi had just defeated Maria Sharapova in the third round, but media hounds felt it was their business to ask how she would pay off alleged debts with her prize money. You can read the transcript here.

    In a word, the reporters who stuck their noses into her affairs are disgusting. Even if they were not interested in asking real tennis questions, they lacked any tact or regard for Giorgi and her own issues.

    Would any of these reporters like to be questioned about their credit cards, purchases or dealings on a public forum? How about any other mistakes? What about being accused for honest dealings that are still personal?

    Giorgi owes none of them an explanation. Even the moderator had to remind the questioner to stick to tennis.

    These reporters crossed the line into incivility. They deserve nothing less than a bagful of our burnt bagels. They should chew on those rather than open their mouths to speak.

Winner: Flavia Pennetta

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Flavia Pennetta is on a career upswing at age 32. It really began last summer when she reached the fourth round at Wimbledon and the semifinals at the U.S. Open.

    At the 2014 Australian Open, she made it into the quarterfinals, but was crushed by Li Na 6-2, 6-2.

    And now she is holding the Indian Wells title. Along the way she defeated Samantha Stosur and Sloane Stephens. Her rematch with Li Na in the semifinals was her biggest statement in terms of her hot play and her toughness. She defeated Li 7-6, 6-3. Her championship win was a bit anticlimactic, as she laced an injured Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-2, 6-1.

    Pennetta has moved her ranking up to No. 12, but it's interesting to see her confidence grow. Like a lot of tennis professionals, she has a very good baseline game and footwork but has an inconsistent serve. Even the Li match saw her serve crumble too frequently, but she was able to break Li six times.

    In the past, she has rarely shown the capacity to close out matches against the best players, as if her belief was not there. But her confidence is rising and she is in her best zone.

    Fittingly, it is the Italian Pennetta who must be honored with our Golden Breadstick award for her greatest career title. Her recipe for success makes us want to say "Buon Appetito!"

Loser: Caroline Wozniacki

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    In what could virtually be a weekly feature of the Winners and Losers column, Caroline Wozniacki has parted ways with her second coach since January. Michael Mortensen was the latest to pick up his final (and perhaps only) check.

    The Wozniacki coaching carousel should be called The Changeover. She changes coaches more often than her outfits.

    The disturbing thing about Wozniacki's fickleness is that it shows a lack of commitment. Mortensen said for Tennis.com that Wozniacki is not open to making changes in her game, but would rather revert to what she knows how to do.

    The results have been a gradual slide from No. 1 to No. 18 the past two years.

    Enough said.

Winner: Novak Djokovic Defeats Roger Federer

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Two weeks ago, it was Federer dropping the first set and then charging forward with aggression to claim the Dubai title. This time, it was Djokovic who clawed back after losing the first set. For the fans, Indian Wells showcased a match with quality play and championship resilience from both players. Djokovic finally prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(3).

    Federer came out in vintage form, or at least like the 2012 Federer, with an airtight serve, terrific second-serve placement and fine mix of beautiful baseline shots. He stormed to the first-set win in less than half an hour.

    A few things to note about Federer's excellent 2014 comeback. First, his backhand is confident. He takes it early, up-the-line and rarely shanks errors with the larger frame. Second, his quickness to the corners has produced stellar defensive-to-offensive shots. Federer has always been underrated in this aspect. Finally, Federer was more reluctant to come to net against Djokovic, perhaps after controlling things early.

    Djokovic must be applauded for grinding through some of his own difficulties. He was lackluster with his down-the-line backhand and second serve. Still, he found a better rhythm and more angles as the match progressed. His fight and energy increased, and he didn't hang his head after blowing his chance to serve out the third set. He was excellent during the tiebreaker and didn't overreact to his victory.

    It's a step forward for the Serbian in claiming the season's first Masters 1000 title. Last week, he trailed Rafael Nadal by 3825 points for the No. 1 ranking. Now he has chopped that deficit to 2130 points.

    This week, Djokovic is a title winner, and he has to feel that his best tennis is still ahead.

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