Victoria Azarenka and the WTA Head Winners and Losers at Indian Wells 2016

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMarch 21, 2016

Victoria Azarenka and the WTA Head Winners and Losers at Indian Wells 2016

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Indian Wells is one of the greatest tournaments for the WTA and ATP, and it featured legendary champions Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal playing into the final weekend.

    Yet the championships were undermined by disparaging remarks from chief executive officer Raymond Moore. It’s not something to ignore, and the last slide reveals why these kinds of comments are atrocious.

    Otherwise, it was a week of fine tennis and upward surges from the likes of Alexander Zverev, David Goffin and Victoria Azarenka. There were great matches, a few plot twists and a couple of familiar champions holding trophies, one of whom has been climbing back for over two years.

    Let’s hope the tennis will continue to take center stage as Indian Wells exits and the tours move on to Miami. Maybe we can all learn something about the history of this wonderful sport and how both tours have enriched our lives.

Winner: Victoria Azarenka

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    Welcome back, Vika. After two lost years from injuries and the long road back to playing confident tennis, Victoria Azarenka won her most meaningful title since defeating Serena Williams at Cincinnati in August 2013.

    Her 6-4, 6-4 win for the Indian Wells championship came at the expense of Serena, who looked out of sorts. Azarenka will storm into the top 10 at No. 8, and she looks ready to roar into the top five with a couple more good tournaments.

    More importantly, she was striking the ball with the kind of power and movement that made her a two-time Australian Open winner (2012-13) and a No. 1 player for 51 total weeks. While many of the other top stars struggle with injuries and inconsistencies, Azarenka looks like a co-favorite with Serena to vie for more major titles this summer.

    This should be Azarenka's spotlight, first and foremost. She was gracious to give her respect and admiration for Serena and what she means to women's tennis with her post-match speech via ESPN:

    I wanted to first address a personal thank you to Serena. I know how emotional it was for you to be back here and you truly inspired so many people out there. To see the type of commitment you have to the game is truly inspiring. Thank you for that from the bottom of my heart. You are an amazing competitor. You changed our game, and honestly, and if it wasn't for you, how hard you work, and seeing you play so well, I wouldn't have been motivated to come back and work so hard.

    Azarenka and Serena both exhibited a sense of unity and joy during the ceremony, something particularly impressive for Serena after a frustrating day of tennis.

    Meanwhile, Raymond Moore stood by, but for now, let's leave that as a footnote until the final slide.

Loser: Andy Murray

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    There are certain conditions that even the best players cannot solve in their careers. Bjorn Borg hated night matches at the U.S. Open. Roger Federer was overmatched by Rafael Nadal on red clay. Andy Murray seems to wither up and blow away in the dry air at Indian Wells.

    “I have never really felt that I played my best tennis here," Murray said in the Associated Press, via the National. “I still feel like I can’t really go for my shots. I feel like when I do, I make mistakes long. I have tried many different things. I don’t know exactly why it is."

    Forget about the way the surface produces high bounces in thin air; Indian Wells is in Murray’s head. Consider that Murray’s best run at Indian Wells was crushed 6-1, 6-2 by Rafael Nadal in 2009 when there were windy gusts.

    "Probably Andy didn't play his best because of the conditions, but I played a really complete match,” Nadal said in Reuters following the 2009 final. “I was moving very well, I never stop the legs during the whole match, and I think that was the key today. I don't know if I was a little bit more prepared than him to play in these conditions. Maybe I accept (the conditions) a little bit better than him."

    OK, but Murray defeated Djokovic in the 2012 U.S. Open final when the gusty winds bothered him less than the Serb.

    Conclusion: Murray’s Indian Wells problems are between the ears.

    He will welcome the humidity on the opposite southern corner of the United States when he gets back to familiar training grounds at the upcoming Miami Masters.

Winner: David Goffin

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    He looks like he could be serving up waffle cones instead of tennis balls, so how could someone not root for Belgian David Goffin, who stands at 5’11” and 150 pounds.

    He gives hope to average-sized humans who have world-class tennis skills, and he's a top-15 player in an ATP tour that has powerful giants like Marin Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro, John Isner and Milos Raonic.

    Watching Goffin fall to Raonic in this week’s semifinals was a true David vs. Goliath contest, in which the latter ironically slung his powerful shots from long range. Meanwhile, the little guy was feebly waving his racket at 140-142 mph serving blasts.

    For tennis fans who love to see players battle it out with their all-court skills, it was less thrilling to watch Goffin’s breakthrough to a Masters 1000 semifinal get overpowered by Raonic’s one standout ability.

    Still, it was quite a week for Goffin, who escaped Frances Tiafoe’s challenge before defeating Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic. It’s been a progressive journey since summer 2014, when Goffin played challenger events to work his way up into the top 20, and just maybe he can climb five more places into the top 10.

Loser: Dominic Thiem

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    Dominic Thiem has been impressive in 2016, thus far posting a 22-5 record and two titles. He’s garnered attention as a young player who could make a big impact on the European clay-court circuit next month.

    However, his appearance in the fourth round was a flop, as he fell 6-3, 6-2 to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Sure, Tsonga is more experienced with his power and top-10 resume over the years, but Thiem was unable to dial up his powerful strokes to put Tsonga on the defensive.

    Time to fix the flat tire on the Thiem bandwagon, but there's plenty of time to accelerate for his next crack at a top-caliber player.

Winner: Milos Raonic

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    Milos Raonic is certainly likely to one day hold up a major championship. Like other enormous servers from decades past, he can blast his way through more talented opponents on most given matches and is always a threat to knock off one of the greats.

    But what in the name of Roscoe Tanner does he need to do to knock down the door of a huge tournament?

    Raonic was blasted 6-2, 6-0 by world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, and it was another reminder of the chasm between being an enormous server and an-all-time champion who can create points with a plethora of skills.

    Could Raonic pull a Richard Krajicek (1996 Wimbledon champion) and put together seven major wins in a row against the world’s deepest field?

    The data looks grim if we examine his three appearances in Masters 1000 finals. He was pummelled 6-2, 6-2 by Rafael Nadal in the 2013 Canada Open. He was ripped 6-2, 6-3 by Djokovic in the 2014 Paris Masters. Combined with his Indian Wells beating, that’s a 36-11 games deficit.

    How confident will he be if he has to face Djokovic in a future final?

    At any rate, we give Raonic a “Winner” slide for taking care of Bernard Tomic, Tomas Berdych and David Goffin, but he had a very shaky Sunday.

Loser: Rafael Nadal

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    Maybe Rafael Nadal was lucky that 18-year-old Alexander Zverev missed a forehand volley and survived match point, but he slammed the door shut on the young challenger with the kind of fight and snarl that he routinely exhibited during his glory years.

    All credit to the Spaniard’s mastery of Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals. He reduced the Japanese star to a brief afternoon of errant strokes and an uncharacteristic racket toss from frustration.

    But once again, and despite his best efforts in the first set, Nadal cannot hang with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Nadal got the early break in the semifinal but gave it back with lackluster play.

    Meanwhile, Djokovic was out of sorts in dishing out unforced errors and double faults, but he took Nadal’s best shots, fought off set point at 4-5, kept control of the tiebreaker and then put the Spaniard to bed in the second set.

    Nadal talked about competing better against Djokovic in ATP World Tour, saying: “A few mistakes at the tail end of the first set were the difference. I believe that with a little bit more of confidence with my forehand at the end of that first set [I'd have] a better chance.”

    Granted, Nadal did look better at times this week, but it’s much tougher for him to maintain his highest level. The reality is that he has not closed the gap on Djokovic any more than Roger Federer’s talk that “margins are small out there” and Andy Murray’s insistence that he played at a "close level" to Djokovic in the final two sets of the Australian Open.

    Few tennis fans would have expected Nadal to upset Djokovic, and with their rivalry basically over after French Open 2014, nothing has really changed with this latest loss at Indian Wells.

Winner: Novak Djokovic

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    It might be appropriate to rename this column “King Novak’s Trophy Archives.” The redundancy of Djokovic’s championship monopoly of huge titles is, nevertheless, always an intriguing march into history.

    Djokovic's defensive and return abilities put constant pressure on all parts of his opponents’ game, and he squeezes out any weaknesses. If his offense is misfiring, like it did at times the past week, he can always turn things around somehow, someway, and quickly.

    There’s never been a player who was equally adept at dominating with offense and defense. He forces mistakes from either role, both wings and from horizontal and vertical attacks.

    Like the mighty Roger Federer or great Rafael Nadal when they were ruling with their special peaks, Djokovic is creating sagas we will not see again, or at least they will be written differently by legends from future generations with new ways of reshaping the game.

    All hail, King Novak.

Loser: Raymond Moore

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    Why?

    Indian Wells CEO Raymond Moore somehow acquired his job despite ignorant understanding of the history or current realities of women’s tennis.

    Moore said players in the WTA tour "ride on the coattails” of the men’s ATP tour, as reported in ESPN.

    "They don't make any decisions, and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky. If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport. They really have."

    Don't make any decisions?

    How does Moore justify fulfilling his leadership position if he cannot understand the history of women’s tennis? It's been a leading worldwide sport for many decades, even before Billie Jean King and self-determined stars created independent opportunities to grow their sport in fantastic ways.

    There have been legendary stars like Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Venus and Serena Williams and Justine Henin. There are so many other stars that have brought talent and charisma to women's tennis, and alongside men's tennis, it has always been a golden sport.

    Lucky?

    Does 69-year-old Moore not understand the work ethic, sacrifices and commitment that female athletes have made during the past half century of which he could have observed had he chosen?

    Maybe Moore is just “lucky” to be a CEO at one of the great tennis venues without the kind of historical understanding and foresight that is needed to help lead tennis forward.

    Maybe Moore should be on his hands and knees thanking whoever gave him this opportunity, because he had no respect for anyone in making his comments, and that means women and men, children, fans of tennis and anyone who loves to participate in this great sport however they can.

    How were his statements supposed to do anything other than to tear people down? It’s clear that he has not tuned in to watch and get to know strong athletes who have dedicated their lives to developing a product that is entertaining, contains a wide range of skills and styles and is filled with genuinely wonderful personalities.

    How should a mother or father explain those comments to a daughter who loves to play tennis? We’re not even talking at the professional level, but for all people who love to participate with recreational tennis and share the joys and fulfillment of this sport.

    From the most humble tennis club all the way to the WTA and ATP tours, what better place is there for women and men to share common bonds of participation and competitive good will?

    Raymond Moore made other out-of-touch comments, also noted in the ESPN report, and he tried to retract the comments later, but the genie had been let out of the bottle.

    Instead of enjoying the women’s final, he darkened the mood and no doubt lined up a parade of defensive comments from many people in tennis.

    What a shame.