Mixed events Indian Wells, Miami pack major punch
Mixed events produce a Grand Slam atmosphere as all top players show up
Proof of Indian Wells' & Miami's clout is in a legendary list of past winners
Tennis should institute more mixed events to grow viewership of the sport
One of the great things about the U.S. Open, or any major, is the atmosphere of high celebrity. It's a crushing blow for players on either Tour to miss out on this red-carpet affair, and fans savor that rare opportunity to see all the greats in one place.
That's why the next three weeks carry such a lofty status on the tennis calendar. They aren't majors, but Indian Wells (main draw beginning Wednesday) and Miami (March 20-April 1) bring the men and women together, with a ton of prestige on the line.
The sport could use a bit more of that. A lot more, come to think of it.
One reason so many fans lose touch with the Tours, I believe, is that so little of the calendar carries that high prestige. Don't bring this up to the average professional, who badly needs those lesser events to rack up points and reputation and prize money. Seriously, though: Most of the time, who can figure out exactly what's going on?
The Australian Open brings the first taste of relevance in the tennis year, but for people interested in following up on the results from Melbourne, there is no semblance of momentum. The ensuing week saw the women divided between Paris and Thailand, while the men's tour staged three events simultaneously: Montpellier (where Tomas Berdych won), Croatia (Mikhail Youzhny) and Chile (Juan Monaco).
Right off the bat, then, the public's attention had been lost.
As the women's Tour heads into April, you'll find competing tournaments involving Barcelona-Copenhagen, Stuttgart-Morocco and Portugal-Hungary, a pattern that continues throughout the year. For rampant confusion, though, nothing tops the ATP. The Tour should be congratulated for rounding up so many corporate sponsors and driving the sport's globalization at breakneck speed. But what does anything mean?
When the Tour came to San Jose, near my home in the Bay Area, we got a chance to see Andy Roddick, Ryan Harrison and Milos Raonic (who won the event), among others. Meanwhile, that same week, Roger Federer was winning an event in Rotterdam while Nicolas Almagro took home the trophy in Brazil. Then it was on to Marseille -- or Memphis, or Buenos Aires. Next up, a choice between Dubai, Delray Beach and Acapulco.
There's no point in excessive outrage over this intensely complicated road map, because nothing's going to change. There will always be absurdly rich corporate types who can't wait to put on their tennis shorts, hobnob with the stars and spend whatever is required to bring a tournament to their cosmopolitan city.
That's another great thing about Indian Wells, incidentally. Situated in the California desert, not really close to anything of note, stands this absolute tennis paradise with facilities of the highest order.
And everyone is there.
Since the beginning of this century, the list of Indian Wells winners includes Federer (three straight wins from '04-06), Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal (twice) and Novak Djokovic (twice). Jimmy Connors won this tournament three times, including its maiden voyage in 1976, and the champions' roll call also includes Yannick Noah, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Jim Courier, Michael Chang and Pete Sampras.
On the women's side, Caroline Wozniacki will be defending her title this week -- and that's a rather unusual occasion for her. Through the years, we've seen Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Serena Williams (pre-boycott), Martina Hingis, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Martina Navratilova win the event.
The scene takes a 180-degree turn in Miami, where crisp desert air gives way to sultry south Florida, but that high-profile mood remains the same. During one eight-year run (2000-07), you didn't win this event unless you were named Djokovic, Federer, Agassi, Sampras or Roddick.
Graf was a five-time winner, the Williams sisters have combined for eight, and if you scan the entire list of women's winners since the tournament's inception in 1985, there isn't a single player who wasn't an all-time great, a world No. 1 or the winner of at least one major.
With so much on the line, Miami tends to be a barometer of things to come. Victoria Azarenka won last year's event, routing Sharapova 6-1, 6-4 in a display that left many observers forecasting greatness. The men's final left no doubt that Djokovic was a man fully transformed, and as he outlasted Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), there was an unforgettable moment in the tiebreaker: the great Spaniard actually bent over in exhaustion, hands on his knees. The balance of power was shifting, and the setting of a Grand Slam event was not required.
I'd leave it to Tour officials to ponder the feasibility, but I'd love to see a calendar full of dual-sex events -- perhaps as many as 12. American tennis fans love to know they're watching the best, with the highest stakes. That's why there's so little interest in U.S. professional soccer or Arena League football -- or the countless low-tier events on the tennis calendar.
Here's to the swirl of penthouse flavor that is March, and remember, just about anything can happen when all the stars come out. If you have any interest in doubles at Indian Wells, you'll be fascinated to know that Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have all partnered up.