Best of Three: Federer, Azarenka statement wins; Isner on the rise
Another Indian Wells title should quell critiques that Roger Federer is in decline
Victoria Azarenka has authoritatively seized control of previously open WTA
John Isner cracked the top 10 after one of the biggest weeks of his career
1. Champion statements: History may record it as just another title in Roger Federer's vast collection, breezing over the fact that the win at Indian Wells on Sunday equaled Rafael Nadal's record of 19 Masters 1000 victories and puts Federer as the only player to win this event four times. The skeptics have already wasted time noting that it wasn't a major and thus is of minimal value. But only the most biased and cynical observers can't be impressed by Federer's winning play at the BNP Paribas Open in the sirocco community of Indian Wells.
It wasn't simply that Federer showed great guts during a week when so many were -- thanks to a ruthless virus -- losing theirs. It wasn't just that he handled wind, rain and weather conditions that recalled the black-and-white scenes in The Wizard of Oz. In the span of 18 hours, Federer scored a badly needed win against his rival Rafael Nadal, at a time when their relationship has taken a decidedly chilly turn. Then he turned in an authoritative performance against the hard-serving crowd favorite, John Isner, who had beaten him last month in Davis Cup.
"It's been a long time since I have been this successful here, even though I have had some really good matches here in the past, but it's nice taking it all the way and getting victories," Federer said. "I was just really happy and not relieved because I was just extremely proud of my performance this week."
Federer may or may not win another major. He may or may not reach the No. 1 summit again. But his play since that devastating loss to Novak Djokovic at the 2011 U.S. Open -- he's 39-2 since then -- says a great deal about his character, his pride and how far he is from a serious decline.
Meanwhile, we spent most of 2011 wondering who would fill the WTA vacuum. Victoria Azarenka hasn't simply filled it; she's cut off everyone else's air supply. The world No. 1 looked every bit the part in Indian Wells. After avoiding an early-round scare against Mona Barthel, Azarenka went into turbo mode. She demolished frenemy Aggie Radwanska in the semis. Then she reprised her Australian Open performance and ran roughshod over a tentative Maria Sharapova in the final.
"I know it's never going to be easy, so every match I take it as important as any match is, if it's the final of [the] Australian Open or the first round," Azarenka said. "I could have been out here in the first round, but that's the importance of being on top of the game when you're not playing your best, trying your best every time, every point."
Azarenka is now 23-0 on the year. And from where we sit, her year is beginning to feel a lot like Djokovic's 2011. Preempting the inevitable responses: Yes, she has yet to face to Serena Williams this year. May it happen in Miami ...
2. Big John's big week: What a tournament for Isner. Now a top-10 player for the first time, the 26-year-old American had the best week of his career, reaching the final and beating top-ranked Djokovic in the process. The serve is obviously the linchpin of his game. But Isner is a clean ball striker on both sides whose mobility is no longer such a liability. He's always competed well (see: 70-68) and, without being delusional, he is now infused with a belief that he belongs at the top of the game.
"The whole week was a lot of fun," Isner told reporters after the final. "Felt like right from the get-go I was going to have a good week, but I didn't want to overthink it. I definitely took it one match at a time. I certainly played well all week, and obviously [Sunday's final] did not go my way."
With virtually nothing to defend between now and Wimbledon, his ranking is still reaching cruising altitude.
3. Indian Wells doubles: Avenging their drama-filled loss in Australia, Lisa Raymond and Liezel Huber won the doubles, defeating Elena Vesnina and Sania Mirza 6-2, 6-3 in the final. Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal didn't leave Indian Wells completely without hardware as he and countryman Marc Lopez teamed up to beat Isner and Sam Querrey 6-2, 7-6 (3).
Bonus shot: Jim Courier did a turn on the latest Sports Illustrated Tennis Podcast and was, unsurprisingly, excellent. This is worth 40 minutes of your time.