Commentary: Big-time tennis returns to Indian Wells with one glorious double fault

It was 11:08 a.m. Wednesday, when Andrea Petkovic of Germany stepped to the service line at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Most likely, the moment was lost on her. Tennis players, as with most pro athletes, focus on performance and results. Historical perspective can wait for 20 years.

In a state-of-the-art tennis stadium with a capacity of 16,100, a gathering pushing 100 was jangling around in the seats. That is normal for first matches on court in big tournaments. Tennis doesn’t do mornings well. None of the fans were thinking much about anything other than getting to their seats and having something cool to drink.

But those who were there got to witness the first official moment on this legendary court since March 17, 2019, when Roger Federer hit a shot into the net and Dominic Thiem flopped onto his back in celebration. He had won his first Masters Series 1000, and had beaten his childhood hero to do so. He, like women’s champion Bianca Andreescu, would pocket $1,345,000. For the tennis tour, life was good. For Thiem and Andreescu, it was really good.

Little did Thiem know, nor could anybody, that the stage upon which he flopped would remain dormant for the next 31 months. In terms of big-time tennis activity, the Coachella Valley became the Mojave Desert. COVID-19 was a sucker punch to all of us, maybe more so to big-time sports.

Since then, the world has changed, and sports such as tennis certainly have been along for the rocky ride. Indian Wells 2020 was canceled just days before its usual March dates. So much might have happened. The likes of Federer and Rafael Nadal were still battling for major titles and hoping to add to things such as BNP Paribas titles. Serena Williams still was focusing more on tennis than television commercials. Novak Djokovic continued to be mostly unbeatable. The classic men’s doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan were making Indian Wells their springboard to a final season that would end in retirement at the 2020 U.S. Open.

The visual of Thiem flat on his back in jubilation, blood running down his elbow from an earlier fall, signified business as usual in pro tennis. And then, it suddenly wasn’t.

Indian Wells always had perfect dates. It played in mid-March, usually warm but not quite yet Palm Springs summer furnace time. And then COVID-19 turned its March dates into the worst in sports. The spring of 2020 marked a flashpoint to the pandemic. Spring of 2021 marked the return, or at last continuation, of virus alarm and fear. The Delta variant back-handed this prestigious tournament right off the court. Again.

Yulia Putintseva returns a shot to Andrea Petkovic on Wednesday at the BNP Paribas Open.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Tournament officials were facing three years of no event, no players, no fans, no branding. No nothing. The tournament is owned by Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison, so losing some money wasn’t the end of the world. But even Ellison has to look at his bank accounts occasionally, and the tennis line on the ledger, two years of zero and potentially three, couldn’t have looked great.

So, there were discussions about dates in the autumn, sometime shortly after summer furnace time here. Tennis tour officials had events in Asia, mainly one in Shanghai, also a Masters Series level tournament, but certainly did not have the stature of Indian Wells, long ago labeled the fifth major. This is, as the billboards and media ads tell us, Tennis Paradise.

Likely, these discussions grew into yelling and anger. Who knows? Maybe Ellison wrote a check. But Indian Wells won the battle, got the October dates and, recently, Shanghai called off its tournament. It said it did so “because of COVID-19 concerns.” No need to read between the lines there.

So Indian Wells is taking an October oasis. Tennis balls are flying again. Fans and players alike are scurrying around with phones in hand. You can’t park if you don’t have the right App. You can’t buy a hamburger, or even a ticket, if you don’t have a credit card. The world continues to change, and so does the tennis world. Players are not interviewed face to face, even though that was allowed on a limited basis in the recent U.S. Open in New York City. Here, they sit in an empty room and babble answers to babbled questions from a screen full of media types. It is the continuation of the slow death of sports journalism, which, hopefully for a while, will keep gasping for air.

So, with all that on her shoulders, even though she likely didn’t give it a thought, Petkovic made her service toss and Indian Wells was back in business. Her first serve flew long. So did her second one. The rebirth of this prestigious event had now been ushered in with a double fault. Petkovic, of Germany, lost that game, and also the match, to Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan, 7-6 (2), 6-1.

By the time they finished, the crowd had swelled to maybe 1,000, the bulk of them sitting in whatever shade they could find.

No matter. Indian Wells was off and running, er … double faulting. Finally.

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