Watching Roger Federer claim his 90th career singles title on the ATP World Tour by eclipsing countryman Stan Wawrinka in the final of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, it was hard to fathom that the Swiss Maestro could be performing with such extraordinary vigor at the age of 35. Federer took that prestigious title for the fifth time in his incomparable career, securing a 25th Masters 1000 championship in the process, becoming the oldest competitor ever to claim the men's title on the California hard courts. He stopped Wawrinka for the 20th time in their 23 career clashes, raising his record to 15-0 over the 31-year-old on hard courts.
Taking both competitors into account, it was the oldest combined ages ever represented in a title round contest at this tournament, but somehow the enduringly ambitious Federer seemed and performed like the younger man. He was victorious 6-4, 7-5, losing his serve for the first and only time in the tournament, out-dueling Wawrinka in some spectacularly contested and explosive backcourt exchanges, navigating his way through the match with intelligence, composure and inventiveness. His triumph was thoroughly deserved, although Wawrinka had his chances in the second set to prolong the battle.
In the women's event, Elena Vesnina made a major personal breakthrough, capturing her first Premier Mandatory WTA event by overcoming an obstinate Svetlana Kuznetsova in a ferociously fought encounter which lasted just over three hours across the late morning and on into the middle of the afternoon. Vesnina toppled Kuznetsova 6-7 (6), 7-5, 6-4, rescuing herself from 1-4 behind in the second and engineering another determined rally from 2-4 down in the final set to gain the victory. Vesnina has taken two majors in women's doubles, winning the 2013 French Open and 2014 U.S. Open with Ekaterina Makarova, and joining Makarova again to capture the Olympic gold last year as well as the WTA Finals. She also has a mixed doubles major in her collection, securing the 2016 Australian Open title alongside Bruno Soares.
But her long and exhausting win over the two-time major singles champion Kuznetsova at Indian Wells was a landmark moment in her life. Coming into the 2017 campaign, she had won only two singles tournaments over the course of her entire career. But the 30-year-old paced herself admirably in finding a way to overcome her countrywoman on such a significant stage. The No. 14 seed was exemplary in stopping an opponent who was vastly more experienced under these circumstances. Her success was the product of her refusal to back off of her shots, her remarkable willpower and her capacity to regroup despite a number of setbacks along the way.
But let's return to Federer and how he got the job done against Wawrinka. He commenced the title round contest with a hold at 15, releasing a backhand volley winner, backhand groundstroke winners down the line and crosscourt, and a forehand inside out winner. Wawrinka was briefly shaken by that avalanche of placements from Federer, double faulting at 30-15 in the second game. But he recovered swiftly from that wavering moment, serving an ace down the T, followed by a 137 MPH thunderbolt that Federer could not cope with. It was 1-1.
Yet Federer was unimpressed by his opponent's stand. He held at love with an ace down the T for 2-1 before Wawrinka held at 30 after opening up the court with a well placed serve for a forehand winner. He was back to 2-2. Federer, however, was grooved. He held at 15 for 3-2, closing that fifth game with a backhand volley winner and a service winner out wide. Wawrinka was surely feeling his renowned opponent's presence. He drifted to 15-30 but struck back forcefully with two service winners and an ace out wide for 3-3.
Both men were fully in form now. Federer held at love for 4-3, missing only one first serve in that seventh game, closing it with a winning overhead. Wawrinka retaliated with a love hold of his own, connecting with four first serves in a row, charging confidently to 4-4. In the ninth game, Wawrinka threatened to break Federer for the first time, reaching 30-30 on a rare miss-hit backhand from the crowd favorite. But an unruffled Federer met that moment with total clarity of purpose, approaching behind an inside out forehand, depositing an elegant forehand volley into the open court. A cagey body serve that provoked a return error from Wawrinka lifted Federer to 5-4.
Wawrinka had to stand his ground as he served to stay in the set. He led 30-15, and went for an ace wide to the Federer backhand in the ad court. It was called out. Federer motioned with his arm, indicating that he believed the serve was wide. Wawrinka knew how crucial this point was. He should have challenged the call because the replay confirmed that he had hit the edge of the line. That would have given him a 40-15 lead. But, inexplicably, Wawrinka did not make the challenge. He lost that point on an inside out forehand winner from Federer. The score was locked at 30-30. Now Wawrinka erred off the forehand for 30-40, and then promptly missed another forehand, driving the ball long under little pressure. Federer had been entirely opportunistic, making his move propitiously. He had sealed the set 6-4, winning 20 of 24 points on serve.
But Wawrinka caught him off guard in the opening game of the second set. Federer served-and-volleyed to start that game, but his backhand first volley down the line lacked bite. Wawrinka passed him easily down the line. A crackling forehand winner down the line from Wawrinka made it 0-30. Now Wawrinka walloped another forehand, sending this one crosscourt for a dazzling winner: 0-40. Federer fought off two break points, but on the third Wawrinka succeeded with an angled backhand crosscourt drawing a down the line backhand long from Federer.
Wawrinka fended off two break points on his way to a 2-0 lead but Federer easily held in the third game. Down 0-15, he magically sent a sidespin backhand drop volley gently over the net for a winner. He would close that game with an ace and a forehand winner. Wawrinka changed rackets after that game, but that decision backfired. He pulled a backhand crosscourt wide and then missed an inside out forehand badly. Wawrinka took the next point but fell behind 15-40 as Federer coaxed a backhand error from his opponent with a clever, high trajectory shot. Federer broke at 15 for 2-2 as Wawrinka failed to put away an overhead, allowing his adversary back into the point. Despite a 15-30 deficit in the fifth game, Federer swept three points in a row for a 3-2 lead.
Having lost three games in a row after building that 2-0 lead, Wawrinka nearly wasted a 40-15 opening in the sixth game. But, after Federer had rallied to deuce, Wawrinka served an ace out wide, and then used a wide ad court serve to set up a forehand crosscourt winner: 3-3. Federer found himself at 30-30 in the seventh game, but he shifted into his aggressive mode, serving-and-volleying his way to 40-30, exploiting a body serve on the next point to hold on for 4-3. Wawrinka answered with gusto, holding at 15 for 4-4 before Federer produced a love game on his delivery, putting all four first serves in play.
Now Wawrinka served at 4-5 to stay in the final, reaching 40-0 with an ace. Federer unleashed a forehand return winner and Wawrinka double faulted to make it 40-30, but Wawrinka held on his third game point for 5-5. Once more, with Federer serving in the eleventh game, Wawrinka got to 30-30, within striking distance of a possible break. Federer missed his first serve but Wawrinka's forehand return off the second delivery was abysmal, landing well over the baseline. Federer held on for 6-5, making Wawrinka serve to stay in the match for the second time.
Wawrinka advanced to 40-30. He was only one point away from a tie-break. But the burly Swiss missed flagrantly off the forehand again. At deuce, he netted a backhand off a forehand down the line from Federer. Suddenly, it was match point for Federer, and he was more than ready to deal with the situation. Federer fenced with Wawrinka ably from the baseline, found an opening to approach the net, and dispatched a forehand volley into the clear to conclude the match entirely on his own terms. Federer prevailed 6-4, 7-5. Only once before had he confronted Wawrinka in a final, losing to his friend in Monte Carlo three years ago. Wawrinka had won 11 of his last 12 finals. But at the tail end of both sets, Federer was poised, persistent and polished. Wawrinka was found wanting in all three of those departments.
Federer's path to the final was essentially smooth. He did not drop a set, although Steve Johnson pushed him into a pair of tie-breaks in the third round as neither player broke serve in the match. Johnson served with power and stunning precision to keep Federer at bay, but in the tie-breaks there was never much doubt that the Swiss would prevail. Federer then faced only one break point in a startlingly routine 6-2, 6-3 victory over Rafael Nadal, giving the Swiss a third triumph in a row over the Spaniard for the first time in their careers. Federer rolled through that encounter on the strength of his impeccably timed backhand returns, his propensity to prevent Nadal from extending the rallies and to dictating with inside out forehands, and the excellence of his second serve. Federer won an astounding 75% of his second serve points. He has never been better in a best of three set clash against Nadal, particularly one contested outdoors.
Nadal failed to serve with the accuracy he needed, and his counter-attacking was sorely lacking. Judged by his highest standards, Nadal gave a mediocre performance at best while Federer soared to the uppermost level of his game. Hence the one-sided scoreline.
That triumph took Federer into the quarterfinals, and a highly anticipated, mouth-watering showdown with Nick Kyrgios. But it never happened. Kyrgios came down with what was believed to be food poisoning, and defaulted. The enigmatic Australian had just toppled Novak Djokovic 6-4, 7-6 (3) in the round of 16, ousting the slumping Serbian for the second time in succession, following up on a 7-6 (9), 7-5 win over the world No. 2 in Acapulco. In the two matches combined, Kyrgios never lost his serve in four sets, released 39 aces, and refused to buckle in the two critical tie-breaks that were played.
The curious Kyrgios had captured his only previous confrontation against Federer in a final set tie-break at Madrid in the spring of 2015. It would have been fascinating to witness the icon taking on the emerging superstar at Indian Wells, but it was not to be. Federer got a free pass into the penultimate round. There he faced the best American in today's game, Jack Sock. The 24-year-old had arrived in his first semifinal at a Masters 1000 event by virtue of four consecutive three set wins, including a hard fought and exceedingly well played 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7) triumph over Grigor Dimitrov.
Sock was down 4-5, 0-40 in the third set, triple match point on his serve against the Bulgarian stylist but sent out a pair of unstoppable first serves to reach 30-40 and then made it to deuce by stepping in boldly for an inside out forehand winner off a chipped return from Dimitrov. Sock audaciously held on and later saved a fourth match point in the tie-break before making it home free.
Against Federer, Sock was clinically taken apart in the opening set after losing his serve at love to fall behind 3-1, closing that fourth game with a botched overhead and a double fault. But the American acquitted himself well in the second set. Both players were impenetrable on serve. Sock faced only one break point and Federer did not confront any at all. Sock established a 3-1 lead in the tie-break but his forehand crosscourt clipped the net cord and fell unluckily wide. Federer purposefully secured six of the last seven points to win the tie-break 7-4 and the match 6-1, 7-6 as Sock's backhand deteriorated down the stretch. And yet, Sock raised his stock once more with his impressive run at Indian Wells. He has won two tournaments in 2017 and is raising his game regularly. It won't be long before he finds his place among the top ten in the world.
Wawrinka, meanwhile, reminded us that he is an increasingly tough competitor these days. On his way to a comfortable 6-3, 6-2 semifinal win over Pablo Carreno Busta, Wawrinka was pushed into the treacherous territory of final set tie-breaks in back to back duels. First, the Swiss accounted for the beguiling Japanese lucky loser Yoshihito Nishioka, who had upended No. 13 seed Tomas Berdych. Against Wawrinka, Nishioka twice served for the match in an enthralling third set but somehow the world No. 3 escaped.
At 5-4, 30-30, Nishioka spun his lefty serve down the T. Wawrinka deliberately chipped a backhand return short to draw his adversary in, setting up a trademark wickedly angled backhand passing shot crosscourt winner. Wawrinka then sent a scorching forehand down the line for a winner to break back for 5-5. Nishioka broke for 6-5 and advanced to 30-15 in the twelfth game. Wawrinka did not blink, unleashing a scorching forehand inside out winner for 30-30. Nishioka needlessly drove an inside out forehand long and then Wawrinka stepped up the pace off his backhand to provoke an error. He had done it again: 6-6. Predictably, Wawrinka had turned the corner for good, controlling the tie-break 7-4, winning the match 3-6, 6-3, 7-6.
The women, too, had their share of sparkling battles, including the beautifully fought final between Vesnina and Kuznetsova. Unsurprisingly, there were clusters of service breaks in this riveting appointment. Kuznetsova was broken no fewer than nine times while Vesnina lost her delivery seven times. All three sets were hanging delicately in the balance from beginning to end.
Early on, Vesnina seemed to have the upper hand. She led 2-0, dropped the next two games, and then resumed her mastery to lead 4-2. But Vesnina double faulted her serve away in the seventh game and Kusnetsova put her savvy tactical game to good use, climbing back to 4-4. After losing a long ninth game, Kuznetsova was down set point when serving in the tenth game after serving a double fault, but Vesnina pulled a forehand wide. Eventually Kuznetsova held on for 5-5. They went appropriately to a tie-break at 6-6. Serving at 6-4, Kuznetsova double faulted. Vesnina saved a second set point to reach 6-6 but Kuznetsova garnered a third set point. This time, she converted on a dead, let-cord winner. Kuznetsova had played hard to win that set but having it end on that sour note was undoubtedly disheartening for Vesnina.
The loss of that set seemed to sap Vesnina of her emotional energy. Kuznetsova bolted to 2-0 in the second set, lost her serve in the third game, but then widened her lead to 4-1. Under the broiling California sun with very little wind, Vesnina could have been forgiven if she had become resigned to defeat against the No. 8 ranked woman in the world. But despite her predicament, the No. 14 seed refused to surrender. She was predominantly the player who was dictating the flow of the match. Kuznetsova was frequently on the defensive and scrambling too frequently from behind the baseline to dig out balls. Vesnina was largely the aggressor.
She held on for 2-4. In the crucial seventh game, after Kuznetsova had rallied from 15-40 to deuce, she came forward behind a backhand down the line. Vesnina wisely stood her ground and stayed home, rolling a forehand passing shot winner crosscourt. An unforced error from Kuznetsova gave Vesnina the break back for 3-4 and she held in a tough deuce game for 4-4. Vesnina made it four games in a row to go ahead 5-4 but Kuznetsova broke back for 5-5, lacing an inside out forehand to set up a forehand inside in winner.
Three times in the eleventh game, Kuznetsova had game points for 6-5, but Vesnina kept pounding away relentlessly, breaking again. Serving for the set, Vesnina aced her Russian rival to seal the set 7-5. From 1-4, she had collected six out of seven games. Then Vesnina broke a seemingly spent Kuznetsova at love for 1-0 in the final set. But Kuznetsova proceeded to take four out of five games to lead 4-2. Once more, she seemed poised to succeed. Vesnina refused to stop hitting big. She forced a couple of sliced backhand errors from Kuznetsova in the seventh game and eventually broke at 30 before holding on for 4-4. Kuznetsova's main weapon on serve was the wide slice in the deuce court but too often she did not have the answers when serving to the ad court The ninth game featured three deuces but Vesnina came through to get the break with a forehand inside in return winner. She then served out the match at 30, sweeping four games ion a row at the end to prevail 6-7 (6), 7-5, 6-4. The bolder player won with an unswerving attitude.
The late withdrawal of Serena Williams was a searing blow to the women's event, leaving the chase for the title open to a wide range of competitors, giving the players across the board more encouragement that they could potentially go deep into the tournament and perhaps even win it. It also left the event without a top seed, bringing about a remade draw. Angelique Kerber was seeded second but she departed in the round of 16, falling 6-3, 6-3 against Vesnina, who then defeated Venus Williams in three sets. In the semifinals, the Russian halted No. 28 seed Kristina Mladenovic of France 6-3, 6-4. Mladenovic had overcome Caroline Wozniacki with a gritty display in the quarterfinals, coming through 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2 in that match.
But for my money the most captivating contest of the tournament was Kuznetsova's stirring 7-6 (5), 7-6 (2) triumph over No. 3 seed Karolina Pliskova, the woman many believed was going to take the title. Pliskova fired away freely off the forehand and served with uncanny deception and accuracy, as is her custom. She was striking the ball beautifully off both sides, and implementing the backhand down the line skillfully. But no one in women's tennis is more versatile than Kuznetsova. At 31, the 2004 U.S. Open and 2009 French Open victor remains in the forefront of the game for many reasons: superb offense and defense off the forehand; excellent variety on serve including an excellent wide slice in the deuce court and a heavy kicker in the ad court; extraordinary court craft; and a flexible match playing acumen that few women can equal. Kuznetsova is a deeply emotional player prone to nerves and vulnerable to bad patches. But she is a fighter through and through, as she would demonstrate again in the final despite suffering a narrow and unfortunate defeat.
Against Pliskova, Kuznetsova built a commanding 3-0, 40-15 lead in the opening set, but lost her serve there. Nonetheless, she was up 4-2 and 5-3. In the ninth game, she had a set point on Pliskova's serve but the No. 3 seed delivered an ace out wide and held on. Kuznetsova subsequently served for the set in the tenth game, moving to 30-15 with an ace down the T. But she faltered thereafter and was broken. Both women held to set up a tie-break, and Kuznetsova was ahead 6-2 in that sequence. But Pliskova did not despair, collecting three points in a row, the last on a double fault from a wobbly Kuznetsova. Pliskova was serving for 6-6, but Kuznetsova connected with an immaculate running forehand passing shot down the line. At long last, she had won the set after an absorbing hour, securing the tie-break seven points to five.
After an early exchange of breaks in the second set, the rest of the set remained on serve as both players sustained high standards. They landed in another tie-break. Kuznetsova was the far better performer in that sequence, prevailing by seven points to two. This was top of the line stuff, and an outstanding victory for Kuznetsova on every level. She pulled out all the stops, defended stupendously at times off the forehand, and competed honorably. I enjoyed her match with Pliskova immensely.
For that matter, the entire tournament was a pleasure to watch. For Roger Federer, winning a Masters 1000 event as stylishly as he did will only propel him into the heart of the season. He must be regarded as the favorite to win the Miami Open. Djokovic and Murray are both out with wrist injuries. Although Federer currently resides at No. 6 in the world, his current form inspires much more confidence than the three other individuals competing in Miami who stand above him in the Emirates ATP Rankings: No. 3 Wawrinka, No. 4 Kei Nishikori and No. 5 Milos Raonic, who missed Indian Wells with an injury but should be back in circulation at Miami.
As for Vesnina, she now has moved up to No. 13 in the world in the WTA Rankings. Can she start making a habit out of capturing big titles? I am not certain that is possible, but the way she played in California just might mark a turning point in her career, and a new outlook on the future. The hope here is that Vesnina will make the most of her opportunities over the next couple of years.