A Viral Malaise Hits Indian Wells

BNP Paribas Open

This edition of Indian Wells has been weird, just weird. When 96 players turn up in a draw, there are usually a number of gripping matches that come with them but it didn’t really happen. Take today. There were two three set matches in the men’s semifinals and neither one had me on the edge of my seat.

Rafael Nadal looked like his normal self when he broke 31-year-old Ivan Ljubicic in the first and last game of the opening set. Then, long about the end of the second set, Rafa didn’t look like himself.

Looby hit a deep shot that Rafa should have been able to handle but didn’t then Rafa hit a double fault and that was it. Looby evened the match. Rafa was still in a malaise at the beginning of the third set and lost his serve. Viral malaise I’d have to say.

The problem isn’t that Indian Wells, as one of the journalists described it today, is a “quiet and sleepy kind of place full of rather ancient people.” It’s always been a quiet and sleepy kind of place full of rather ancient people yet we’ve had strings of fantastic matches here before.

The players just didn’t seem to be up for it. Nicolas Almagro walked off against Andy Murray with an ankle injury that didn’t look all that bad, Novak Djokovic didn’t turn up in his match against Looby due to Davis Cup exhaustion, Murray started his match against Robin Soderling losing the first five games and didn’t really get going till the end of the second set when it was too late and lost in the tiebreaker anyway.

We sat there in the media center tapping our fingers waiting for Rafa to perk up and put Looby away and I, meanwhile, received the following text message: “WTF w/ Nadal?” That same person suggested I ask Rafa why he didn’t volley more considering that he’s in the men’s doubles final today and that was the problem. Rafa put off his media session till after his doubles match which was hours later. Unless something was wrong, he just didn’t seem to care enough.

And, as someone said to Looby after the match: “Did you think you’d ever see the day when Nadal would be out of the singles and in the doubles final?”

Rafa broke back right away in the third set then had a match point at 4-5 with Looby standing at the net – a perfect setup for a typical Rafa passing shot on a critical point. Instead, Rafa aimed right at Looby’s belly button and missed low into the net.

Rafa won exactly one point in the tiebreaker and I’m not the only one who was puzzled. Matt Cronin – who’s way better at this stuff than I am – wondered aloud on twitter why Rafa was so “tentative.”

All credit to Looby. I love the guy. Always have. He’s always been one of the more mature and insightful players on tour and he came up with 17 aces and a bunch of groundstroke winners against the toughest baseliner in the game. And when asked about Andy Roddick as his possible opponent in the final, he said that Andy is “pushing the ball back” then added, quickly, “but he’s doing it well.”

I guess Looby wanted to temper his assessment of Andy as a pusher – a defensive player who just gets the ball back over the net. After Andy’s semifinal match with Soderling I planned on trying to provoke him a bit by saying: “Ljubicic called you a pusher. What’re you gonna do about it?”

Before I could, though, someone put it in a more polite way and Andy responded with words that said he didn’t care but body language that showed some irritation. He should be a proud pusher because he outlasted a very hot Soderling by fending off numerous deep hard shots and, most of all, returning so well that it probably made the difference in the match.

Andy has never won this event and Looby has never won a Masters event. We will have one extremely happy tennis player at the end of the men’s final tomorrow. My attention will already be on its way to Miami to see if we can turn up the heat a little bit in every way possible.