The “Sunshine Double” better known as the Indian Wells and Miami tournaments over the last few weeks certainly provided enough compelling storylines and surprise champions. Whether the results in the desert and in South Florida translate into long-term trends for the rest of the season is still very unclear, but it certainly proved that the ATP and WTA – though joined together at these combined events – are on different paths – at least when it comes to dealing with the lack of a dominant player or group of players week in and week out.
On the WTA side, Naomi Osaka enjoyed a well-deserved breakthrough maiden title in Indian Wells while Sloane Stephens put herself back in the conversation with her Miami title after dealing with a post-US Open lull. Of course, the early focus at each event was the return of Serena Williams to competition after being away 14-months due to giving birth and overcoming yet another dire medical trauma soon after. Serena certainly showed equal signs of rust and promise in her matches that she will again return to her winning form in due time. When that happens though is anybody’s guess.
But with Serena not a factor – at the moment – the WTA certainly didn’t lack for compelling matches. The parity within the WTA right now is at such a high level than during any given week – as seen in Indian Wells and Miami – any number of players could win a title. The even playing field has made the WTA a much more compelling watch for fans. And in the years to come – no matter what Serena achieves during her latest comeback – the WTA has proven it has a steady group of known stars and rising stars to keep fans tuning in each week.
The ATP, however, is still very dependent on a select group of stars. Too dependent probably. Of course those stars being the “Big Five” – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka who have dominated men’s tennis for over a decade. This year, so far, has been all about Federer while the other four continue to deal with various injury issues, the biggest of all concerning Djokovic.
While Djokovic returned to action in the U.S,, his two early round losses to Taro Daniel in Indian Wells and Benoit Paire in Miami raised even more questions and concerns about the former No. 1. Not so much about his overall health, but just what is Djokovic’s head space in terms of where he views his game and his place on the tour. The news that Djokovic and Andre Agassi ended their coaching relationship – mainly due to Agassi saying that they chose to agree to disagree more than anything – added to the speculation. Is the clay season where Djokovic will find himself?
The biggest star and MVP of the last few weeks wasn’t Federer at all. Juan Martin del Potro played inspired tennis to reach the Indian Wells final where he ended Federer’s unbeaten streak to win his first ever ATP 1000 title. Del Potro’s win probably saved the ATP tour in the short term as it least he once again proved a worthy rival to Federer with the absence of the other Big Four.
After Federer was upset in his opening round by Thanasi Kokkinakis, the Miami draw was suddenly totally wide open. Once again, del Potro came to the rescue. Despite playing on fumes, del Potro reached the semifinals. There his very long playing schedule caught up to him as he succumbed to big serving John Isner. Any number of players could have taken the Miami title due to the wide open field, but it was Isner who prefers playing in America, who seemed to find an extra dose of inspiration. Isner outlasted Alexander Zverev to win his first ever ATP 1000 title in what probably will be a career achievement for the American veteran.
Though Isner joins a growing list of players not in the “Big Five” who’ve won ATP 1000 titles, it doesn’t change the fact that the ATP is still very dependent, especially on Federer, to keep fans engaged. That Federer now plans to skip the clay season is not a total surprise, but not exactly welcomed one for Madrid, Rome, and Paris. However, if the ATP wants Federer around for a few more years, this is the trade off that they will have to live with.
What needs to happen in the ATP tour is that the next group of players, Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Grigor Dimitrov, to name a few, need to assert themselves now in the Grand Slam mix to make the transition when the Big Five are really no longer player much easier. If that transition starts this year is, again, up in the air, but for now the path ahead for the ATP doesn’t look as sunny as it does for the WTA after we say goodbye to yet another Sunshine Double in March.