Photos by Curt Janka
(March 14, 2015) INDIAN WELLS, CALIFORNIA – Not that we want to gloss over the important or emotional resonance of the return of Serena Williams, but in the 24 hours that followed that match, there was a sense that we were almost back in business.
For the whole week the anticipation leading up to the match everything had been focused on Friday night, but now it felt like we were all back to normal. There were some entertaining tussles – the battle of the fist-pumpers as an older and wiser Ana Ivanovic took on a feisty Yulia Putintseva.
There was the predictable sweep through of defending champion Novak Djokovic as he started his campaign against former Top 10 player Marcos Baghdatis, who seemed to enjoy the kiss-cam antics of TV screen director at the change of ends.
But one match hat stood out was Victoria Azarenka’s albeit straight-forward result and the mouth-watering prospect of a third round clash with Maria Sharapova. Her come-back has been much anticipated and few can forget the almost pitiful site of her struggling to even stand much less run about and swing at a ball this time last year at Indian Wells.
But it’s more than that. Asking her about her earlier come-back during last year’s grass court season, it as clear that she has been so completely frustrated by not being out on court and she admitted that her return had been too early.
She said: “When I came back to Eastbourne I don’t think I was fit enough to play at all. But I wanted to play. It’s been such a long time. It was one of the lessons that I had to learn, that I didn’t prepare well. Preparation is the key to really go out and play and be confident and actually be happy on the court.”
The Azarenka we see now seems to be very much happier with the world, after admitting she had gone through some dark times personally in her time off the court.
She elaborated: “If you know that you put in work, you feel good, you can enjoy it. Tennis is really my passion. You go in life through some tough moments on and off the court, but in the end of the day you just really need to figure out what you want to do in life and what you enjoy.”
When she faces Sharapova in the third round, she will be up against another fighter who had a long haul back from potentially career threatening injuries. In Stuttgart last year she explained how coming back and playing after possibly contemplating the end of her career made every achievement special. There is a sense that Azarenka has reached that same stage of thinking compared to the drive “must work harder” mentality that seemed to weigh her down more last summer.
Right now the Belarusian is the one person players must dread in the draw as she continues her climb back up the rankings, and pretty soon she will be back in the upper echelons but she has a sense of gratitude that for now, she has to get there the hard way.
“Every day is beautiful. Every day I think is a blessing, so I just try to approach it that way. Tennis has given me so much to be grateful for that I cannot be, you know, sad that I’m on the court in front of a great crowd in this the big tournament. I cannot be ungrateful.”
On Sunday the last of the ATP second round matches will be done, and Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will have their own campaigns underway, and it feels now as though the tournament is really getting started.
The only upset, if we could call it that, was the departure of Marin Cilic. The US Open champion played his first match in 2015, losing to Juan Monaco, but his loss opened up the thorny question of his participation in the IPTL exhibition league last year.
He maintained, however, it had not been an issue for him, saying: “I played there six, seven matches and didn’t hurt me that much. Then later it took pretty long time to get back and to reheal it. And even if I would know this I would probably skip playing Masters end of the year, Tour Finals. But at that time I didn’t know it’s going to take really that long.”
A quarter of his year has been lost, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has yet to make his return, having been injured during the Davis Cup final, only to show up on the IPTL for the duration of the tour. Even Ana Ivanovic admitted during the pre-tournament press obligations that the winter had been a long haul, although she really seemed to flourish under the format.
And yet inevitably we return to Williams. It is almost a relief to see she has been scheduled in the afternoon on Sunday and not just the night matches every time. The conditions are hit and humid and during the day those balls zip about like fluffy day-glo missiles, but in the evening when it is a little cooler, the conditions change. She may have said she feels she has won already just by being here, but she is a born competitor, who needs to get the ‘W’ on the scoresheet come what may. Roll on Sunday.