Shortly before the start of the men's final at Indian Wells, ABC's Chris Fowler dropped an annoying bit of information. A rumor, actually. There was a patch of blue tape on Novak Djokovic's left knee, and Fowler hinted at insiders' concern that he might be developing a case of tendinitis.
For anyone familiar with Djokovic's history, this was discouraging news. As he rose through the ranks, Djokovic developed a reputation for dubious withdrawls, meltdowns in extreme heat, even hypochondria. Roger Federer and Andy Roddick were just two of the players who mocked his ability to handle duress, and Djokovic seemed helpless in his effort to stem the tide.
That was a thousand years ago, or so it seems. The vulnerable, overly sensitive kid has become a man -- and the unquestioned king of hard-court tennis. He has belief, a fiery competitive nature and a sense of invincibility, to the point where Federer and Rafael Nadal are mere pawns in his game.
Nadal unleashed a torrent of world-class tennis, as only he can, in Sunday's first set. The match seemed over, the execution a mere formality. The fact that Djokovic prevailed, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, speaks to a refreshing new theme on the men's tour, and an intriguing storyline for the prestigious Key Biscayne event (men's play begins on Wednesday).
There's little doubt that Djokovic has gained a distinct edge over Federer on hardcourts, having beaten him at the 2010 U.S. Open, this year's Australian Open, and now Indian Wells. Many figured Nadal would be a different story, but in that rarest of sights, the Spaniard was clearly flustered by the end of Sunday's final, unable to serve consistently ("I think everything was because of the serve," he said later) but also missing badly from both wings.
Nadal had been an imposing 5-0 in previous finals against Djokovic, but now the most impressive stat is 18 -- Djokovic's winning streak for 2011, the best start by anyone on tour since Ivan Lendl won 25 straight at the beginning of 1986 (and that's 20 straight for Djokovic if you include Davis Cup).
More significant than the numbers, though, is the look of satisfaction on Djokovic's face. There isn't a tougher reputation for an athlete to shake than "weak" or "soft." It's all in the man's rear-view mirror now.
The Women's Final: Caroline Wozniacki is in this for the long haul ("I can play for hours and hours") and the skeptics are vanishing, one by one. Nobody's comparing her to Martina Navratilova or Steffi Graf in the realm of top-ranked players, but it's simply impossible to discount this sturdy, thoughtful player with such an engaging personality.
I'm not sure why, because the comparison falls short in so many ways, but I was thinking of Chris Evert as Wozniacki scored her 6-1, 2-6, 6-3 victory over Marion Bartoli. Just from the standpoint of presence: someone who gets everything back when it counts, a player who just won't go away, physically or mentally.
Credit Bartoli, too, for hanging in there so long when she seemed physically spent. Few players on tour have the knack for lining up a groundstroke and just crushing it, to the exact desired location, in such a consistent manner. I've really come to admire Bartoli for a number of reasons: her unorthodox style (everything with two hands), wacky service motion (it's a bullet when she turns it loose), competitive nature, and her endearing smile. She gave a lovely, gracious speech in the trophy ceremony, and now we learn (through one of her interviews) that she has an IQ of 175. That prompted veteran tennis writer Matt Cronin to call her "the tour's resident genius," and her presence in any big match is most welcome. Here's to those who dare to be different.
Andy Roddick: Each tournament seems to bring renewed faith in the man, a sense that his work ethic and relentless desire will finally pay off after months -- actually, years -- of tour disappointment. Then he loses to Richard Gasquet, abandoning dignity in the process, and another bleak episode hits the books.
It is Roddick's misfortune that some of his most haunting memories tend to linger. Gasquet handled him a devastating loss at the 2007 Wimbledon, after Roddick won the first two sets and had a 4-2 lead in the third. Weeks later, he still wasn't over it, and the match came to symbolize his longtime frustration at the All England Club (although his losses to Federer set the truest measure).
This time, Gasquet was the superior player throughout, and Roddick allowed himself to be confounded by a longtime nemesis, chair umpire Fergus Murphy. At one point, after being issued a warning for breaking his racket in anger, Roddick approached Murphy and snapped (more than once), "I'm giving you a warning."
Please. That's straight out of the Jerk Invitational.
You wonder if, over the course of time, Roddick will be fondly remembered for his longevity and intense will to win. That will definitely be the case if American tennis is left in the hands of...
John Isner and Sam Querrey: Too tall, OK? That's just the bottom line here. Too-Tall Clones.
Call it a sweeping generalization, but these guys fit the stereotype of the towering, laid-back athlete who literally looks down on the world and never seems to be in a tremendous hurry. You can't craft a catlike, all-over-the-court athlete out of a 6-foot-10 frame, which happens to be Isner's fate. Querrey is a more reasonable 6-6, but if you've followed his progress over the past year, you know that far too often, he's halfway to Laguna Beach in his mind.
Isner was baffled and embittered by his 7-5, 6-2 loss to Roddick, saying, "I have zero confidence. I'm playing terribly. I can't feel my shots and I don't know why. I just didn't feel like I could win, and I can't explain it."
Perhaps others can, pointing to Isner's significant weaknesses on service returns and the backhand. He's a likeable sort and, usually, a pretty tough competitor. But it's hard to forecast a Top 10 future for anyone who succeeds almost entirely on the strength of serve.
Querrey, meanwhile, had his latest hopeless-looking effort, a 6-1, 6-3 loss to Tommy Robredo, after convincintly dispatching Janko Tipsarevic and Fernando Verdasco. As he left the court, headed somewhere he undoubtedly would feel more comfortable, a single word cross my mind: Whatever.
Ryan Harrison: Roddick has a measure of admiration for Isner and Querrey, whom he considers to be good friends, but it was interesting to hear his comments about Harrison, who impressively reached the fourth round before colliding with Federer. Clearly, he sees a different breed of cat in the 18-year-old from Shreveport, Louisiana.
"I think Ryan is a pretty smart kid," Roddick said. "He listens. He wants to be a good player. We've seen a lot of guys that have come through here, especially in this country, they're trying to obtain a lifestyle as opposed to Ryan wants to be a good tennis player, and there is a distinct difference. He competes. That's something you can't teach. You can't teach someone to compete, to run after every ball, to hustle -- and he does. He's passionate about it. That's what you have to start with."
In parting, Harrison had this quote to remember: "I have never, ever reached a point in a match where I said, 'Forget it, I don't care.' That's a huge asset for me."
Reality Check: Before Kim Clijsters was forced out of the tournament with a shoulder injury, Lindsay Davenport had this to say on Tennis Channel: "Players view Wozniacki as No. 2. No disrespect to Caroline, but everyone, from the players to the media to the fans, really know that Kim has been the best player for the past eight months. They would fear playing Kim more than they would Wozniacki."
Just Wondering: Were the Tennis Channel cameras banned from the interview room? You'd almost have to draw that conclusion after two weeks of nothingness. I watched nearly the entire tournament, either live or on tape, and I didn't see a single clip of players in that setting.
Contrast: At the NCAA basketball tournament, CBS has prepared collections of the best/funniest/saddest/angriest quotes, and it's a terrific feature. Indian Wells didn't offer nearly that many options, but a lot of interesting stuff comes out of the postmatch interviews (example: the whimsical Wozniacki at the Australian Open). Why completely ignore it?
A Moment: Ivo Karlovic's serve is just ridiculous. It seems to arrive from the skies, like a bolt of lightning, and Nadal admitted being nervous about facing his quarterfinal opponent. He called Karlovic "the lottery" and said that receiving his first serve "is like a penalty shot (from a soccer goalie's standpoint) every time."
Tournament officials really needed Nadal to beat Karlovic. As the Spaniard's 5-2 lead began to evaporate in the third-set tiebreaker, TC's cameras caught Indian Wells honchos Larry Ellison and Charlie Pasarell looking weary and exasperated. Nadal misfired on a match point, and then another, and on the third, Karlovic launched an absolute rocket to his forehand.
Nadal, by this point accustomed to the experience, hammered it back (in play) with the casual aplomb of a man perusing a menu. It meant nothing, because the serve was out, but the crowd was buzzing. There are always a few jokers in the audience, muttering to their girlfriends, "Hey, I could get a few points off that guy," but this was Agassi-like, a whole new world of hand-eye coordination.
Maria Sharapova: Critics are past the point of making excuses for Sharapova, now two years removed from her post-surgery comeback. For those of us who saw Sharapova in July at Stanford, where she reached the final, it was clear that her game -- including the serve -- was both promising and pain-free.
I don't know what the heck has taken place since then, and in checking with some of the sport's sharper minds --Cronin, Steve Tignor, Pete Bodo -- nobody else seems to have a handle on it, either.
Wozniacki has shown she can be rattled by especially strong, forthright play, but Sharapova rarely offered that in their semifinal match. Coming off a scattershot victory (13 double-faults) against Shuai Peng, Sharapova was again rendered harmless by her own dreadful serving. She got down 3-1 in the first set by double-faulting away a game, and she did the same thing, twice, in the second set (handing Wozniacki 3-2 and 5-2 leads). It was difficult -- and, at times, embarrassing -- to watch.
Even Sharapova's most ardent fans have found her stunningly vulnerable in high-level matches, never resembling a three-time major champion. For those watching her for the first time, this is a beautiful, hard-hitting woman making too many mistakes and far too much noise.