Saturday, March 18, 2017

It's only a mirage

When I was a child, a popular pop culture image was the thin, parched, near-dead man crawling across the desert, desperately hoping to reach what he believes to be a pool of water--only to learn that it is a mirage. This desert image is, in fact, what is known as an "inferior" mirage because the mirage (blue water) appears under the actual entity (blue sky), due to the bending of light rays.

Nadine Gordimer once said "A desert is a place without expectation," but she probably had never attended the BNP Paribas Open. For there was plenty of expectation--and hope in the desert this year. World number 1 Serena Williams withdrew from the event, 2016's Sunshine Double defending champion, Victoria Azarenka, is not on the tour right now, and Maria Sharapova is still out. The path in the sand looked steadier for world number 2 Angelique Kerber, rising star Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep, and former champion Caroline Wozniacki.

It may look like refreshing blue water, but it's really the blue in the Russian flag, and the blue blood of tour veterans. On Sunday, 30-year-old Russian Elena Vesnina will contest for the title against 31-year-old Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova. Pour some vodka and party like it's 2004!

This is Vesnina's first premier mandatory final. The ESPN commentators made a big deal about Vesnina's changes in fortune between last year's tournament (she lost in the first round of qualifying) and this year's, yet never bothered to mention that Vesnina was off of the tour for a long time because of injury. Her comeback moment occurred in Charleston last year, when she reached the final for the second time in her career. She then went on to reach the semifinals at Wimbledon.

In Indian Well, Vesnina--one of those players with a great serve who can't always find it (though she found it in the desert)--had to go through an especially difficult draw. She defeated Shelby Rogers, Timea Babos, Angelique Kerber, Venus Williams, and Kiki Mladenovic. Quite a feat.

Kuznetsova, who is a two-time major champion (U.S. Open and French Open) is one of the great talents on the tour, but her athleticism and stunning shot variety have often exceeded her ability to remain mentally steady. In Indian Wells, she has looked wonderful, taking out Johanna Larsson, Roberta Vinci, Caroline Garcia, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and Karolina Pliskova. Also quite impressive.

So here we are again, back to the 30-and-over group, and Russians at that. I like it.

There are other players worth mentioning. Kiki Mladenovic, though she appeared mentally tired in the semifinals (until the last part, when she really woke up) is getting closer and closer to stepping into the wide potential we've seen for so long. Wild card Kayla Day made it to the third round, and took out the formidable Mirjana Lucic-Baroni on the way. Kristyna Pliskova's 2nd round dismantling of Daria Kasatkina is worth noting, as is Caroline Garcia's third round upset of Johanna Konta.

In doubles, the third round featured the tennis artist formerly known as Santina battling against itself, with the Hingis half emerging victorious. In that match, Martina Hingis Chan Yung-Jan defeated Sania Mirza and Barbora Strycova. Chan and Hingis also knocked off the top seeds, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova, and are in the final. Their opponents will be Lucie Hradecka and Katerina Siniakova, who defeated the 2nd seeds, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina.

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