In San Francisco, you need an umbrella for the rain. In Palm Springs, you need an umbrella for the sun. Under a solar glare, the men's side of the BNP Paribas Open would bring a final four made up exclusively of slam-title winners. Yet its most revealing and perhaps best-contested match occurred before the final weekend, on a packed secondary court, where two representatives of the game's future – Milos Raonic and Ryan Harrison – dueled as afternoon gave way to evening.
With hunched shoulders and an appearance that somehow manages to be handsome while evoking The Simpsons' Moe Szyslak, 20-year-old Raonic is an ungainly presence, still growing into his body. The Canadian who was born in the former Yugoslavia went into his match against Harrison as the favorite, having reached the Australian Open's round of 16 this year thanks to a booming first serve. In February, when Raonic defeated world number nine and Calvin Klein underwear model Fernando Verdasco in two successive matches (the final of San Jose's SAP Open and the first-round of an event in Memphis, TN), and the Spanish player reacted with some sour grapes commentary about what comprises “real tennis,” Raonic's name was made.
The 18-year-old Floridian Harrison is still transitioning from the junior ranks to challenger tournaments and the pro tour, and at five inches shorter and almost forty pounds lighter than the six-foot five-inch, 198 pound Raonic, he also seemed physically outmatched. But Harrison had defeated Raonic two of three times they'd faced off as junior players, and the comparative solidity of his game and superiority of his groundstroke technique became apparent as the players stayed on serve through the first set and Harrison snatched the tiebreak.
As a sign of things to come in the men's game, the Harrison-Raonic match was paradoxically nostalgic and classicist. The two players harken back to a time before the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal era, specifically calling the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi rivalry to mind, with Raonic's Sampras-like aggressive serve-based game going to battle against Harrison's Agassi-like crisp shotmaking and remarkably reflexive return of serve. Most notably, in terms of image, both Raonic and Harrison (whose name couldn't be more generically all-American) are all business on court. Neither player has obvious tics or makes much noise when hitting the ball. For the moment, at least, both favor old-school verging on uniform-drab attire.
Harrison had the home court advantage, though there is a definite Canadian presence in the Palm Springs region, and as the players entered a third set and Harrison reclaimed the lead with an early break, the atmosphere grew tense. The Indian Wells Tennis Center's second stadium was packed, and along with dozens of people in of its four corners, I watched the entire match from one standing-room-only corner, along with good-naturedly commiserating spectators. A teen girl a few feet directly behind me repeatedly fielded cell phone calls with a bored Valley Girl drawl, and after the third or fourth conversation, people began ssshhh-ing her. The next time her phone rang she spoke in hushed Mandarin.
As Harrison neared the finish line, he began to show signs of nerves, netting volleys and squandering match points. Raonic, still erratic, began to swing more freely and dangerously. The possibility of a terrible choke, reminiscent of Harrison's loss to Sergei Stakhovsky at last years U.S. Open, loomed. But the young American fought out of some tight spots in his final service game and notched the win. His reward? A main stadium encounter against Roger Federer in the next round. The sport's script was running according to plan.
Other notes from mid-tournament at the BNP Paribas Open
It used to be that the WTA was where lopsided results marked a tournament's early-to-mid stages, with top players routing weak opponents. But that was true of the ATP at this year's BNP Paribas Open, where Novak Djokovic made quick work of friend Ernests Gulbis and countryman Victor Troicki, and Roger Federer dispatched Juan Ignacio Chela, each giving up only a game a match. As I watched Chela's hitch-ridden all-too-mortal service motion while he double faulted the first set to love against Federer, I wondered about his investment in even bothering to compete. But when he'd make a second serve, Federer routinely hit a winner from it.
The women's side, in comparison, was largely characterized by three-set struggles in the middle rounds, with number one seed Caroline Wozniacki coming back to defeat hard-hitting Alisa Kleybanova, and marathon battles between Francesca Schiavone and Shahar Peer and also Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska. The latter two maches were a study in contrasts, somewhat revealing of the WTA's current woes. Despite a dramatic scoreline, Azarenka-Radwanska was tiresome, ridden with errors and lapses in momentum, and symptomatic of a competitive backslide in the women's game. Peer's defeat of Schiavone was another entry in 2010 French Open champ Schiavone's growing catalog of epics. With her street scrapper demeanor and broadly gestural game, she's one of the more arresting players on court.
It's been a pleasure going through Eric Lynch's photos for these tennis pieces because of his sharp eye on and off the court. One of his photos for this entry, a shot of Alisa Kleybanova, got me thinking at length about how tennis has and hasn't changed over the years. Analysts have commented critically on Kleybanova's unorthodox technique, in particular her habit of jerking her head sharply while making contact with the ball in a manner that suggests somewhat flinching as they pull the trigger. She's doing exactly that in the photo of her above, yet otherwise her leaping form is almost a dead ringer for that of flapper-era Suzanne Lenglen, one of the sport's earliest great champions, who was reknowned for her peerless grace. A likeness between Kleybanova and Lenglen is the last thing I'd expect, but the camera doesn't lie, or at least one top-level forehand can't help but recall another, even across almost a century.