By Sigurd Neubauer
Carlos Alcaraz, 19, has recovered from injury and dominated the field at the newly completed Indian Wells Masters tournament where he easily defeated Daniil Medvedev 6-3, 6-2 in the final. The Spaniard also recovered the World No 1 ranking, which he lost tp Novak Djovokic, 35, earlier this year.
On what stood out, President Vesa Ponkka of the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) describes the tournament as “excellent in many ways,” including for Americans where Francis Tiafo, 24, played well but lost to Medvedev, 27, during the semi-finals.
“The Tiafo-Medvedev match was played at a very high-level,” Ponkka says, but points out that the Russian was unable at the end to maintain the precision and focus he had exhibited against the American during the final.
“Medvedev was clearly exhausted – both physically and mentally – from his winning streaks for the past three tournaments coupled with his match against Tiafo, which is why it was easy for Alcaraz to defeat him in the final. This is why the Russian lost in the final as he was unable to produce at the same level against the Spaniard,” Ponkka, who is one of America’s preeminent coaches, explains.
Tiafo clearly held his own against Medvedev during their match as the American is inching ever closer to the very top of men’s tennis.
While Medvedev is ranked as number five in the world, Tiafo is 14.
Medvedev’s loss to Alcaraz could be a temporary setback in his momentum as he’s “played unbelievable this year,” Ponkka says, referring to his two recent tournament victories at the ABN AMRO Open and Qatar ExxonMobil Open.
Responding to what’s next for the world of men’s tennis, the JTCC President is looking forward to watching Alcaraz and Djokovic hitting it out.
“Alcaraz is the future of tennis and Djokovic is perhaps the best player of all time,” Ponkka explains, then quips: “The question is: will the Spaniard be able to defeat the Serb in a ‘best-of-five’ sets,” a reference he’s making to a grand slam tournament.
There are four Grand Slam tournaments held annually; the Australian Open; the French Open; Wimbledon; and the US Open.
All other tournaments are best-of-three sets.
Alcaraz is the future of tennis and Djokovic is perhaps the best player of all time: Ponkka
Because the Serb declined to take the Covid-19 vaccine, he was unable to participate in the Indian Wells Masters due to U.S. government pandemic era restrictions for foreigners.
Had Djokovic participated, he would, of course, be a favorite to win the storied California tournament. Tournament officials nonetheless attempted to secure a waiver for Djokovic, Ponkka reveals, but Washington declined.
The Serb is for the same reason unable to participate in the unfolding Miami Open, which runs from March 19 through April 2.
“Hopefully Djokovic will have a chance to participate in this year’s US Open,” Ponkka says, expressing optimism that U.S. pandemic restrictions on foreigners may be relaxed by August.
Currently ranked as number two in the world, Djokovic was barred from participating in last year’s US Open where he was a favorite to win.
Tied with Rafael Nadal, 36, for most grand slam titles – 22 – the Serb is on his way to become the winner of the most grand slam titles of all time.
“To take out Djokovic is hard, but perhaps Alcaraz can do it,” Ponkka speculates as the two may be able to play at the upcoming Wimbledon, which will take place from July 3-16, 2023. If they play, it will be a test for Alcaraz whether he can defeat Djokovic in a best-of-five sets, “which is very difficult to do,” he adds.
But the 2023 Indian Wells Masters also produced several other high-quality matches, including between Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime and American Tommy Paul. The Canadian won it 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(6).
Felix Auger Aliassime, 22, is ranked six and Paul, 25, 19.
Responding to what his main take-away from the California tournament was, Ponkka argues that Alcaraz has put his marker down. “All of the remaining players will have to take it to his level or beyond now that he’s recovered from injuries.” Alcaraz has no clear weaknesses which is very rare at his young age.
The JTCC President doesn’t think that there will be any drop in Alcaraz’s performance going forward. “He will just get better and better,” he explains as it “will be interesting to see how he will be performing.”
Elena Rybakina, 23, of Kazakhstan defeated Aryna Sabalenka, 24, 7-6 (11), 6-4 in the final.
“Beating Sabalenka and Iga Świątek, 21, back-to-back, is very difficult as it is a hard-earned victory,” Ponkka says, referring to the number two and one in the world, respectively.
“At the Indian Wells Masters’ this year, the best players came through for both men and women. It was delightful to witness the highest caliber of tennis being displayed at the tournament.”
Analyzing Rybakina’s performance, the JTCC President assesses that she played “a little better in the big points” than Sabalenka. The Belarussian, and Polish Świątek, together with Rybakina, are presently the three best players in the world, he asserts.
While Rybakina is only ranked as number seven in the world, she essentially “lost” two-thousand points when she won the 2022 Wimbledon because of the ATP and WTA decision not to grant points. The decision was tied to the British government’s decision to bar Russian and Belarusian players from participating because of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Rybakina, Ponkka predicts, could become the world’s number one player this year as “she’s fully capable of winning grand slams.”
Indian Wells Masters
Formally known as the BNP Paribas Open, the Indian Wells tournament opened in March 2000. “Fans love it; they call it a tennis paradise because of its beautiful surroundings and pristine facility,” Ponkka explains.
The tournament, he adds, is “getting bigger and better every year.”
On the downside, it can get a bit windy, but this also makes it “so unique.” Its courts are slow hardcourts, which requires the players to “have patience and move well.”
“These conditions bode well for Alcaraz’s strength as they fit his energy level,” the JTCC President adds, while quipping: “The Indian Wells Masters has a reputation of being the fifth ‘grand slam,’ and it is living nicely up to it.”
“It is an absolutely beautiful place with its desert and mountains,” Ponkka says, while recommending anyone to go and visit.
Responding to the symmetry between how the California tournament is immediately followed by the Miami Open, Ponkka describes the two events as a unique combination of scheduling as they are both on hard courts, but their conditions are very different.
“In California it gets cool at night, which is why the matches are played during the day whereas in Florida it is hot in the morning which is why the matches are in the afternoon.”
The back-to-back tournaments – often referred to as the ‘Sunshine Double’ – also provide lots of points as it helps set the player up with his or her rankings for the rest of the year.
From a spectator’s perspective, Ponkka explains, the Sunshine Double provides fans with a 20-day experience to witness the world’s top players compete.