When Violinists Attack

Indian Wells is now under way, and the considerable anticipation generated by the year’s first Masters 1000 event has only sharpened, although it has been tempered by frustration born of the fact that nothing will be televised until Saturday. As I write, Juan Martin del Potro is serving up a break at 3/2 in the first set against Radek Stepanek. Surely no one would want to see that.

Certainly Qualified
Qualifying is of course complete, having provided a level of excitement commensurate with the coverage: the field appeared uncharacteristically weak, with a typically heavy local contingent. Since I’m not American, I’m not legally obliged under the Patriot Act to care about Donald Young either way. Apparently he is a figure of some controversy in those parts of the world not afforded the same luxury. My right to indifference has been exercised heavily of late, especially since I watched him whine and slouch his way to a straight sets capitulation to Marin Cilic in Melbourne. Anyhow, he made it through qualifying, and has now progressed through the first round with an apparently decent win over Potito Starace (who still doesn’t yield ‘potato starch’ when googled).

Young was not unique in this achievement, given that four other qualifiers won their first round matches. This seemingly confirms the view that progressing through qualifying instills a certain match toughness. I can’t refute this, but I will add that the ‘96’ draw, whereby all 32 seeds receive a first-round bye, tends to foster this kind of result, since none of the qualifiers have to face anyone fearsome. The first round becomes a kind of super-qualifying round. The real action gets underway when the big boys turn out on Saturday, which explains why there’s no coverage until then. I still don’t like it.

The only other thing to add is that Grigor Dimitrov must be kicking himself – or a nearby official – at his decision to remain in Europe rather than front up for qualifying. There’s hay to be made in the Southern California sunshine, and he is precisely the kind of guy at the precisely the stage of his career when he should be making it. Last week he won the Cherbourg Challenger with a terrific performance over Nicolas Mahut, but his decision to play Sarajevo rather than Indian Wells ranks down there with spending February in Europe rather than North America. Emulating Federer will only get you so far. Even playing like him won’t be much good if you’re in the wrong place. At least he’s down to play qualifying in Miami, where he’ll doubtless prove me completely wrong.

When Violinists Attack
There is an old joke in classical music circles about violists being failed violinists. It is unkind, though whatever claim it may have on being funny is due to a discomforting proximity to the truth. (Conceptually, it isn’t any great distance from the line about drummers being the guys who hang out with musicians.) The assumption is that given the choice, most people would choose to play the violin over the unwieldy viola, but that most violists don’t have that choice. It is a formulation that transfers readily to tennis, regarding doubles players. It is equally unfair, equally unkind, and about as true. We can argue until the cows return that doubles is a specialised skill, requiring hair-trigger reflexes, carefully executed tactics and preternatural communication skills, and it all sounds pretty convincing, until empirical evidence proves otherwise. Empirical evidence usually arrives in the form of a couple of top singles players pairing up for a week, and winning an event merely through being better tennis players. When it comes down to it, wouldn’t the Bryan brothers rather be top singles players? From this perspective, Indian Wells will this week be little more than a test laboratory for this theory, like CERN for doubles.

Of the best ten singles players in the world – that is, the best ten tennis players – nine are this week entered into the doubles tournament. The only guy missing is Andy Roddick, who of all the top ten finds himself at the net the most, and could really use the practice. But he has a metric shitload of points to defend in the next few weeks, and has wisely chosen to direct his energies as efficiently as possible. Anyway, everyone else has found a partner, and looks poised to wreck the week for the established teams. Never has the concept of seeding looked so meaningless.

The top-seeded Bryans doubtless fancy their chances against the Scandinavian throw-together of Soderling and Nieminen, although second seeds Nestor and Mirnyi might not against Federer and Wawrinka, who you might recall took the Olympic doubles gold back in 2008. The dynamic Polish pairing of Frystenberg and Matkowski, seeded fourth, will encounter Nadal and Marc Lopez, who are the defending champions. Ouch. Djokovic and Troicki compose another fearsome and makeshift duo, while Andy Murray and brother Jamie have played and won together plenty of times before. Meanwhile, Melzer and Petzschner should be safe against Ferrer and Almagro – though you never know – while Llodra and Zimonjic will presumably have scant trouble disposing of Isner and Querry, neither of whom looks much like a singles, or even tennis, player right now. Other teams to beware of: Berdych and Tipsarevic, Dolgopolov and Malisse, Cilic and Karlovic.

There’s every chance the doubles tournament could prove more interesting than the singles. We can only hope they show some of it. In case you’re curious, here’s the Indian Wells doubles draw.

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