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Indian Wells in October: better than expected, but still diminished

When something new emerges in tennis or any other sport, one has to keep an open mind. If an observer or commentator is highly skeptical of a given entity, but that entity turns out to be better than expected, it is important to acknowledge as much.

Quite frankly, the October iteration of the Indian Wells tennis tournament — the BNP Paribas Open — was better than I expected.

The women’s final between Paula Badosa and Victoria Azarenka was a high-quality match. Midway through the battle, which lasted just over three hours, it occurred to me that the late-season placement of the tournament (as an adjustment to the pandemic) enabled the women’s finalists to spill the fuel tank, knowing it might be the last really big match they would play all year. This wasn’t technically a year-end championship tournament, but certainly on the women’s side, it felt like one. Women’s tennis once again delivered a quality final even though the names of the finalists (and semifinalists) were completely different from the U.S. Open a month earlier in New York.

I was prepared to be completely let down and disappointed by this tournament in October, but the women’s half of the show once again delivered the goods, with a championship match full of drama and tension.

As for the men, well, you can’t have it all. Diego Schwartzman played one of the worst matches of his career in the quarterfinals. Cameron Norrie said thank you very much and strolled to the title with the help of matches such as that one. Credit Norrie. He took care of business at every step of the way. He earned the championship, and no one else did. Yet, this was a men’s tournament in which Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Alexander Zverev all failed markedly, even with the Big 3 of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer not playing. Men’s tennis did not provide the supreme showcases fans were hoping for. Carlos Alcaraz versus Andy Murray and then Murray versus Zverev were two of the few high-end matchups which generated buzz and rich intrigue. Otherwise, not much.

What is the ultimate verdict of this October Indian Wells fortnight before the tournament goes back to its normal early-March setup in 2022? While the event was better than expected, it still fell short.

For one thing, attendance for the late-stage matches was conspicuously small. Part of this was the heat, which is greater in early October than in early March in Southern California. Part of this was tennis tourism: Fans plan to travel well in advance. This adjusted calendar was a complication for tennis junkies. Also: Kids could not attend due to COVID-19 restrictions in the state of California.

More than all of that, this event occurred during football season and the baseball playoffs, which really buried this tournament in terms of visibility in the United States. Early March provides a much more visible platform for this event in America, just before the NCAA Tournament and March Madness.

Did this tournament provide quality tennis and passionate performances? Yes. I would still want to see this event go back to its winter spot on the calendar.

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