Just over a week and a half ago, the Indian Wells Tennis Garden (they like to call it “Tennis Paradise”) was elbow-deep in the world’s best players; you could not move for Grand Slam champions. Now, as the BNP Paribas Open accelerates towards the finals weekend, we are down to just four men and four women in the singles draws (still including a fair smattering of slam champions). Suddenly, paradise can feel like a very lonely place: everyone is one match away from the final and there is no one else to hide behind.
Indian Wells 2023 : Paradise lost, paradise regained
Dream matches in the men's and women's draw at Tennis Paradise
To look at them, Daniil Medvedev and Frances Tiafoe could not be more different: the 6ft 6ins tall bean pole and the 6ft 2ins muscle man. And yet they are kindred spirits.
Both were happily bumbling through life, winning matches and losing matches, making a decent living and enjoying the life of a travelling tennis pro. And then they both had their Eureka moment: both realised that they had a serious talent and that they had buckle down and work at their craft to make the most of it.
For Medvedev, the moment came around four years ago.
“I started to take tennis more seriously,” he said simply. “I started being more professional about my career and my tennis. That's when I set my most important goal is to have no regrets when I finish my career: no matter how many slams or tournaments I win, I want just to know that I have done my best.”
As plans go, Daniil’s is working like a dream. He is on an 18-match unbeaten run and should he beat Tiafoe in today’s semi-final, he will be one match away from his fourth consecutive title. As if his confidence was not high enough, he goes into the match knowing that he has a 4-0 winning record over the American.
But Tiafoe is riding the crest of a wave at the moment, too, and is now in his first Masters 1000 semi-final. The key to his success is, he thinks, his coach Wayne Ferreira.
“Hiring Wayne – he's getting a tight team around me,” Big Foe (as his friends and followers call him) said. “It’s just holding myself accountable and just having that curiosity of how good I can be at this game. It’s taking ownership of my career. Just being professional day in, day out, on the court, off the court: be on time, doing things the right way. I think all that has kind of helped me grow on and off court.”
Carlos flexes his muscles
Carlos Alcaraz has much on his mind this week: should he win the title, he will usurp Novak Djokovic at the top of the world rankings. He overcame the fierce challenge of Felix Auger-Aliassime on Thursday night, winning 6-4, 6-4 (his first win in four meetings with the Canadian) and moving into the last four to set up a showdown with Jannik Sinner.
He has played Sinner four times in the past and each match has been an epic struggle. Alcaraz won their last encounter in five long sets at the US Open last autumn.
“Jannik is such a great player,” Alcaraz said. “Not only with great serve, great movements, it is because he pushed to the opponent to the limit. That's what I love playing against him.”
Chalk and cheese
What a difference a Grand Slam title makes. Aryna Sabalenka – or, rather, Australian Open champion, Aryna Sabalenka – is a new woman these days. Since her triumph in Melbourne, she has a new calm, confidence about her and, as a result, she is playing with a new freedom.
Her run to the semi-finals has been untroubled: she is yet to play a rally over nine shots. In the quarter-finals, she brushed aside Coco Gauff for the loss of just four games and now she has Maria Sakkari standing between her and the final. She leads their rivalry 4-3 but the last time they met, Sakkari won with ease. Yet that was before our heroine became a Grand Slam champion.
“It's just good to know that you have won already,” she explained. “Because before, I didn't have a slam, and every time I felt so much pressure from myself, because I really wanted to get it. Every time something would happen, I would lose a really close match just because I really want it and I would miss so many easy shots.
“Right now, it's given me more belief and understanding what I have to do on those important matches. It’s not like I’m relaxed. I would say like more calm; different than relaxed.”
She will need to be calm against Sakkari. The Greek has scrapped and fought her way through to the last four, taking three sets in every round (her feet were bleeding after her quarter-final against Petra Kvitova). Knowing that she is not at the top of her game, she is using every ounce of experience and nous to get through each new challenge.
“My draw was, I would say, bloody tough,” she said in her own, inimitable way. “By just surviving and just finding ways, eventually I'm sure that my game is going to get better. I really want to see how it's going to be when I will start feeling good with my game. I’m just playing with different tools in all these matches.”
Iga is eager
She is the world No.1. She is the defending champion. This time last year, she was the unstoppable force. Coming back this year, she has a mountain of points to defend. Is she bothered? Not a bit of it. Iga Swiatek is looking good.
She pummelled Sorana Cirstea on Thursday, dropping just five games, to set up a semi-final appointment with Elena Rybakina. And she was rather pleased with her performance.
“I feel like I'm playing better and better every match,” she said. “Today I started both sets well, and it gave me a lot of confidence, and I felt like I can just put pressure and kind of lead most of the rallies.”
She makes it sound so terribly simple. Then again, so does Rybakina, the Wimbledon champion (she had a battle royal against Karolina Muchova before coming through in three tight sets on Thursday). But even if taking on Swiatek sounds like a daunting task, Rybakina knows how it is done: she beat the Pole in the fourth round of the Australian Open just a couple of months ago.
“I'm kind of realistic in these things,” she said calmly. “I know that, of course, if I am going to bring my best, there is chances that I'm going to win. She's No. 1 and she's very consistent. So there is not much margin for mistakes, I will say.”
Still, Rybakina hasn’t made many mistakes so far.