This is the most significant month of the year for American tennis players not named Williams. The prestigious 10-day hard-court combined events at Indian Wells and Miami offer players from the U.S. a familiar surface, the support of fellow countrymen and all the comforts associated with home, such as free Wi-Fi and drive-through fast food.
Trouble is, while Serena Williams or Roger Federer can grouse about how lonely it is at the top, it’s nothing compared to the crowded, desperate, cannibalistic conditions at the bottom. And that’s exactly where the bulk of American players currently toil -- albeit with good luck through the first two rounds at Indian Wells.
U.S. women went 13-11 through the first two full rounds of play. In a stroke of good fortune, there was only one first-round family feud between homegrown players (the same was true in the men’s draw). On the WTA side, 18-year-old Taylor Townsend won a battle of the wild cards 6-4, 5-7, 7-5 over Bethanie Mattek-Sands .
This looms as a potentially pivotal year for the left-handed Townsend, who made the third round at the French Open and won two ITF singles titles last year. As for Mattek-Sands, who turns 30 on March 23, she’s still trying to dial in her singles game after missing most of last year following hip surgery.
The second round produced one All-American WTA clash as well. After a noteworthy first-round win over Alla Kudryavtseva, wild card Sachia Vickery ran afoul of the No. 26 seed (and thus bye-holder) Varvara Lepchenko, who looked strong in logging a smooth straight-sets win.
The other U.S. women who survived the first round (we won’t count bye-holders) were Sloane Stephens, Alison Riske, Irina Falconi, Lauren Davis, Christina McHale and Madison Brengle. By the end of Round 2, though, only five remained: top-seed Serena Williams, No. 16 Madison Keys, Lepchenko, No. 30 seed Coco Vandeweghe and Stephens.
Keys is playing in her first event since her breakout Australian Open. After she won her first match over Klara Koukalova, the American was asked by the media how her life has changed in the wake of her sensational performance Down Under. She replied: “It’s pretty similar to before. I get recognized a couple times. It's the same. … As great as Australia was, I’m just trying to build from it and keep going and not just be really happy with what happened there.”
However, it was Stephens who made the most pronounced statement on the court among the U.S. women thus far. She knocked out No. 13 seed Angelique Kerber. Stephens has struggled after hitting a career-high singles ranking of No. 11 in October 2013. She’s outside the seeded group at No. 42. And she’s been criticized for getting lost in the funhouse since she shot to stardom with a resonant upset of Serena Williams at the Australian Open of 2013.
True, Kerber has been in a swoon for some time now, but the win was tonic for Stephens, who late Sunday backed it up, advancing to the fourth round with a good win over two-time Grand Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova.
On the ATP side, it seemed a pity that the only clash between Yanks had resurgent Ryan Harrison meeting Mardy Fish, who was playing his first ATP match in more than 18 months -- and has spent the past three years battling somewhat mysterious heart and anxiety-related problems. Harrison survived two match points and won it in a 2½ hour three-set marathon.
A four-time ATP Masters 1000 finalist (albeit never a winner), Fish has the strongest résumé of any active male American player and could probably still carve out a place for himself at or very close to the top of the American game -- if he can put in the time. Sure he’s 33 years old, but so is Roger Federer.
The encouraging news is that he’s been problem-free for more than three months. After the loss, Fish told reporters: “I worked extremely hard to put myself in the best position to not have to worry about things when I was out there. If I was out of shape or if I didn't feel well or if it was going to be a long match or a hot match or something like that, when a lot more things creep into your head.”
A pair of first-round matches that occurred simultaneously provided us with sharp images of a brace of American players heading in opposite directions. Sam Querrey seemed to have thing under control after winning the first set of his match with Sergiy Stakhovsky, but Querrey allowed the 29-year-old Ukrainian to turn the tables. By the end of the 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 loss, Querrey was in a funk.
While Querrey was wasting his chances, energetic Steve Johnson was putting the finishing touches on a crisp 6-2, 6-3 win over Marcel Granollers. Presently ranked No. 44, Johnson keeps accumulating experience and getting better at defending and even retaliating with his vulnerable one-handed backhand.
The overall record for U.S. players on the ATP after the first two rounds is 9-5 -- thanks largely to three rousing wins Sunday. Donald Young got the ball rolling with a convincing 6-4, 6-2 win over No. 31 seed Jeremy Chardy. Jack Sock showed great poise in fending off a match point in the course of dismissing Gilles Muller, and Johnson built on his good start with a win over No. 21 seed Ivo Karlovic.
Johnson told reporters after his first win: “Everything has just kind of come together. You put in a lot of time and a lot of aches and pains. … Once it kind of all kind of clicks and comes together, it's fun.”
Young put his emphasis on the mental aspects of the game: “The way I see myself [now] is totally different. I think I'm fighting a little better on the court and competing. I kind of know myself a little better than I did in the past. All those things combined, coming together on a more consistent basis, is helping out quite a bit.”
Sock, who deferred his planned return from hip surgery in December by almost a full month (he originally was to play first in Memphis), told reporters Thursday, “I had been practicing and working out, but there were still a few things that I wanted to polish up before coming out. I didn't want to put myself at 85 percent and put myself at risk for anything going out there [earlier], because obviously when the match starts there's no really going back.”
With Serena and Stephens on a roll, and a trio of U.S. men joining No. 18 seed John Isner in the third round, the outlook at the start of the big month is red, white and rosy.