Racket Science: The dramatic Indian Wells-Miami Open role reversal

Whoever first observed that tennis isn’t “rocket science” had it right. It’s only racket science, a slightly less daunting discipline, but one that has its own special challenges, rewards and revelations. So let’s delve right into some of the more striking numbers and details recently generated by the sport.

Desert or beach? If you’ve been around long enough, you know that this idea of a “fifth Grand Slam” was the brainchild of Miami Open founder Butch Buchholz. Back in 1985, when the tournament was first played at the Rod Laver Resort in Boca Raton, Florida, the rival tournament that would become the Indian Wells Masters was played in Palm Springs and named for a pen, The Pilot Pen Classic.

In the interim, Indian Wells has expanded and staked a serious and more credible claim to “fifth major” status. The tournament owners created the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, a spectacular facility that has come to overshadow the Miami Open’s current home at Crandon Park. Only Grand Slam tournaments attract larger crowds than Indian Wells. (This year, the total attendance was over 450,000.) The main stadium at Indian Wells is the second-largest permanent tennis venue in the world (after Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York). Thanks to the deep pockets of entrepreneur Larry Ellison, who bought the tournament in 2009, the spectacular growth of Indian Wells continues.

Miami, while financially successful, enormously popular and heavily supported by Latin Americans from near and far, hasn’t matched that growth. It’s partly because the event is played in Key Biscayne, a largely private island. Not all the well-heeled locals are fans of the event, and environmental issues have always clouded expansion plans.

The Crandon Park facility has but one permanent stadium (Indian Wells has two, with another on the way), and it’s only eighth on the list of most capacious tennis stadiums. (The 13,300 seats are 2,800 fewer than Stadium 1 at Indian Wells.) Where Buchholz & Co. once saw the Palm Springs/Indian Wells event as a juicy warm-up and interest stimulator for the much-hyped Miami Open, the horse and cart have changed position.

This dramatic role reversal isn’t evident in the roll of champions, though. The events have quietly been bitter rivals, albeit under different names and in various locations since 1987. In that span, the lowest-ranked player to win either event is No. 45 Tim Mayotte, who won the very first iteration of Miami. But only one player ranked outside the top 10 has won in Miami since then, and he was destined for greatness. Jim Courier was ranked No. 18 when he won in 1991.

The top-ranked player in Miami has won just six times, as personified by Rafael Nadal’s hard-luck saga. He’s been runner-up in Miami four times but never the champ. Every other member of the Big Four has won on the key more than once.

In that same time frame, three players ranked No. 26 have won in the desert: Courier, 1991; Alex Corretja, 2000; Ivan Ljubicic, 2010. (If No. 26 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez had big plans this year, they came to naught; he was beaten in the first round by Thanasi Kokkinakis.) Three other men outside the top 10 have claimed the Indian Wells title: Mark Philippoussis (No. 16 when he won in 1999), Michael Chang (No. 15 in 1992) and Miloslav Mecir (No. 13 in 1989). The No. 1 player has won this tournament nine times. The only member of the Big Four who hasn’t won Indian Wells is Andy Murray.

Sure, you can serve, but can you return? Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Karolina Pliskova, Petra Kvitova, Caroline Wozniacki, Garbine Muguruza, Coco Vandeweghe … all those women are among the top 10 in the “service games won” (by percentage) category. Yet only two of those women are also in the top 10 when it comes to breaking serve. As you might have guessed, the two are Williams and Sharapova. There’s a reason they’re ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.

Curse of the top 10: A few weeks ago, much was made of Ryan Harrison’s streak of 22 consecutive losses to players ranked in the top 10. (It ended when he defeated defending champ and ATP No. 10 Grigor Dimitrov at Acapulco.) But since Harrison has never been ranked higher than No. 43 and is just 22 years old, you have to wonder just how significant that streak was.

Not very, it turns out. For example, 29-year-old Simone Bolelli, currently No. 47, lost 35 straight matches to top-10 opponents before he broke the streak with an upset of No. 6 Milos Raonic earlier this year at Marseilles. Potito Starace, now No. 188, is exactly where Harrison was before Acapulco, with 22 consecutive losses. Starace, though, gets an asterisk, as he’s had a top-10 win before the current streak began.

The guy to watch: Marinko Matosevic. He’s lost 16 straight -- and counting.