Indian Wells 2021: Swiatek and Fernandez are latest big names beaten in the desert
Unseeded Shelby Rogers joins Jessica Pegula to fly the home flag in the quarters
After gale-force winds disrupted the schedule at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on Monday, the sun shone in calm conditions on the last 16 women standing from the 96 who began their journey a week ago.
But in contrast with the men’s draw, many of the scheduled names had not made it this far. Thirty-two players enjoy byes in the first round in this large-scale tournament, but seven of them lost their openers, among them the No5 seed Garbine Muguruza. Also gone was the young woman who had been in the spotlight since winning the US Open as a qualifier just a month ago, Emma Raducanu.
By the end of Round 3, no fewer than 11 of the scheduled top 16 seeds had fallen, including top seed Karolina Pliskova, defending champion Bianca Andreescu, former champion Simona Halep, and another brilliant teenager in the shape of No15 seed Coco Gauff.
Five non-seeds made it to the last 16, but there was still no shortage of high-calibre women in the mix, including five Major champions.
Victoria Azarenka, twice an Indian Wells champion, had not reached a final for a year, but the North American hard courts have always been a happy hunting ground for the Belarusian.
Iga Swiatek, last year’s French Open champion, and with two titles this year, had cruised to the fourth round, dropping only five games in two matches. Could she continue her hot run against another French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko? The hot-and-cold form of the Latvian saw her win their last match, but that was more than two years ago, and Swiatek had raced up the ranks since then.
A former Indian Wells champion and former No1, Angelique Kerber, had put in typically gutsy matches to win two three-setters, and now face one of the unseeded women, Ajla Tomljanovic. In the same quarter, the reigning French Open champion and No3 seed Barbora Krejcikova was set to face No21 seed Paula Badosa.
And after the loss of Raducanu, many eyes turned to her runner-up in New York, the only remaining teenager in the draw, Leylah Fernandez. The charismatic Canadian put up a gutsy fight to come back from a set and a break down to beat No9 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, which extended her winning streak against top-20 opponents to five, including the absent Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka, Kerber, and Elina Svitolina.
And incidentally, No4 seed Svitolina was soon out of contention for the quarter-finals after the first match of the day. She was roundly beaten by one of the two remaining home-nation players, the formidable 19th seed Jessica Pegula, 6-1, 6-1. It took the American only 68 minutes during which she did not face a break point, against a Svitolina who had sported tape to her thigh all week. A mid-match medical timeout confirmed that this may be part of the problem, though Pegula’s combination of power and variety will serve her well against either Azarenka or Aliasksandra Sasnovich.
The other American was the unseeded Shelby Rogers, the latest opponent for Fernandez. It so happened that Rogers had played and won three matches without facing a seed—until now. And she had her work cut out against the left-handed 19-year-old who brings such energy and intensity to court.
Fernandez won her first title in Monterrey at the start of the year, but it was her break-through run in New York that captured the imagination with her string of top-five victories.
Rogers, ranked 44, beat world No1 Ash Barty at the US Open, and she worked the first break chance of this match in the opening game. She could not convert, and in a match played at a blistering pace, it was Fernandez who got the first advantage, breaking in the fourth game, 3-1.
Rogers got a break chance in the seventh game, but the Canadian staved off the danger for 5-2, and then broke for the set, 6-2, in just 41 minutes.
Rogers was not done, though. She came back at Fernandez with some power hitting to the extremes of the court, changing direction, and mixing up the pace with slice to open the court for a big finish. It got an immediate reward with a break, then another for 3-0.
The reversal of fortune was almost complete as Rogers served for the set at 5-0, only for the Canadian to get one of the breaks back, but that was soon overturned again: Rogers broke for the set, 6-1.
Now began a 75-minute set of multiple deuce games and break opportunites, as both women went hell-for-leather from the baseline. Fernandez threatened to break in the opening game, 0-40, Rogers countered with three big serves for deuce, but the Canadian went for the corners and broke through at the fifth attempt.
It did not last: Rogers jumped all over the Fernandez serve, and levelled things, 1-1. From there, the two women edged deep into the set, both staving off challenges to their serve, going for their shots, dialled in.
It felt as though it may come down to physical fatigue as the set extended beyond one hour in the heat of the afternoon. Fernandez had to serve to stay in the set, 4-5, and did so, but come 5-6, she faced match-point. She survived it in an extraordinary rally, a gripping game, to take it to a tie-break.
Rogers changed ends 4-2 ahead courtesy of a backhand winner, but that became 4-4. However, a poor drop shot from Fernandez handed a sliver of a chance back to Rogers, who took, 6-4, and ultimately the set and match, 7-6(4).
It was, in truth, a magical result for the home player and her supporters considering that Rogers missed the whole of 2018 following knee surgery. She was ranked 116 when the tour reopened after the Covid shutdown, is now 44, and is looking at a career-high come next week.
For now, she must regroup to play her first ever WTA1000 quarter-final against, not Swiatek but Ostapenko, following another upset.
The No2 seeded Swiatek had looked dominant in her matches thus far, but the No24 seeded Ostapenko was having one of those ‘hot’ days, full of attack, and going for her shots, despite going down a break in each of the two sets. The Latvian produced 25 winners to seal the victory, 6-4, 6-3, and so will be rather fresher than her next opponent: Rogers was on court for more than two and a half hours.