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The Toss: Indian Wells, Miami compete for ‘Fifth Slam’ status

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Roger Federer Indian Wells

Roger Federer has won the Indian Wells title four times, and has claimed two titles in Miami. (Getty Images)

Last week on The Toss, Chris Oddo joined to debate which part-timer would have a better 2012: Serena Williams or Kim Clijsters. Sixty percent of readers thought Williams would fare better at the remaining Grand Slam tournaments and the Olympics.

This week, New York Times tennis blogger Ben Rothenberg joins The Toss for a look at the first two non-major joint events of 2012.

Today’s Toss: Which tournament is more deserving of being called “The Fifth Slam”: Indian Wells or Miami?

Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining me, Ben. As I understand it, you’re finishing up your own Indian Wells/Miami double, covering both events back-to-back. I did the same last year so I think we’re both in a pretty good position to compare and contrast the tournaments as they exist now. That’s an important advantage as both tournaments — though Indian Wells in particular — keep improving year after year.

What exactly does it mean to be called the “The Fifth Slam”? Because no other tournament will ever be able to match the history or cachet of the four Slams, the bigger joint mandatory tournaments are all chasing each other down to lay claim to the amorphous distinction of being the most prestigious tournament not held in London, New York, Melbourne or Paris. In terms of criteria, the tournaments have to have big draws, be mandatory for both the men and women and, yes, they must be joint. That effectively narrows it down to Indian Wells and Miami, which have the biggest fields outside of the majors (the only two events with 96-player draws) and are also played over the course of two weeks (including qualies), just like the Slams.

I’d say up until a few years ago, Miami had a solid grip on the title. It typically had the better player fields and the hustle and bustle that made it feel like a Slam. But ever since the WTA joined the ATP in making Indian Wells a mandatory event, the Southern California tournament grew in stature. Now, with the help of  tournament owner Larry Ellison and his fan- and player-friendly improvements to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, I’d say Indian Wells has pulled even, if not edged ahead. And it will only get better.

Surrounded by snow-capped mountains in the dry heat of the California desert, the Indian Wells Tennis Garden is unique. Nothing about it feels temporary or built-up just for the tournament. Permanent practice courts are sunk into the ground, the legendary practice field that sits in full view for fans is incomparable, and while most tournaments would have just erected a tent to provide shelter from the sun, Indian Wells actually built a structure. There’s an attention to detail and commitment to providing tennis fans the best experience possible that’s simply unmatched outside of the Slams (and truthfully, it might surpass a few of the Slams, if you ask me). Volunteers have been working the tournament for 10 or more years and are shockingly knowledgeable and helpful. There aren’t too many bells and whistles around the grounds, but that’s the point: It’s all about the tennis in Indian Wells.

Outside of the general feel of the tournament, there are also objective metrics that favor Indian Wells. The tournament put Miami to shame this year when it decided to increase its prize money totals and award $1 million to both men’s and women’s champions. That’s the biggest purse outside of the Grand Slams and outpaces Miami’s champions’ purse by about $300,000. It also put every other tournament — especially the Grand Slams — to shame when it installed the Hawk-Eye review system on every court. Lastly, Indian Wells is just a bigger tournament. This year it drew a record 370,406 fans, which will almost surely outpace Miami, which attracted 316,267 last year.

I could go on, but I’ll stop for now and let you get a word in, Ben. What makes Miami so special?

Ben Rothenberg: Thanks for having me again, Courtney. I know since so few American tennis writers are as insane as we are to ever do both in a year (many have never even been to one or the other) that you didn’t have a lot of options for this topic, but I appreciate the invite all the same.

Let me start by saying that the tournament I enjoy more of the two is Indian Wells.  The outer courts are much nicer. Not only does every court have Hawk-Eye, but the sight lines are also way better, and navigating the grounds is a relative breeze. And the daytime weather is pristine, unlike the steamy, sweaty conditions that make sitting at an outer court in Miami so gross.

But relaxation is the opposite of what a Slam should be about. It should be frenetic, stressful and climactic. Players arrive to Indian Wells rested and happy, because there is no significant build-up to it. Which is nice for them, but not very Slam-y. All the Slams have similar tournaments preceding them, and it could be said that Indian Wells is the opening act for Miami.

And a Slam should also be urban. The Miami-Dade County population (roughly 2.5 million) trumps generous estimates of the Palm Springs area by nearly 20 times.  Indian Wells is a nice place to spend a restful few weeks, to say the least, but it’s away from the fray in a way that prevents any deafening local buzz to develop the way it should at a Slam.

Players will often talk about how the crowds in Indian Wells “know their tennis” — and it’s true. People who make it out to Indian Wells are invariably die-hard fans (save perhaps for the odd Gwen Stefani sighting) because they have to schlep all the way out to the middle of the desert to see tennis.  Slams, on the other hand, are events that transcend tennis, that get a bevy of very casual fans or even non-fans in the stands.

A lot of times, those casual fans (the ones who, for example, won’t be able to get past how long Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s name is no matter how much you tell them about her) are the ones who make the Slams so Slam-y. It’s the people, ultimately: the loud, sing-songy crowds of Melbourne, the jeering upper decks of Roland Garros, Henman Hill dwellers at Wimbledon, and the people bringing binoculars to Arthur Ashe Stadium. In Miami, you get that loud, populist, flag-waving energy that you get at the majors. That same electricity just isn’t present in Indian Wells (though they do leave those massive stadium lights burning all night long).

Those aforementioned flags bring me to my next point — the international feel of Miami. Talking to some of the many media members from South America who travel to Miami to cover the tournament annually, it’s clear that they consider this the “Grand Slam of Latin America.” Like most other places in Miami, you hear Spanish as much as (if not more than) English at the tournament. Vast crowds come out in support of the Argentines, Chileans, Brazilians, Colombians and even Spaniards.  Miami is the flagship event for a culture of tennis in a way that Indian Wells isn’t, even if it happens to be the largest event in the left half of the United States.

And of course there is the inescapable issue of the Williams sisters. As long as Venus and Serena are playing tennis, they’re likely to be the active leaders in career Slam titles in women’s tennis. They don’t play a full schedule, but they always manage to make it to at least the four Slams and Miami, if healthy. You can’t have a tournament called a “Slam,” even colloquially, without them.

I do appreciate the constant desire to improve and innovate that the organizers at the BNP Paribas Open have shown. And if they ever do become the first non-major to add mixed doubles (perhaps the real hallmark of a Slam), then my vote will change. But until then, I’m taking my vote to South Beach.

Nguyen: I concede the point about the Williamses. It’s hard to say a tournament offers top-flight competition when Serena and Venus refuse to ever take the I-10 East past Riverside. But that’s just a matter of time. There will come a day when this is no longer an issue for Indian Wells (i.e., the Williamses hang up their rackets). Heck, maybe Larry Ellison would be willing to fund their early retirement so he can get his grips around the fifth-Slam moniker sooner rather than later. I’m kidding (I think).

As for the rest of your counterpoints, they’re well taken but ultimately unconvincing. By your definition, Slams only feel like Slams because they’re loud, chaotic and filled with unruly fans who are there for the event and not for the tennis. What you’re describing sounds a whole lot like the U.S. Open, which often feels like a huge party where — oh, yeah! — there’s some tennis being played on the back lawn.

That’s definitely one type of Slam, and I agree that Miami has a very similar vibe. It’s rambunctious and unpredictable, and if the stars align you can get some incredible Stadium Court crowds. When I covered the event last year, the electricity pulsating from the night session crowd for the Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer semifinal could have powered the sun. It was incredible and it’s one of my favorite memories in a year spent traveling the globe from tournament to tournament.

But if Miami is the U.S. Open, I argue that Indian Wells is Wimbledon. Knowledgeable fans, in a calm, peaceful environment that is set apart from the urban hustle and bustle (though Wimbledon village can make Indian Wells feel like Los Angeles) where players are allowed to relax. And just like Wimbledon, Indian Wells does have lead-up tournaments — namely the European and Middle East tournaments — but whether players choose to play them is up to them. In other words, being set in a peaceful environment and standing alone doesn’t preclude a tournament from being Slam-like.

Besides, I wouldn’t dismiss the Indian Wells crowd too quickly. We were both there a few weeks ago when a capacity crowd witnessed John Isner’s upset of Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. The energy on Stadium Court that day — should I remind you that it’s the second-largest tennis-specific stadium in the world behind Ashe? — was awesome, and when Isner raised his arms to the crowd after winning, the moment felt huge. In other words, give the Indian Wells fans a reason to engage with a match and they’ll take it, but they won’t get rowdy for no good reason. It’s like Wimbledon in that way.

But much like the Miami tournament itself, you get the last word, Ben. I’ll just sit in my Adirondack chair under this lemon tree and await your response.

Rothenberg: I liked the concept of those Adirondack chairs, but the execution left me wanting. My back was sore after two minutes of trying to sit even slightly upright during the draw ceremony.  Whereas Miami didn’t disappoint with its large swaths of comfortable seating — because it has none. Let’s call that (largely irrelevant) category a tie.

I’m not sure exactly what it means, but I think it’s also worth pointing out that Indian Wells is the only tournament I’ve been to where the atmosphere at night normally pales in comparison to the atmosphere during the day. Whether it’s the desert chill or unexciting scheduling, I almost always find days at Indian Wells to end anticlimactically in a way I would never associate with the Slams that have night sessions.

But let’s approach it from a different angle than just the facilities and ambiance. Since “The Fifth Slam” should follow the general script of the four Slams, let’s talk results.

On the men’s side, Indian Wells has been dominated recently by the same small group who win all the majors — Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Each of them has won Indian Wells at least twice, and they make up for eight of the last nine titles (the exception being that bizarre Ivan Ljubicic title in 2010). So the Big Three’s stranglehold on Grand Slam titles extends to Indian Wells. The women’s champions of Indian Wells, however, are a slightly more eclectic group, even by WTA standards. From 2007 to 2011, the winners were Daniela Hantuchova, Ana Ivanovic, Vera Zvonareva, Jelena Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki, all fine players but a group that has combined to win all of one major title.

But in Miami, the script is flipped. Since the tournament was founded as a joint event in 1985, every women’s champion would (or will, for the active players) end her career with at least one major title. (In fact, every Miami champ except recent first-time major winner Victoria Azarenka and Gabriela Sabatini have won multiple Slams.) Overall, Miami’s men’s champs don’t deviate too far from the normal oligarchy. But recent titles for Andy Roddick (2010, ’04), Andy Murray (’09) and Nikolay Davydenko (’08), as well as earlier wins by the Slam-less Marcelo Rios (’98), Miloslav Mecir (’87), Tim Mayotte (’85), and the fact that Nadal has never won in Miami, all would seem to break the mold of what should be expected from a Slam.

So with all that in mind, I offer a compromise: Perhaps, as it stands now, Indian Wells is the fifth Slam for the men and Miami the fifth Slam for the women?

You decide: Vote in the above poll and sound off in the comments for your take on tennis’ true ‘Fifth Slam.’

  • Published On Mar 29, 2012
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