The Five Finest Indian Wells Women’s Finals

Bianca Andreescu during the 2019 WTA Indian Wells Open final.

Indian Wells describes itself as “Tennis Paradise” – and with some justification. An actual and sporting oasis in a California desert, the event was co-founded by two of the earliest tennis professionals, Charlie Pasarell and Raymond Moore, which may partly explain why it is said to draw the largest crowds and have the finest facilities of any tournament outside the Majors. Consequently, it is often described as “The Fifth Major”, an unofficial status it shares with golf’s Players Championship.

Of course, Indian Wells was cancelled last year due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and for many in tennis its cancellation just before it was due to begin in March 2020 marked the precise moment that the full effect of Coronavirus on the sport began to be felt. This year, it is taking place in the fall/autumn rather than spring, and the delay of more than two and a half years since the last edition in March 2019 has only sharpened the appetite of participants and viewers for its resumption.

Ahead of finals weekend this year, here are the five finest Indian Wells women’s finals from the past, in chronological order.

The Five Finest Indian Wells Women’s Finals

  1. 1999: Serena Williams defeats Steffi Graf 6–3, 3–6, 7–5

Indian Wells only became a Tier 1 tournament for women (the next level down from the Majors) in 1997, having existed as a woman’s tournament in various forms and formats since 1989. However, it was in 1999, the third edition of the new WTA 1000 event, that women’s tennis at Indian Wells really came to life, with a truly historic final between Serena Williams and Steffi Graf. It is the kind of final, between two great champions of different eras, that usually takes place only in fantasy tennis tournaments, but it actually happened at Indian Wells in 1999.

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The “Evert Cup”, as the Indian Wells women’s event was called in 1999, was arguably the first significant tournament win for Serena Williams, who, along with older sister Venus, had long been tipped for tennis success before she eventually broke through. Equally, it was one of the last significant finals for Steffi Graf, who would win her 22nd and final Major at the French Open just two months later. At Indian Wells, however, Graf was defeated in three hard-fought sets by Williams, who of course would eventually beat her Open Era record for women with 23 Majors, even if it looks increasingly likely now that she will ever tie, let alone overtake, Margaret Court’s all-time record for a woman of 24 Major wins.

  1. 2005: Kim Clijsters defeats Lindsay Davenport 6–4, 4–6, 6–2

The defining quality of a tennis champion, as with any sporting champion, is probably the sheer refusal to quit. As one of the most popular maxims on social media has it, “Winners never quit and quitters never win”. Ironically, however, it may just be that inability to quit that also compels great champions to go on long after their best days are over. That may be particularly true of Kim Clijsters now, as she attempts the second great comeback of her career, at the age of 38.

Clijsters, of course, lost in the first round this year at Indian Wells to the Czech player Katerina Siniakova, 6-1, 2-6, 6-2.  In 2005, however, she went all the way to the final, where she defeated Lindsay Davenport for the second time in three years, after a straight-sets triumph in 2003.

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The 2005 Indian Wells final was far harder fought and winning it may even have been the perfect primer for Clijsters, as less than six months later she finally won her first Major, the 2005 US Open, on another American hardcourt. Clijsters, of course, would retire for the first time in 2007, before returning two years later to win three more Majors (two more US Opens and an Australian Open) between 2009 and 2011. However, on the evidence of her loss last week to Siniakova, who is really a doubles specialist, she is highly unlikely to win a fifth Major on her second return from retirement.

  1. 2015: Simona Halep defeats Jelena Janković 2–6, 7–5, 6–4

Clijsters ultimately lost rather limply at Indian Wells 2021, whereas Simona Halep, another former Major winner, virtually limped out of the tournament, succumbing to Emma Raducanu’s first-round conqueror, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, in straight sets in the round of 32. Arguably no other woman in tennis has lost as much impetus because of the Coronavirus pandemic as Halep has, because she has gone from being Wimbledon Champion in 2019 (pre-pandemic) to struggling with both form and injuries since the ATP and WTA Tours resumed, albeit without fans, in August 2020.

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Six years ago, Halep was the coming force in women’s tennis, as she demonstrated by defeating former world #1 Jelena Janković in three sets in the 2015 Indian Wells final. Initially, Halep had looked in trouble, as she lost the first set rather meekly and was broken early in the second set. That was perhaps unsurprising after Janković’s semi-final opponent, Serena Williams, had withdrawn through injury, meaning the Serb went into the final feeling far fresher than Halep did. But Halep, showing all the tenacity that would become one of the trademarks of her game (at least before the pandemic), fought back to win the last two sets 7-5, 6-4. Remarkably, in total there were 18 breaks of serve in the final, with Halep recording the last one to win the match and the championship.

  1. 2017: Elena Vesnina defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova 6–7 (6–8), 7–5, 6–4

Like Katerina Siniakova, Elena Vesnina is really a doubles specialist, having forged one of the greatest ever women’s doubles teams with her fellow Russian, Ekaterina Makarova. However, unlike Siniakova, she has also sporadically excelled in singles play, even reaching the Wimbledon singles semi-final in 2016, where she was pummelled in straight sets by the eventual champion, Serena Williams, 6-2, 6-0. However, her greatest achievement as a singles player was undoubtedly at Indian Wells in 2017, when she defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova, two-time Major winner and another compatriot, in the final.
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Vesnina lost the first set of the final on a tie-break, eventually going down 8-6, and it seemed inevitable that Kuznetsova, the far more accomplished singles player of the two, would go on to win the match. But for once Vesnina played a singles final like the two Major doubles finals she had already won with Makarova, as she resisted Kuznetsova’s fearsome hitting to narrowly win the two last sets 7-5, 6-4. And as if carried forward by the momentum generated by her greatest achievement as a singles player, just a few months later she made it a hat-trick of Major doubles titles when she and Makarova won the 2017 Wimbledon women’s doubles title.

1.2019: Bianca Andreescu defeated Angelique Kerber 6–4, 3–6, 6–4

Arguably the finest ever Indian Wells women’s final is the most recent Indian Wells women’s final, which took place in March 2019. It announced the arrival of Canada’s Bianca Andreescu as a major player and potential Major winner, because she defeated Angelique Kerber, the reigning Wimbledon champion, with power-hitting that almost knocked the German off the haunches that she often squats down on for shots. And Andreescu brilliantly fulfilled that potential less than six months later when she won the 2019 US Open final, defeating Serena Williams in straight sets.

Of course so much in tennis has changed since then, not least in the careers of the two players in that 2019 final. Andreescu, who actually barely played between winning Indian Wells in March 2019 and winning the US Open in September 2019, has never been able to fully overcome her injury woes, such that it was not a complete surprise when she lost earlier this week at Indian Wells in the round of 32 to Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit, a woman she would be expected to beat if both players were fully fit and fully on form. As for Kerber, just by making the quarterfinals at Indian Wells 2021, she became the highest seeded player left in the tournament.

The fact that she was only seeded 10th is perhaps the ultimate testament to how competitive women’s tennis has become since the gradual decline of Serena Williams began in 2017, when she won the Australian Open (her last Major) and promptly took time off the tour to give birth. Indeed, women’s tennis is now so extraordinarily competitive that it is arguably the most competitive and therefore most utterly unpredictable professional sport in the world at present, so much so that it is impossible to predict with any certainty which woman will eventually win in Indian Wells this weekend.

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