Desert domination: The greatest Indian Wells champions

hannahwilks in Features 18 Mar 2020
Novak Djokovic is one of the greatest champions Indian Wells has ever known (AntoineCouvercelle/Panoramic.)

From Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova to Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, we take a look at the greatest champions at Indian Wells over the years.

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Indian Wells is currently known as the Indian Wells Masters and the BNP Paribas Open, and often informally as the ‘fifth Slam’, a moniker which points to the prestige of the tournament played in the Californian desert every March.

The first of back-to-back Masters 1000 Series/WTA Premier Mandatory events which are played over the month of March and constitute their own mini-American hard court season, Indian Wells is played at a complex which includes the second-largest permanent tennis stadium in the world and has developed into a ‘tennis paradise’ under the ownership of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who took it over in 2009.

But the tournament’s roots stretch back to 1974, when it was founded by tennis pros Charlie Pasarell and Raymond Moore. While the name and format of the tournament has changed several times, becoming a combined event in 1989, one thing has always held true – the calibre of the players who flock to the resort town to compete each spring, with the roll of honour including some of the greatest players of all time.

We take a look at some of Indian Wells’ greatest champions.

The first to triumph – John Newcombe & Manuela Maleeva

John Newcombe won the inaugural edition of what was then known as the American Airlines Tennis Games in 1974, when he defeated Arthur Ashe 6-3, 7-6.

Newcombe, a seven-time Grand Slam champion and one of the few players to have ranked world no. 1 in both singles and doubles, was one of Australia’s great players and was a member of five Davis Cup-winning teams. The Newcombe Medal, an award which recognizes the achievements of Australian tennis players, is named in his honour.

He won $25,000 for winning Indian Wells in 1974 – the champion at the 2020 BNP Paribas Open, if it had not been cancelled due to coronavirus, would have left with $1,361,360.

When Indian Wells became a combined event in 1989, Manuela Maleeva of Bulgaria became the inaugural WTA champion, defeating Australia’s Jenny Byrne in the final.

One of the three Maleeva sisters, Manuela broke into the top 10 in 1984 and did not leave it until 1992, rising as high as world no. 3 at one point. She was also a bronze medallist at the 1988 Olympics.

The first to win back-to-back titles – Roscoe Tanner & Martina Navratilova

The first man to successfully defend an Indian Wells title was Roscoe Tanner, who after finishing runner-up to Jimmy Connors in 1976 claimed the title in 1978 by defeating Mexico’s Raul Ramirez, then defended it in 1979 with a win over Brian Gottfried in the final. The 1980 tournament was cancelled at the semi-final stage because of rain – one of only two occasions on which Indian Wells has not crowned a men’s champion since its inception in 1974. The second is, of course, 2020, in which the tournament was cancelled because of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Martina Navratilova was the second woman to win Indian Wells in 1990 when she beat Helena Sukova in the final, and she would successfully defend it in 1991 with a win over Monica Seles in the final – Seles would reverse the result in the final of the US Open later that year.

In total, seven men have won back-to-back Indian Wells titles:

• Roscoe Tanner (1978-9)
• Boris Becker (1987-88)
• Pete Sampras (1994-5)
• Michael Chang (1996-7)
• Lleyton Hewitt (2002-3)
• Roger Federer (2004-6)
• Novak Djokovic (2014-16)

In the shorter history of the women’s tournament at Indian Wells, Navratilova remains the only WTA player to have won back-to-back titles.

Most titles – Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and nine women

Strange as it may seem, there is currently no single player who can lay claim to having won the most titles at Indian Wells on either the men’s or women’s side.

Like a lot of tournaments, the Indian Wells Masters has been largely dominated in recent years by the ‘Big Three’ of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, with the trio between them winning 13 of the past 18 editions of the tournament.

While Nadal has won a trio of Indian Wells titles, in 2007, 2009 and 2013, and there have been three other champions who have broken through – Ivan Ljubicic in 2010, Juan Martin del Potro in 2018 and Dominic Thiem in 2019 – Federer and Djokovic between them currently hold the record for most Indian Wells titles, having won five each.

Federer has won five Indian Wells Masters titles (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

Federer won his first Indian Wells Masters crown in 2004 and promptly became the first player in the tournament’s history to win three in a row, defeating Tim Henman, Lleyton Hewitt and James Blake in successive finals. He would go on to win in 2012 (d. John Isner) and 2017 (d. Stan Wawrinka). He also made the finals in 2014-15 and 2018-19.

Djokovic reached his first Indian Wells final in 2007, finishing runner-up to Nadal, but claimed his first Indian Wells title in 2008 when he beat Mardy Fish in the final. Djokovic went on to win the title in 2011 (d. Nadal) and became the second man in the tournament’s history to win three straight titles in 2014-16 (beating Federer twice and Milos Raonic).

On the women’s side, there is currently a nine-way tie for most Indian Wells titles. The following players have won two editions of the tournament:

• Martina Navratilova (1990-1)
• Mary Joe Fernandez (1993, 1995)
• Steffi Graf (1994, 1996)
• Lindsay Davenport (1997, 2000)
• Serena Williams (1999, 2001)
• Kim Clijsters (2003, 2005)
• Daniela Hantuchova (2002, 2007)
• Maria Sharapova (2006, 2013)
• Victoria Azarenka (2012, 2016)

Most doubles titles – Guy Forget and Lisa Raymond

Guy Forget might be better known to contemporary tennis fans as the tournament director of the French Open, but he is also the most successful men’s doubles player at Indian Wells over the years, having won the title five times with different partners.

Forget was the Indian Wells men’s doubles champion in:
• 1986 with Peter Fleming
• 1987 with Yannick Noah
• 1988 and 1990 with Boris Becker
• 1993 with Henri Leconte

The most successful doubles pairing at Indian Wells is that of Mark Knowles of the Bahamas and Daniel Nestor of Canada, who won the title four times together between 1997 and 2006.

The USA’s Lisa Raymond is the most successful player in women’s doubles at Indian Wells, winning seven titles with different partners:
• 1994-5 and 2003 with Lindsay Davenport
• 2002 with Rennae Stubbs
• 2006-7 with Samantha Stosur
• 2012 with Liesel Huber

The most successful women’s doubles pairing at Indian Wells was Raymond and Davenport.

Most successful nation – USA all the way

American players are the most successful of any nation at Indian Wells, not surprisingly perhaps as it is one of the biggest tournaments held in that country.

Fifteen editions of the Indian Wells Masters, under various names, have been won by American men, who had a six-year reign at the event in 1976-81 between Jimmy Connors, Brian Gottfried and Roscoe Tanner; and a seven-year run of domination in the 1990s to boot, with Jim Courier, Pete Sampras and Michael Chang between them winning the title every year from 1991 to 1997. Not since Andre Agassi in 2001, however, has an American male player won the singles title, although four American men – James Blake (2006), Mardy Fish (2008), Andy Roddick (2010) and John Isner (2012) – have reached the final.

Serena Williams and Steffi Graf after the 1999 Indian Wells final (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian) 

Eight editions of the BNP Paribas Open have been won by American women, and the number would undoubtedly be higher had Serena and Venus Williams not boycotted the tournament from 2001 until 2015 in protest against their treatment by the crowd.

Serena Williams in 2001 was the last American woman to win Indian Wells, although Lindsay Davenport reached a trio of finals in 2003-5. Williams reached the final a year after ending her boycott, but finished runner-up to Azarenka.

Longest winning streak – Djokovic

The longest match-winning streak at Indian Wells belongs to Novak Djokovic, who won 19 matches (not including a walkover from Bernard Tomic) between 2014 and 2017 when he lost in the round of 16 to Nick Kyrgios.

Roger Federer won 18 matches in a row between 2004 and 2006 but lost his opening match to lucky loser Guillermo Canas in 2007.