US youth struggle at Indian Wells

While the champions were helping tournament owner Larry Ellison break ground for a new 8,000 seat stadium here at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, American youngsters were finding out just how difficult it is to become a champion at this ATP Masters 1000 event.

Steve Johnson, Jack Sock and Christina McHale all won sets, but lost matches in the first round, with Sock getting as close as match point against the giant Croat Ivo Karlovic before succumbing 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-2.

Earlier on the Center Court, Johnson, unbeaten for two seasons while playing college tennis for USC, also lost his way after a promising start against the 46th-ranked Spaniard Pablo Andujar and went down 2-6, 6-1, 6-4.

McHale was another who won a set before revealing how a lack of victories in recent weeks has affected her confidence by allowing the experienced Russian Maria Kirilenko to race through to a 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory.

It needed a veteran like 33-year-old James Blake to lift American spirits on a sunny but cold day in the desert. The former Davis Cup star did not disappoint his fans by turning in a power-packed display to defeat Dutchman Robin Haase 6-3, 6-4.

“I came out kind of firing,” said Blake who has given up listening to critics who tried to maintain he should have been more cautious in his heyday.

“That’s always going to be my better plan. I think whenever I’ve gone through slumps in my career it’s been when I was playing too tentative or passive. I got the better of him right at the beginning and that was a good feeling.”

Blake, a rookie husband and father, has something else to feel good about now as well.

“My life is so much better having a kid and being married,” he said. “If you ask any of the players, I’m not a friendly loser. I used to go back to my hotel room so I could sulk on my own. But there is no sulking any more. I get to see my daughter and her smile makes me smile.”

Sock will have been happy to see his doubles partner play so well but the 20-year-old who started playing at the age of 8 in Lincoln, Neb., had little to smile about over his own game. The missed match point came at 8-7 in the second set tiebreak. Karlovic, reaching up above his 6-foot-10 frame, tried to deal with an excellent lob from Sock and could only push it back near the sideline.

“It was a pretty routine backhand up the line and I missed it by a couple of inches,” Sock said. “Then I missed a simple forehand to lose the set. They were a couple of balls that you can’t miss against a guy who serves like that.”

Sock felt he was hitting his forehand well early on but he couldn’t sustain it.

“I thought, for the conditions, I was moving well, hitting the ball well,” Sock said. “I was focused out there, of course, but I just have to learn to turn it into an energy boost or something like that because it’s what the top guys do and it’s what guys my age need to do as well.”

The top guys were having a day off from competition, but not from PR activities. Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were joined by two female champions at this event, Ana Ivanovic and the current title holder Victoria Azarenka just behind Courts 2 and 3 to celebrate the continued expansion of this facility that Ellison and tournament CEO Ray Moore are obviously determined to upgrade year by year.

With an extra $800,000 being pumped into the prize money this year, the players are viewing this as one of the most progressive and proactive tournaments on the calendar. And Ellison, who dined with Federer the previous evening, is not having any trouble in getting them to join in promotional activities — even if it means wearing hard hats and digging into the sand for photographers.

A year from now a stadium, which will become the No. 2 court in the expanded complex will include two restaurants from which patrons can watch the tennis.

“Roger has been telling me he will want sushi rolls delivered at change overs,” Ellison joked.