MIAMI – As Kim Clijsters contemplated a return to Indian Wells in 2005, she felt a powerful motivation she’d rarely experienced. A year before, she had suffered an ankle injury, then a torn wrist tendon and appeared in only four tournaments. Her ranking had tumbled to No. 133.
“After my wrist surgery, I had a lot of time to reflect,” she said Friday from her New Jersey home. “When I came back, that hunger was there. Lot of shifts in my life, just super-excited to be playing again.”
It showed. A fresh Clijsters blasted through the field at the Pacific Life Open and followed up with a title at the NASDAQ-100 Open in Miami. She became only the second woman to win the celebrated Sunshine Double – back-to-back wins in Indian Wells and Miami – in the same year, following Steffi Graf (1994, 1996). Victoria Azarenka went on to do it in 2016.
Lost in the flurry of Iga Swiatek’s attaining the No.1 ranking in the wake of Ashleigh Barty’s retirement is this little morsel: Swiatek can become the fourth woman to pull off this feat. She faces Naomi Osaka in Saturday's final.
From Grand Slam champ to World No.1, the rise of Iga Swiatek
Some context: While the Sunshine Double Club consists of only 10 men and women, Swiatek is now one of 28 women to hold the No.1 ranking. Since those rankings were instituted in 1975, only 52 women have won major titles.
What makes winning in Indian Wells and Miami back to back so difficult?
“I think adjusting to new conditions,” Swiatek said last week. “There is a huge difference between Indian Wells and here. For sure, staying consistent and having such a streak.”
Adapting to myriad changes
The subtleties of atmospheric conditions, court texture, ball variations and travel fatigue are mostly lost on the casual fan. But to the tennis professional, they are everything. Imagine if your workplace changed every week, with myriad, microscopic changes. How would you adapt?
Indian Wells sits at a significant elevation of 479 feet above sea level. The air in the California desert is dry; the most humid month is December, when the level reaches around 30 percent. By contrast, Miami’s least humid month is March – when it averages 56 percent. Famously, Miami is just above sea level (six feet).
In March, the heat in both locations can be stifling. But at Indian Wells, the temperature can really dip at night, creating completely different conditions. The courts in Indian Wells were gritty and, players said, felt like the speed of the red clay at Roland Garros. They’re faster in Miami. The balls – Penn and Dunlop – are different, too. It’s the same with the crowds: Indian Wells has the sense of restraint you might expect from tony Riverside County, while Miami can be more raucous.
The travel piece is something worth considering as well. It’s roughly 2,600 miles from Indian Wells to Miami, a stout cross-country flight that can wring the energy from anyone, even a professional athlete. That’s almost exactly the same distance as traversing all of Europe, from west to east.
All of these issues, are the enemy of consistency. Petra Martic won four matches in Indian Wells to reach the quarterfinals and raised her ranking 21 spots, to No.58. And then, seeded No.1 in qualifying in Miami, she lost in the first round to Christina McHale. No.3 Maria Sakkari made the final in Indian Wells – and lost her first match in Miami to Beatriz Haddad Maia.
Graf: Supreme confidence
By today’s standards, Graf’s dominance in the mid-90s was fairly mind-bending.
In 1994, she defeated Amanda Coetzer 6-0, 6-4 in final of the Hyatt Grand Champions event in Indian Wells. It was her 17th match of the year – and the 17th time she didn’t drop a single set. Only one of her five matches there went over one hour.
“I didn’t really have too much difficulty this week,” Graf said at the time, stating the obvious.
Is it becoming boring, a reporter asked?
“To you?” Graf asked a reporter. “I’m not bored. The last three tournaments, I haven’t really been close to feeling I’m not playing well. I’ve been very confident.”
It happened again in Delray Beach, Florida, the precursor to the Miami Open. Although Graf lost her first set of the season, she rallied to beat Natalia Zvereva in a three-set final at the Lipton Championships.
It was Graf’s 32nd consecutive victory.
“I don’t expect to win every match,” Graf said. “I know I can do it. I think that's what you need to know.
“At the moment I’m really tired of tennis,” she added. “That’s why the last couple of days it’s been difficult for me to be out there. I’m ready for a couple of days off at least.”
Two years later, she won the Sunshine Double for a second time.
Finding more inspiration
Two decades after Graf’s profound achievement, Azarenka made her own history in 2016. The Indian Wells final was a 6-4, 6-4 defeat of Serena Williams, making Azarenka the first player not named Venus to beat Serena four times in a final.
Photos: Sunshine Double champions
In Miami, Azarenka took down No.4-ranked Garbiñe Muguruza in the Round of 16 and No.3 Angelique Kerber in the semifinals.
The three weeks of stress leaked out in the final. In the midst of another service break (of which there were eight in the first nine games), Azarenka booted a stray ball over the net and fired another one into the 10th row, drawing a code violation.
Ultimately, Azarenka collected herself and finished with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Svetlana Kuznetsova in oppressive conditions.
“I’m very happy that all the work that I’ve been putting in is paying off. It’s such a great opportunity to play the whole month so consistent.”
The little things
Clijsters isn’t quite sure why, but she always felt comfortable playing at Indian Wells.
In 2005, after that long layoff, she won her first four matches in straight sets. Conchita Martinez was able to take a set from her in the quarterfinals, but fell in three. Elena Dementieva, a future gold medalist in Beijing, was defeated in the semifinals, setting up a final against World No.1 Lindsay Davenport.
“My confidence in that year was just so high,” Clijsters said. “I kept the same routine over and over for those three, four weeks. I had played Lindsay many times, but for some reason I was able to anticipate her game, reading her serve.”
Clijsters, then only 21, won in three sets. The secret of her success, she said, was staying focused on the little things.
“I didn’t look ahead,” she said. “If I put myself in the position of, ‘Oh, I won Indian Wells, I’m one of the favorites,’ I’m putting that on myself. Sports doesn’t work that way.
“I was eating the same things, workouts the same, recover the same. There was a calmness in knowing that I did everything I could to put myself in a good position.”
The NASDAQ-100 in Miami featured a virtually flawless run through seven matches. Clijsters didn’t drop a set, defeating No.2-ranked Amelie Mauresmo in the semifinals and No.3 Maria Sharapova in the final. After going 0-4 in major finals, she would win her first Grand Slam singles title later that year at the US Open.
Now 38 and a mother of three, Clijsters moved to the United States a few years ago, but still oversees the Kim Clijsters Academy in Belgium.
“It’s very hard for a lot of players to stay focused for that long, right?” Clijsters said of that near-month required to pull off the double. “To stay in a certain routine that is very strict, a very high standard you put yourself through. I was able to do it because I structured my yearly schedule. After Miami, I knew I was going home to Europe to get ready for the clay season.”
Swiatek is only vaguely aware of the history. Like Clijsters, she has a match-by-match mentality and tries not to think about the big picture. Even after she guaranteed herself the No.1 ranking she didn’t want to dwell on the future.
“If I’m going to do a good job, the result is going to come,” Swiatek said.