BNP Paribas Open: Searching for an American champion to end 21-year drought in Indian Wells

The year was 2001. In the sports world, the Ravens beat the Giants in one of the least interesting Super Bowls ever. Tiger Woods won his second of five Masters. Kobe and Shaq bested Allen Iverson in the NBA final, and the then-unimpeachable Lance Armstrong won his third straight Tour de France.

In March of that year, Andre Agassi and Serena Williams won the singles titles in Indian Wells when it was called the Tennis Masters Series Indian Wells.

That was the last time an American won a singles title here. Yep. That's 21 years ago. A lot has changed in the world since then — just ask Armstrong — but one thing remains the same: Americans have not been able to break through with a win in the desert.

There are some extenuating circumstances. On the men's side, almost every title the last 21 years was won by the Big Three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, none of whom are American.

On the women's side, the Williams sisters boycotted the tournament starting in 2001. Venus was set to play Serena in a semifinal that year, but pulled out with an injury minutes before the match angering a capacity crowd. The next day when Serena played in the final, she, as well as Venus and Richard Williams in the stands, were booed and Richard said racial slurs were thrown his way. It wasn't until 2015 that Serena returned.

But if you compare Indian Wells to the Miami Open, its closest compadre on the tennis circuit, you'll find that an American man has won five times in Miami in the last 21 years and an American woman has won nine times — eight for Serena Williams and one for Sloane Stephens in 2018. Heck, in 2018, John Isner won the men's title and Stephens the women's title. So why hasn't that happened here?

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Coco Gauff runs down a shot during practice at the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, Calif., March 9, 2022.

Coco Gauff, one of the top candidates to be that person this year, said she is well aware of the streak that has lasted longer than the 17-year-old has been alive. What would it mean to her to hoist the trophy on championship Sunday?

“It would mean a lot of things. I think for me it would just be pretty cool to win Indian Wells, in general, because it’s a tournament I’ve watched on TV since I was really young," said Gauff, who begins her BNP Paribas Open run Friday. "Indian Wells and Miami, probably the two most popular tournaments outside of the Slams. So, yeah, it would be pretty cool, and to be an American winning a tournament that we haven’t won in so long, and just winning on American soil, would be pretty special.”

Lindsay Davenport, an American singles champion at Indian Wells in her own right having won here in 1997 and 2000, said she feels a breakthrough coming. She said she believes the American women — with players like Gauff and Stephens and Madison Keys and Danielle Collins (who pulled out of this year's BNP) — are closer to making it happen than the men. But she's bullish on that young group as well, particularly Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka.

"We've got a lot of players, but we need them to play their best consistently. I do think we probably have a better chance on the women's side to get an American champion than on the men's side. But don't you feel like (American men) are starting to come and make louder noise?" Davenport said in an interview leading into the tournament. "There are a lot of really good players coming. Do they have enough to win six or seven matches in a row? I don't know. But I think an American champion is coming in the next three to five years, for sure."

The numbers back Davenport up, as a wave of talented American men is climbing the ranks. There are currently seven Americans ranked in the top 50 on the men's side. That hasn't happened since 2004.

If the ugly Indian Wells drought is going to end this year, here are four women and four men who could be the hero we've been waiting for.

Jessica Pegula

Jessica Pegula celebrates a point win against Elina Svitolina at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Tuesday, October 12, 2021.

Let's start at the top. Pegula, the 14th seed at this year's event, is the highest-ranked American in the field. The 28-year-old is close to breaking through, having made the quarterfinals at the Australian Open before losing to No. 1 Ash Barty. She also made a deep run in Indian Wells in October, reaching the quarterfinals. She is from Buffalo, New York, and her father, Terry Pegula, is a natural gas tycoon and part-owner of the Buffalo Bills. First match: Saturday vs. either Qiang Wang of China or Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic.

Coco Gauff

The extremely talented 17-year-old from Georgia has already proven to have what it takes to win at this level; it's just a matter of putting it all together on the same week. Her combination of footspeed, ground strokes and confidence makes her a likely candidate to win in Indian Wells. She is already being talked about as the next big thing in American women's tennis to fill in the void being left as the Williams sisters wind down their careers on the court. Despite that, she has the demeanor and personality to handle such pressures. First match: Friday vs. fellow American Claire Liu.

More: BNP Paribas Open: Coco Gauff is one to watch at Indian Wells, where stars have been made

Madison Keys

Madison Keys of the U.S. celebrates after defeating Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic in their quarterfinal at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

After a stellar start to her career that saw her rise as high as No. 7 in the world, Keys had gone backward the last couple of years, but now she's back on the rise. The 27-year-old from Illinois who lives in Orlando, Florida, clocks in as the No. 28-ranked player in the world and is coming off a fantastic run at the Australian Open where she made the semifinals, beating two top-10 players along the way. She has six career titles and a win in Indian Wells would be the biggest of her career. First match: Friday vs. Masaki Doi of Japan.

Amanda Anisimova

Amanda Anisimova of the United States returns the ball to Maria Sakkari of Greece during the Eisenhower Cup tennis exhibition at Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, Calif., Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

The 20-year-old from Freehold Township, New Jersey comes into the tournament an unseeded player, but she loves the desert. She burst on the scene here in 2018 with a deep run, competed in the World Team Tennis season that took place at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and showed that her game is in top form on Tuesday when she won the Eisenhower Cup, besting seven of the best players in the world for the $150,000 prize. She's won twice on tour and is the type of player you don't want to see in your draw. First match: Thursday night vs. American wild card Emma Navarro. With a win, Anisimova would play Leylah Fernandez of Canada on Saturday.

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Taylor Fritz

Taylor Fritz returns a shot to Nikoloz Basilashvili during their semifinal match at the BNP Paribas in Indian Wells, Calif., on October 16, 2021.

Fritz, a southern California boy whose father is a coach at College of the Desert, came agonizingly close to ending this American drought in October at Indian Wells. Fritz made it all the way to the semifinals but lost in three sets to Nikoloz Basilashvili. It was the deepest run by an American man here since John Isner made the final in 2012. The 24-year-old is currently ranked No. 20 in the world, having peaked at No. 16 in the rankings in February. First match: Sunday against either Aljaz Bedene of Slovakia or Kamil Majchrzak of Poland.

More: What encore will Rancho Santa Fe native Taylor Fritz produce in Indian Wells?

John Isner

John Isner practices against Jack Sock at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, October 6, 2021.

The hard-hitting 6-foot-10 veteran, now 36, is still ranked in the top 25 and has an affinity for the desert. Isner made the final here in 2012, losing to Federer. In October, he had to withdraw from the BNP Paribas Open after winning his first match, but it was for a good reason. He and his wife, Madison, welcomed their third child. He's got the hard serve (the second-most aces in the history of tennis) and when the rest of his game is on, you can't count him out. First match: Sunday vs. either Tallon Griekspoor of the Netherlands or fellow American veteran Sam Querrey.

Reilly Opelka

Reilly Opelka hits a shot against Taro Daniel during the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, October 9, 2021.

Opelka, another tall, hard-hitter, is the top-ranked American in the world and in the field, a few spots ahead of Fritz. Opelka has made the final in the last two events he played, winning the Dallas Open in February and finishing runner-up the next week in Delray Beach. The 6-foot-11 24-year-old is currently ranked No. 17 in the world, the highest of his career. Expect to hear Opelka's name late into the tournament this week and most weeks moving forward. First match: Saturday vs. Lorenzo Musetti of Italy or fellow American Marcos Giron.

Tommy Paul

Tommy Paul of the United States serves to Cameron Norrie of Great Britain during their round four match of the BNP Paribas Open, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in Indian Wells, Calif.

Enough with the tall giants. If scrappy and savvy is more your style, then Paul is your American to follow. The 24-year-old from New Jersey has moved into the top 40 and he plays with a certain flair that is impossible not to love. He made the round of 16 at the BNP Paribas Open in October, beating No. 7 Andrey Rublev along the way. First match: Friday vs. Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan. With a win, he would play No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev of German a player Paul has beaten before.

Shad Powers is a sports columnist for The Desert Sun. Reach him at

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: BNP Paribas Open: No American has won at Indian Wells in 21 years. Why