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Other than the four major championships in their respective sports, golf’s Players Championship and tennis’ Indian Wells event are about as big as it gets. Both offer massive amounts of prize money, carry a lot of prestige and are popular with athletes and fans alike.
Here’s a look at this year’s “fifth majors,” including the Canadians vying for one of the top titles in their sport:
Officially the BNP Paribas Open, this jewel of the pro tennis circuit is better known by the name of the picturesque southern-California town where it takes place. Like a major, the men’s and women’s tournaments are played simultaneously at the same venue, with equal prize money. Both singles champions will collect $1.262 million US — a paycheque that can only be surpassed at the four Grand Slams and the season-ending tour Finals.
Another feature Indian Wells shares with the majors is that the singles tournaments are seven rounds. However, the 32 seeded players get a first-round bye. So, while the main singles draws technically started yesterday, they really get going Friday when the top players drop in for the round of 64.
Four of the five Canadian singles players at Indian Wells received first-round byes. The highest-seeded Canadian is men’s No. 8 Felix Auger-Aliassime. The 22-year-old captured his first four ATP Tour titles last year, including three in a row late in the season, but is off to a so-so start to 2023. Auger-Aliassime fell in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January and has not reached a final this year, going 8-5 overall.
Joining Felix in the men’s draw is 25th-seeded Denis Shapovalov. Neither has ever made it to the quarter-finals at Indian Wells.
The top Canadians in the women’s event are 30th-seeded Leylah Fernandez and No. 32 Bianca Andreescu. The latter’s big breakthrough came at Indian Wells in 2019 when, as an unseeded player, she knocked off four top-20s to capture her first WTA Tour title. Andreescu went on to win the Rogers Cup in Toronto and the U.S. Open, becoming the first Canadian to capture a singles Slam. But she hasn’t been the same since and is just 5-5 in 2023.
Fernandez, 20, made it to the fourth round at Indian Wells the past two years, but hasn’t really been able to build on her stunning run to the U.S. Open final in 2021. Rebecca Marino, ranked 75th, can join Fernandez and Andreescu in the round of 64 by winning her first-round match this afternoon. Canadian doubles specialist Gabriela Dabrowski is also competing at Indian Wells with Brazilian teammate Luisa Stefani.
The women’s singles event has a clear favourite in Poland’s Iga Swiatek, the defending champion and world No. 1. The men’s is murkier. Top-ranked Novak Djokovic is out due to his vaccination status, and Rafael Nadal is sidelined with a hip injury. Spanish phenom Carlos Alcaraz is the No. 1 seed, while defending champion Taylor Fritz of the United States is No. 4.
This event in a ritzy enclave of northern Florida now rivals the four men’s golf majors. The $25-million US prize pool is considerably bigger than any of the majors’, and the winner will pocket a record $4.5 million. The venue is top-notch too — TPC Sawgrass, featuring the famous island green on the par-3 17th.
But the majors still trump the Players in terms of prestige and, now, quality of competition. Anyone who jumped ship to LIV Golf over the past year or so was banned from the PGA Tour. That means the big names missing from the Tour’s flagship event this week include two-time major winner Dustin Johnson and, quite uncomfortably, defending champion Cameron Smith. The Aussie now lives just down the street from Sawgrass, where his old pitching wedge is on display in keeping with the tradition of the Players champ leaving a club that helped him to victory. Smith, Johnson and the other LIV defectors are still welcome to play in the majors, which are controlled by separate entities.
Also conspicuously absent is Tiger Woods, who last month played his first official Tour event since July but opted to skip the Players to rest his rickety body. Tiger found himself back in the news yesterday when his ex-girlfriend asked a judge to release her from an NDA that she claims Woods forced her to sign.
The pre-tournament favourites to win the Players were Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler and 2019 champion Rory McIlroy, the top three players in the world rankings. The top Canadian coming in was 38th-ranked Corey Conners, who placed seventh in 2021. But he opened with a 3-over round today while Taylor Pendrith, the lowest-ranked Canadian in the field at No. 114, fired a 5-under to sit in third place at our publish time. Canada’s Adam Svensson (4-under) and Adam Hadwin (1-under) are in the hunt too. See an updated leaderboard here.
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