There’s a sports adage that says “sometimes the best ability is avail-ability” and that was definitely the case for Yifan Xu and Zhaoxuan Yang at the BNP Paribas Open this year.
The Chinese pair, whose rankings were not high enough for them to be in the event straight away, arrived in Indian Wells hoping to find a spot in the field. But Barbora Krejcikova, the No. 2 singles player in the world who also was set to play doubles here, withdrew the day before the event started with an injury. That was the opening that Xu and Yang needed and did they ever take advantage.
Xu and Wang got in the field as the replacements, and they are leaving the event with the trophy after a dramatic 7-5, 7-6 (4) win in Saturday’s final over the team of American Asia Muhammad and Ena Shibahara of Japan.
“Well, I think we’re very happy we win the tournament because we were actually trying to get in in the beginning because we weren’t able to because we, our ranking is pretty low, and we were trying to get in, and we got lucky, “Yang said. “And it’s like a roller coaster for us. So I think it’s going like up-and-down every day, and we can play or not and once we got in, we were so excited.”
It didn’t look like the surprising run was going to happen. Muhammad and Sibahara, seeded No. 7, jumped out to a 5-2 lead, but the unseeded Xu and Yang flipped a switch. The Chinese team rattled off an incredible five straight games, including two service breaks, to steal the first set 7-5 and leave Muhammad and Shibahara stunned.
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The second set was tight but it stayed on serve until a tiebreaker. And the tiebreaker was like a mini version of the first set as Muhammad and Shibahara jumped out to a 3-1 lead only to see the Chinese duo win five straight points to go ahead 6-3 before closing out the match with a 7-5 , 7-6 (4) win.
Between them, Xu, 33, and Yang, 27, owned 14 WTA doubles titles heading into Saturday, but this is their first title as teammates. They began playing together in 2021, and this is their 11th event as a team and first win. They also made the championship match in Dubai, but lost.
How they turned Saturday’s match around was a one-point-at-a-time approach.
“I think it’s just, actually just one service game. Just we lost one service game only. So we’re just trying to encourage each other and we just focus on the first serves first, and then when we get the chance we try to take one point by point, “Wang said.
A champion from China is a rare thing in Indian Wells. Only Peng Shuai, the woman who famously went missing for months last year after accusing a retired Vice Premier of China of forcing himself on her di lei three years earlier, has won in the desert. China has not had a men’s singles, women’s singles or a men’s doubles champion at this event.
It was a particularly painful loss for Muhammad and Shibahara, who both consider this a hometown tournament.
College basketball fans may remember Muhammad’s brother Shabazz Muhammad, who starred for UCLA and then went on to the NBA. Muhammad, a Long Beach native, also was familiar with the Indian Wells Tennis Garden as she participated in the World Team Tennis season that was played here in November.
Shibahara may also be recognizable to Bruins sports fans as she played her college tennis at UCLA. She currently lives in Rancho Palos Verdes.
“This one really hurt because this is my home tournament, and I really wanted to win in front of you guys,” Shibahara told the crowd while accepting the runner-up trophy and holding back tears. “It was so much fun, and I want to do better next year.”