So after several years of saying I would do it, but never did, I finally decided to buy a ticket for the BNP Paribas tennis tournament out in Indian Wells. Outside of the majors (Australian, French, US Open & Wimbledon) Indian Wells is in the next tier of tournaments as far as the prestige and winnings. Aside from the Williams sisters who have their reasons, everybody plays Indian Wells. So it’s one of the few tournaments in the world where buying a ticket will allow you the opportunity to see just about every professional player of notice in a very intimate setting.
Possibly the coolest aspect of Indian Wells is that the practice courts are open to the public. So if you pay attention and can get a good spot by the fence, you can see one of the world’s greatest players, bashing balls for an hour only feet away. Frankly, I was more excited about the practice courts, with hopes of seeing Federer or Nadal, than I was about the actual matches.
I entered the facility just as the gates opened on Saturday, and more through ignorance than anything else, stumbled up one of the pathways between practice courts. While doing so, I saw Jo Wilfried Tsonga walk right by me. I tried to get a camera but I wasn’t fast enough.
Tsonga disappeared onto a faraway court that wasn’t easily accesible so I wandered back to court 18, I believe, where under a canopy between courts, i saw Rafael Nadal getting ready to workout. After some stretching and taping, he and his countryman, Fernando Verdasco started hitting. I was probably about five feet (3 rows) from the corner of the fence.
Nadal, has become legendary as far as his Borg-like devotion to fitness. A lady standing nearby told me that she had seen Nadal hit for 2 solid hours the day before, and here he was again doing another 2 hour workout. Nadal started easy, but slowly ramped up the speed. And that’s when I got to see a glimpse into the power of Nadal. As his swing warmed up, he eventually got to maximum speed, with each forehand screeching over the middle of the net at blistering speed and then diving down, with that crazy topspin that only Nadal seems able to muster, and somehow falling within the lines. It was really rather spectacular. That shot would be an absolute nightmare to see coming at you, or more likely, moving away from you. After about 30 minutes of watching Nadal I decided to move on and see more variety.
Two of the practice courts (15 & 16) have bleachers for viewers on the side and baseline. I decided to rest a bit on the bleachers and watch some guys that I did not recognize playing a practice set. About 15 minutes in, more people started joining me and a buzz grew about the crowd. Roger Federer apparently had booked the court for 2 hours starting at 11:00. I couldn’t believe my luck. I stumbled upon Nadal, and now it looked like I stumbled on a prime seat for Federer. At 31 and getting into the latter part of his career, there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to see Fed.
In the meantime, Tommy Haas came onto the court and did a ton of drills and played a practice set against his hitting partner. I was thoroughly amazed at how perfectly these guys do everything (more on that.) Haas at one point must’ve hit about 30 overheads in a row, all at full power, straight back to the hitting partner who lobbed them right back at him. The tandem motion reminded me of some sort of tanned, organic engine revving up.
After Haas, another pair of men came out to hit and it began to become clear that Fed was not coming. I was majorly bummed. I sat on that damned bleacher for over an hour, missing a couple great matches in the process. To make matters worse, while waiting for Fed, I could see, across the way that one of my other favorite players, Juan Martin Del Potro, was practicing. Had I known that Fed was going to jilt us, I would have totally gone over to see DelPo, up close. Another neat thing about Indian Wells, is that, from the bleachers by practice courts 15 & 16, on the west side is a field where the players stretch, play soccer, toss footballs etc.
While waiting for Federer I saw one of my tennis crushes, German Julia Goerges, out on the far end of the field with her trainer, doing reflex exercises and stretching with rubber cables. I should have brought binoculars!! Then a bit later, I saw a tall blonde woman running from the field into the weight room and I realized id was WTA #1, Victoria Azarenka. It was so cool to see her only 20 feet away. She then returned to the field and played frisbee with her trainer.
Finally I decided to move on from the practice courts and go check out a match. Richard Gasquet has one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful one-hand backhands in the game. As someone who also hits a one-hander, I really wanted to see him live. On stadium 3, he was playing the Spaniard Albert Ramos. Ramos took the first set and Gasquet clearly was off his game. There were some amazing points with both players scampering all over the court and then suddenly ripping a winner down the line, only to see the other guy get to it, but then to knock that would-be winner back, with even more pace. Very few unforced errors. It seemed like either guy could hit every shot in the book, and at any time, no matter how fast the point was going. Ramos ended up prevailing and the crowd gave a hearty applause for the big upset. This was all on Stadium 3, which was fairly small and afforded even a late-comer like me, a pretty great view.
After the Gasquet match, I decided to move to the North side of the stadium for the Francesca Schiavone match. I’m so used to the view from television that I greatly prefer to see the court in profile. Otherwise I can’t really appreciate the side-to-side motion, and the incredible angles. Schiavone’s opponent was Lesia Tsurenko, and she was not much of a match for the #10 woman in the world. Schiavone had a much better serve, was much faster around the court, and before long it was clear that it wasn’t going to be much of a match. Still, the view was lovely.
Throughout the first set of the Schiavone match, which was getting really boring, I kept hearing loud roars of cheering coming from one of the smaller courts. This is one of the downsides of a large tournament like this. Much like a music festival with multiple stages, it’s very easy to start obsessing over which performance you should be attending. Unavoidably, there are overlaps of multiple matches that you wanna see. You can find yourself staring at the schedule, weighing the pro’s and con’s (well I love that guy’s backhand on court 7, but the doubles matchup on court 4 features a couple of my favorite women players, and on court 6 is two no-names but will probably be the best match) and feeling hopelessly torn and indecisive.
After a handful of eruptions of cheers from the OTHER court, I decided to bail on Schiavone and go over to see what all the fuss was about.
The matchup on court 7 (I think) was the Frenchman, Gilles Simon, versus the Israeli player, Dudi Sela. I got a pretty prime seat only about 5 rows above the baseline. Simon, who is by most accounts the far superior player, had match point in the second but Sela managed to fight it off and take the second set (THAT’S what all the crazy cheering was!) By the time I got seated they were just starting the final set. Simon had a faster serve and a bit more consistency than Sela, but it was an extremely hard fought set and my vantage point was amazing. This, I thought from 20 feet from the court, is how you wanna see live tennis. To the dismay of the crowd, Simon won the 3rd set 6-4.
After the Simon match I decided to head to the big stadium to catch the end of the Roddick match and get in position to see the world #1, Novak Djokovic. Boy what a different world the big stadium is. I was in the 505 section, way up high. I felt like I was viewing the action from a couple rooftops up. Talk about needing binoculars!
There was a group of drunk ladies sitting behind me cheering on Roddick and yammering through the points. The stadium was definitely a much different experience, for the worse. It was so bad that I decided to skip Djokovic to go back out onto the smaller courts and enjoy some more intimate viewing.
So I ventured out to Court 7 again, to see one of my favorite players, Stanislas Wawrinka. Wawrinka is a Swiss player with another amazing backhand. Wawrinka was fighting out a tough three setter against American, Robby Ginepri. The crowd was clearly on Ginepri’s side. but Wawrinka started blasting big serves and crushing his groundstrokes when the match was on the line.
What was most amazing to me was that Wawrinka would slam a 130 mph first serve and if it didn’t go in, he would snap a 118 mph second serve. That’s pretty tough to beat. This was definitely the best match of the day, that I saw.
After Wawrinka, I went to see Mardy Fish playing Andreas Seppi in Stadium 2. Fish is from Los Angeles, so the crowd was pretty packed. I stuck around for only a handful of games and then moved on. Fish was well on his way to a comfortable victory.
Seeking a bit more (ahem) intimacy, I decided to go see Maria Kirilenko. Kirilenko is a very popular Russian player. I was able to get into the 3rd row, just off the court for her match, and I’ll bet that my vantage point would be the envy of many men (or women!)
Kirilenko was rolling fairly well and seemed on her way to an easy victory so I decided to go see some doubles. One of the more exciting players out there nowadays, is Alexander Dolgopolov, the young phenom from Russia. What makes Dolgopolov so fun to watch is his boundless energy. He bounces around the court as if he has springs for legs, dancing like a champion boxer. And when he serves, he puts those legs into a 130+ mph rocket. He’s also an incredibly creative player who uses slice and drop shots when least expected. He and his partner, Xavier Malisse, were taking on Gilles Simon and Nicholas Mahut on court 6 as the sun went down. Unfortunately, the day session was just ending and the evening session beginning, so the outer courts had alot more people on them than earlier. I had to sit squished between two people and there were alot of spectators sitting in the aisles until security would come by and ask them to move. Still, it was really amazing to watch doubles live because everything is so much faster than in singles with the net players pinching the court so much. There was one amazing point where Dolgopolov decided to charge the net and Mahut fired the ball at him. Dolgo, couldn’t get out of the way so he simply jumped up and hit the ball from between his legs, swinging the racquet from behind his butt. They lost the point, but it was spectacular and the crowd went wild. It was almost as crazy as this.
After the first set, I realized that I had to get headed back to LA. I made one more trip around the practice courts and then was off to wander the parking lot for 45 minutes trying to locate my ride.
Final Takeaways: Alot of my tennis friends predicted that 1.) I would be blown away by the power of the pros, and 2.) I would learn alot of good pointers by watching the pros techniques. I didn’t find either to really be the case. Some of the guys I hit with are former pro-level players, and while we may not hit as hard as Nadal or Djokovic, that pace is not THAT far from where we get when we are really cranking. The biggest difference is that I may rip one at a pro-level of power a couple times in a match or maybe get a dozen such shots in 2 hours of hitting. The pros do them over and over again when they practice. In matches, I was actually surprised at how often the rallies take on a casual feel. While they focus on killing every ball in practice, in matches, the pros don’t waste their energy. They keep the ball deep and use strategy to push their opponent from side to side. Then when they see an opening, they step up and blast. It is very controlled aggression, in a way that most of us could never manage in a match.
As far as technique goes, I really didn’t learn anything new. To hit a good shot there’s about a dozen things to do: watch ball, move feet, follow through, make sure the ball is in front of you, get your weight forward etc. It’s alot to remember, and it’s very difficult to do it all for any one particular shot. When you do, the results are a pro-level stroke and the feeling is incredible. What is most amazing about the pros is that they seem to ALWAYS do everything right. They simply don’t make mistakes. So that perfect shot that I get a couple times in a set, they get on literally every strike of the ball. The sheer technical perfection that they show is staggering. The result is that their matches are less about errors and more about strategy and taking advantage of their opponent’s weakness. It is truly inspiring to see in action.
So that was my epic day at Indian Wells. I hope to go back every year. If you live in the LA area and like tennis, you really should go. It’s very worth the price of admission.
PS- I also luckily did not get the stomach flu virus that has been rampant at the tournament. –Uncle Eb/John