It’s hard not to become entranced by the desert in Indian Wells.
The drive from Los Angeles starts with the usual snarl of traffic and travels through towns like San Bernadino and Yucaipa, with their strip malls and subdivisions. As the road crosses into the desert, the signposts become more and more vague – the boards which once proclaimed every passing town suddenly trail off, only indicating that the road ahead leads to “Indio and other desert cities.”
It is with that sense of disorientation that one approaches the BNP Paribas Open. But the perfectly lined up palm trees and riotous red flowers that greet visitors to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden bring things into focus.
Here, in one of those “other desert cities” lives maybe the most perfect professional tennis tournament of the year.
A mirage is a desert phenomenon. As the sun pounds down on the desert sands, the heat reflected from the sand heats the air above it unevenly. From the right perspective, the unevenly heated air reflects enough light to create an illusion of water – something too good to be true. Until I made my way to the desert, I assumed that the universal praise of the tournament from fans, players and media was, like a mirage, too good to be true – could this tournament really be that great?
Of course, much of the fanfare about Indian Wells is due to the efforts of Larry Ellison, who purchased the tournament in 2009 with some of his Oracle earnings. Under Ellison’s leadership, Indian Wells has expanded its grounds to include some of the largest stadiums in the sport. Famously, the food concessions, already impressive for a sporting event, were upgraded with the addition of an onsite Nobu restaurant.
But, for me, the perfection of Indian Wells lies not in these amenities but in a simple patch of grass that borders the practice courts. While many tournaments would have long ago covered it in concrete and concessions, this patch of grass, the size of five or sive tennis courts, is the lifeblood of the tournament.
From stretching to warm-up runs to pick-up soccer matches, the lawn is a place where players, their coaches and families can have a semblance of normalcy while in full view of an adoring public. For players who rarely spend more than a few weeks a year living outside of a hotel, this communal backyard is a rare chance to be playful while playing a tournament, and imbues the players, and the tournaments with a palpable sense of joy.
Building a perfect tournament is more than bringing in fancy restaurants and new buildings. It is about creating a space where tennis can exist in its best, most ideal form. And, just after sundown on Saturday night, in a non-marquee second round match between David Ferrer and Ivan Dodig, we got to see just that. While much of the crowd was piling in the heaving rafters of Stadium 2 to see Roger Federer play doubles, crowding around Rafael Nadal’s practice court, or filing into Stadium 1 to see Novak Djokovic, there was a lucky bunch that calmly found themselves in Stadium 3, watching a match between two of the game’s hardest workers.
While it’s routine to encounter bands of RF-wearing Federer fans or Toro-clad Nadal fans roaming around tennis tournaments, it’s not all that often that one finds a court filled with rabid, chanting David Ferrer fans, but, that is what I found on Stadium 3. There’s always a sense in watching a David Ferrer match that Ferrer is tennis’ Sisyphus, always rolling the boulder up the hill, but unable to move it all the way up the way that the Big Four, and an increasing number of other players have managed to do. So went Saturday night’s match. For every labored point that Ferrer won in their third set, Dodig had a response, hitting his groundstrokes with conviction, and finding touch shots, like the lob he used to bring the crowd to its feet in the middle of a final set tiebreak.
Often visiting a tennis tournament in person can be less satisfying than watching the matches on television. The experience is choppier, and less linear, as watching complete matches gives way to experiencing as much as one can – from practice sessions, to seeing outer court matches, to doubles, to checking out the concessions. But, here in Indian Wells, they say they’re building the tennis tournament of the future – if that’s the case, we have a lot to look forward to.