Sub-Saharan temps surround thousands of tank-topped tennis aficionados ardently supporting their champions. Two gladiators brandish rackets parabolically, as fluff the color of dandelions arcs across the arena. In plastic chairs, a few referees’ rumps grow sore, while others spend their daylight hours leg-spread, hands to knees, staring down a vertical white line and periodically screaming “Owrghhtt!” with near reckless abandon. With their lemonade ices, at least three fans are bordering on something romantic. Across the palm tree-laden desert, tennis fans snake through the sands in hopes of sitting courtside while the world’s greatest players compete for the title. This is Indian Wells tennis.
Before Charlie Pasarell sold the Indian Wells tennis tournament to business mogul Larry Ellison, he played a critical role in the transformation of the city into a tennis mecca. Decades ago, the tournament was a small tour event held at La Quinta Hotel. Today, the event draws the sport’s elite actors while boasting the most fan-friendly site one can fathom. Factor in L.A.’s sports crowd, the thousands of greying resident/volunteers, and the local juniors who act as ball kids, and tennis is to Indian Wells what wine is to Napa Valley.
Conditions here are variable. Before a mountainous backdrop, high winds may accompany speed limit temperatures. Then again, during the tournament, static palm trees, and enough heat to cause a swamp-ass epidemic, may appear. Professional players know the next-day’s weather like doctors know maladies.
Outside the stadium, the practice courts play host to celebrities – inside the tennis world – who are knocking the snot out of the ball in ways that make the five-deep audience moan like Bangkok massage rooms. Rafael Nadal arrives to thundering applause and shyly lifts a lock of his hair in gratitude. Several prominent athletes perform cranial-busting anaerobic drills in preparation for their evening matches. There is a lot of awkward grunting. Nadal seems more sculpted than reproduced, and lassoes his forehand with the sort of unmitigated belief that only very sick people know. Andy Murray has a new swagger about his aggressive game but still curses often through typically British teeth.
The bathroom lines stretch and host eerie men who say inappropriate things like “First I dropped off the kids, and now I’m dropping off breakfast.” Beneath the enormous scoreboard, several sun-screened folks catch catnaps while a group of children are having a helluva go at overpriced doughy pretzels. On the grounds, sponsors and vendors host display tents to hawk obscure tennis products and podgy hot dogs, which your average thinking man might think twice about before eating. Next year, tournament directors might consider placing some orange-cone-serving-targets inside the men’s urinals.
Indian Wells’ appeal stems from Pasarell’s commitment to the spectator experience. Fans can get almost close enough to help Rafa extract his Fruit of the Looms. Now that Ellison has built stadiums for every court, devotees can spot their champions from all vantages. One minute, enthusiasts can catch the Bryan Brothers battling against colossal Serbians, and then with a short trot, glimpse Wawrinka banging unsympathetic backhand winners from ten feet away. In this tennis oasis, bliss abounds.
Players travel with security guards to ward off the signature-hungry fans who believe an ATP autograph will carry weight back at the local watering hole. Female players take to the practice courts in sports bras and spandex loincloths that seem more appropriate for shorelines than baselines. There is an NBA-ish thing about the doubles players. Adjacent to the practice courts, a grass field hosts players and coaches throwing footballs, kicking soccer balls, performing sprints against elastic devices that any entrepreneurial rice-paddy farmer might consider well-suited for oxen.
Up in the players lounge, some athletes engage in PlayStation battles, while others descend into dark leather couches and flick through foreign literature. Djokovic and Ivanovic are the current foosball title-holders and Novak goes Mexican-soccer-announcer every time he scores. In the early rounds of the event, table tennis tables are at a premium. Apparently, Indian Wells finalists prefer the bigger stage. Inside the gym, girls with hefty quadriceps pedal stationary bikes and wait for the tournament desk to call their match time. If one tries to make conversation with them, they emit something close to a growl.
Beneath the main stadium, competitors stroll labyrinthine hallways, passing photos of champions past, on their way to the competitive arena. The player’s cafeteria offers international cuisine, although most of the guys devour pastas while the women stick to things from the ground or trees. For drinking, the players have their own refrigerator – thermoses and bottles wrapped in three-ply aluminum and labeled with player’s names -presumably so no one with some illegal substance will drop something that would cause a two-year ban and the ire of the international tennis community. East of the cafeteria two pear-shaped coaches smirk guiltily in front of a cookie wrapper pile.
In stadium suites, executives and their colleagues pay premium prices for refrigerated drinks and wait-service. Thousand-thread count suits hover over potbellied weekend-warriors, who slurp salmon slices and sip champagne, as they pat themselves on the backs for witnessing the greatest player’s in the game’s history, comfortably. No one here holds Toyota Camry keys.
Tournament volunteers come from the senior citizen’s center and many have been part of this event for two decades. Those attempting to use the electronic ticket scanner resemble Kubrick’s chimps, arthritically. Foot traffic frequently stalls behind elderly men whose mothball-scented shirts and gangly ear hair cause young children to point and lift half their upper lip, and one gets the sense that if this tournament weren’t going on, the local Denny’s would be booming.
This year, all of the courts come equipped with Hawkeye, so players ranked 105 can challenge calls with the same abysmal inaccuracy as those ranked inside the top 10. When Marcos Baghdatis challenges a line call, he smiles at the umpire first. Off the record, lines people experience something close to arousal when their calls are confirmed.
The locker rooms are a language school, with eastern European “Kh’s” Chinese “Xing’s” and South American vowel endings merging in such a way that the only real means of communication is with facial expressions and unsubtle gestures, which, when combined with the half-naked well-sculpted bodies, makes the whole scene look like a soft-porn aerobics video. Players casually observe matches on small TV’s and make un-bold predictions about outcomes. The number of ATP abdominals is directly proportional to the WTA’s great legs.
Match sounds include violent squeaks, orgasmic screams, post-ace golf claps interspersed amongst heroic-point roars, patriotic praises, and the random idiot whose desire to be heard is almost as unattractive as the shag carpeting growing north from the back side of his beltline. Winners complete on-court interviews and offer grateful waves to the crowd. Draws narrow and losers head out to the local golf courses. As darkness descends, three autographed-balls leave the winners racket and head up into the evening sky, falling softly into outstretched hands. While the desert air cools, crickets start to chirp. Tomorrow’s schedule comes out at ten p.m. Tonight though, the hot tub beckons.