The clear-sky machine was working overtime in Southern California as I rolled into an empty Indian Wells Tennis Garden this morning around 9:00. The sun seemed to have obliterated everything in its path, leaving just a few rocky desert hills beneath a bright blue expanse.
There was one human relic left, a sea of spotless blue tennis courts to mirror the cloudless sky. Hard courts, of course, this being California. Watching the few pros who were up that early to practice, it wasn’t hard to see how the state had made such a stamp on the sport. Good weather, good bounces, an unforgiving surface that brooked no sliding and little defense—this is what had helped California hijack the sport from the east coast and the Ivy League in the last century. It's where the Big Game was born and raised by flat-hitting natives like Budge, Vines, Connolly, Kramer, Gonzalez, King, Smith, Sampras, the Williams sisters, and even Maria Sharapova, top student of SoCal’s guru of asphalt, Robert Lansdorp.
It was just one more California day in a long line of them made for pounding tennis balls. And there was at least one man currently in the state who was intent on doing just that. One man willing to put on a bright yellow shirt and silver sneakers and come out swinging and grunting under the early morning sun. That man, as you almost certainly would not have guessed, was David Nalbandian.
I still had my computer slung over my shoulder, but I had to stop and watch a little of Nalbandian’s practice. A legendary enigma, he owns some of the cleanest strokes never to have produced a major championship. He’s also famous for winning matches that he has already blown and, once every 12 months or so, getting his fans hopes up just long enough to thoroughly dash them again.
This morning Nalbandian sounded ready for business. As he knocked one ball after another into the corner and past his coach, he let out a grunt of satisfaction. In return he got a “bueno” from his coach, which accelerated as the winners mounted. “Bueno.” “Bueno, bueno." “Buenobuenobuenobueno.” Nalbandian had his compact forehand and smoothly muscular backhand working perfectly; he seemed happy to have a chance to go back to the basics of simply hitting a tennis ball and working up a sweat. It wasn’t until I walked away and looked back that I realized that in the entire time I’d been watching, Nalbandian hadn’t run more than three or four steps to each side. Ah well, hitting was enough; save the running for the match later. It seemed lazy at the time, but no one knows better than Nalbandian how much energy he needs to win.
I kept walking through the grounds, which were still mostly deserted, until I got to the soccer field again. I’ve never agreed with the cliché that “life is like high school,” but one look at the field here and you might mistake the pro tour for a very special, international high school. One with no classes or intellectual responsibilites of any sort. Case in point: The middle of the soccer field had again been commandeered by rowdy, shouting, shirtless, ball-kicking Frenchman (this time Mathieu and Mahut were among them). At the edges of the grass, the extreme edges, were young girl pros concentrating on complicated-looking movement drills—and watching the guys. Who were looking over at the girls.
Eventually I came around to a court where another teen girl, Caroline Wozniacki, was practicing for her match later that afternoon with Svetlana Kuznetsova. For the thousandth—millionth?—time, I was floored by the ball-striking skill of a second-, or perhaps third-, tier pro. The extension, the depth, the heavy spin, it was all there, all effortless. A woman next to me pretty much gasped as she said, “They hit so hard.”
You might think this would make me, the 30-something rec player, feel worse—useless, even. But I was perversely heartened while watching Wozniacki crush perfect ball after perfect ball. Why? Because I had never seen her come close to replicating those shots, with that consistency, in a match. You see, the pros suffer the same drop in quality—or at least a comparable one—that you and I do when we go from practice to the real thing. Under match pressure, they get just as tight, as nervous; they do many of the same ill-advised things with their highly refined skills that we do with our inferior ones.
The one-on-one nature of tennis is a leveler. It’s the quality of the shots they start with, and the time spent honing them after hour, rather than any innate mental superiority, that spells the difference between you and the pros. Margaret Court, a nervous player and also the greatest Grand Slam champion in history, said that she always wanted to feel that she was twice as good as she needed to be by the time she finished practicing. She knew her level could drop that far in a match.
With these semi-pleasant thoughts in my head, I walked past Mahut, who had switched over to tennis. In the few seconds I watched him get ready for his “match” with Federer, he cut a ball with so much slice that it bounced back on his side of the court, and on the next point, he hit a no-look backhand overhead crosscourt about as hard as I can hit a normal overhead. Two hours later, he was doing neither of these things, or anything else, against Federer, who beat him pitifully—not pitilessly, pitifully—6-1, 6-1.
By the time I reached the show courts, it was time for our yellow-shirted Argentine to start his match with Radek Stepanek. This clash of styles and personalities was a highlight of the day’s schedule, and the stands were suitably full. It was also more than suitably hot.
Is Radek Stepanek better live? I started to believe that during the course of his entertaining and typically off-beat three-set loss to Nalbandian. Stepanek is as much a perfomer as he is a player. When things are going well, he has a rhythm to all of his movements, even between points. The quick steps and the purposeful moves from one ball boy to another are the cadence of the old serve-and-volley game, which Stepanek still employs. It’s a style with a different beat than the one we’re used to now, a one-two rather than the single booming note of the baseliner. Contrast his walk with Nalbandian’s contemporary, slow-footed, between-point gait and you had a match that shifted between grunge and jazz with every other game. I’ve never completely bought that a “contrast in styles” is by definition the best type of tennis match—even Sampras vs. Agassi was rarely electric—but this peculiar mix kept everyone in their seats even as the sun climbed ominously higher.
What makes Stepanek unique, and always worth watching, is his willingness to keep the performance alive even at the most crucial moments—he loves entertaining as much as he does winning. After winning a point to make the third-set tiebreaker 3-3, and even after more than two hours in sizzling heat, he jumped the net on the crossover. He did the same thing at 6-6. The crowd loved it, but the problem was that Nalbandian, like any sane person, went to the sidelines to towel off and left Stepanek at the baseline with nothing to do for 30 seconds before he had to play the biggest points of the match.
But back to the beginning. Stepanek’s oddball style and game was enough to throw Nalbandian off badly at the start of the match. Rather than the nice, mid-court balls that were landing in his strike zone in practice, he had to deal with the Czech’s idiosyncratic, hummingly flat shots. Stepanek was all over him with his backhand return and went up 3-0 in about 10 minutes.
It was back and forth the rest of the way, with each guy succeeding and failing horribly by turn. On the positive side, they showed off the best aspects of a match that contrasts baseliner and serve and volleyer—Stepanek exploited Nalbandian’s two-hander by kicking his serve wide and coming in (one-two); Nalbandian punished any volley that Stepanek left hanging (boom). Stepanek lost and regained his forehand five times, double-faulted at just the wrong moments, but kept coming forward. Nalbandian was his usual wildly up and down self. Two points from losing the match on his serve at 3-5 in the third, he suddenly won nine straight points and forced a tiebreaker.
What’s the silver-shoed wonder’s problem? Like his fans, I don’t have an answer. He’s got all the shots, but he misses just a few more of them you would think a guy with virtually flawless technique should—he’s so smooth and perpetually in position that all of his errors are head-scratchers. In the end, the match came down to two of his forehands. Serving for the match at 6-5 in the breaker, he sent a forehand 6 feet long for absolutely no reason. Two points later, up 7-6, he raced across court to hit what should have been an easy pass. This time he took no chances, drilling his forehand pass right up the middle, where it clattered off Stepanek’s racquet and into the net.
That was the match. Margaret Court was right. All those ground strokes Nalbandian hit so perfectly in practice were half as good in the match. He missed one, then made one. It wasn't spectacular, or anything for the highlight reel. It was enough.