INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—It looked like a beautiful day for tennis here this morning. There was sun. There was blue sky. There was heavy traffic heading toward the courts. There were mountains to frame it all. Granted, there was also wind, branch-whipping wind, and a forecast for rain later. But that didn’t seem like too high a price to pay after barely escaping a snowstorm in the northeast this week.
So it seemed odd, for a second at least, that the first people I saw in the parking lot next to my hotel were two professional tennis players loading up a rental car with all of their luggage. They had their racquet bags with them, but it was obvious they were heading for the airport rather than a match. Their tournament was over.
Each had the ponytail, backwards baseball cap, perma-tan, and loosely laced sneakers that let you know you’re in the presence of an off-duty tennis pro. I didn’t recognize either of them, but they could stand in for any of the thousand or so players who travel the world trying to make a living. Each week on tour is, among other things, a winnowing. Every day, roughly half the people in the event are sent packing and off to the airport, off to the next paying tournament they can find, wherever that might be. Just as most fans are beginning to tune into Indian Wells, beginning to look at the draws and anticipating the week ahead, dozens of players are saying goodbye to it instead.
For most of the year, life in tennis is lived in seven-day intervals; each can feel like a small lifetime, and will be forgotten just as quickly. There’s a hello at the start of each week, there’s an intense interest in everything that goes on for the next few days, and before you know it people are clearing out their desks, throwing away their old OOPs, and wheeling their bags off the grounds, leaving an empty space behind, as if the last seven days had never happened. The upside to the arrangement is that there never has to be a goodbye, because there’s always another tournament coming up where you’ll do it all over again. It’s a similar, perhaps misleading upside for the players. For 99 percent of them, the week will end in disappointment, but that disappointment can be wiped away with the next flight to the next competition, the next draw, the next hotel, the next beautiful day for tennis. The carnival leaves no trace, but it never ends.
My week and a half in Indian Wells starts today. I drove out of the hotel this morning in front of the two players I’d seen in the parking lot. I turned right onto Rt. 111, toward the tennis center. In my rearview mirror, I saw their car get smaller and smaller as it headed in the other direction.