Oasis in a Tennis Desert

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INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—The best courts at the Grand Slams are, in no particular order of preference, Margaret Court Arena at Melbourne Park, the Grandstand at the U.S. Open, Court 3 at Wimbledon, and Court 2 at Roland Garros. They share many of the same traits. Each is either the third-largest or fourth-largest arena on the grounds. Each offers an intimate setting; you feel like you’re inside the match rather than gazing from a televised distance. Each is sealed off by its walls from any distracting noise and bustle outside, which helps with acoustics. And each is old enough, and rough enough around the edges, to have developed what we call “character” in a building. They’ve seen some tennis history, and have so far survived the wrecking ball.

For the most part, the same holds true at Indian Wells. My favorite court here is also the third-largest; I know that because it's called Stadium 3. It’s intimate, with four simple sets of bleachers—there isn’t, as they say, a bad seat in the house. But the court isn’t exactly like its counterparts at the majors. The Indian Wells grounds opened in 2000, so there are few rough edges, and little sense of history, to it yet. And while it’s mostly sealed off from the rest of the grounds, the best part of the court is what you can see beyond it. The bleachers are low enough to give you perhaps the best view anywhere of the famous Indian Wells backdrop, the jutting hills and wide blue sky around them.

It’s such a great place for tennis, you wish it had a chance to host a few more matches each year. But Tuesday was the last day when it will showcase any ATP or WTA singles in 2013. Fortunately, the desert, and Stadium 3, were in their glory early this afternoon. The temperature was in the 80s, the sky was spotless, and Southern California resident and sentimental crowd favorite Tommy Haas had drawn a full house.

Maybe it’s because he’s a transplanted local. Maybe it’s because this retiree-heavy crowd relates to his last-hurrah quest at age 34—a typical retirement age for a pro tennis player. Or maybe they just like to yell out “Tommy!” instead of “Tom!” or some other adult-sounding name. Whatever it is, they’re big on Haas here. They tell him, “Shake it off, Tommy,” and “That’s OK, Tommy,” when he misses. When it looks like he might break serve, a few even yell “It’s Tommy time!”

Haas isn’t the only attraction on court. He’s playing that rarity these days, another player with a one-handed backhand, Nicolas Almagro. At the pro level, every one of these dying-breed strokes is a thing of beauty, but the backhands of these two are top of the line. Haas’s is smooth and efficient; Almagro’s, with its extra, unnecessary flick at the top, is one of the most flamboyant shots in the game. I try not to be a smug devotee of the one-handed backhand and its supposed superiority, but from the first points of this match it’s easy to see what a difference the shot makes when there are two of them on the same court. There’s freedom and creativity in the players' mix of drives and slices, and the high finish of their follow-throughs. The long arcs of these shots look excessive by the standard of today’s utilitarian baseline game. They’ve already been doomed by the sport’s evolution, but they live on, like tail fins on a '57 Chevy, relics of a more graceful and prosperous time.

This year California will lose two longstanding men's events, in Los Angeles and San Jose. This is a bizarre milestone for a state that has always been at the heart of American tennis, as well as world tennis—perhaps only in Australia has such a small area produced so many Hall-of-Famers. The fact that tournaments are folding here seems even more bizarre when you encounter the crowds at Indian Wells. They come from all over the state, and more so than at the U.S. Open, they bring a player’s eye for the game with them. Among Manhattanites, the Open is a see-and-be-seen event. It’s infinitely cooler to have a ticket given to you through a work connection than it is to buy one yourself. (Which makes sense in a way; the only decent seats in Ashe Stadium are the corporate ones.) Here you feel like the fans come to appreciate the sport up close; even if they don’t recognize the players, there’s a sense of interest in how the game is played, and even how it's practiced. There’s obviously still a deep connection to tennis in California. Indian Wells feels like the state’s Slam.

To me, an East Coaster who can see tennis at Flushing Meadows and elsewhere each year, what’s best about this match is its setting. The sky is wide enough that you can see four airplane trails at once, and the sun is warm in a way that a Brooklynite can really appreciate in March. The trademark tall white light fixtures tower over the grounds like desert trees. (Set off against this lunar landscape, these man-made, conspicuously still objects could be shot by the great Western photographer Robert Adams.) Between the poles flap flags from seemingly every country in the world. This multicultural bent is also in contrast to the U.S. Open, where every one of the dozens of flags that line the boardwalk from the 7 train to the Tennis Center is the Red, White and Blue. (Though things have probably improved a bit since 1978, when Pete Bodo reported that the only flag that wasn’t Old Glory anywhere on the grounds was the Confederate flag displayed behind the desk of Slew Hester, the tournament director and a native of Mississippi.)

Stadium 3 at Indian Wells hasn’t earned its sense of history yet, the way the great courts at the Slams have. Unlike the Open, where the Grandstand and Louis Armstrong Stadium were once a single building that was constructed for the 1964 World’s Fair, the grounds at Indian Wells were built specifically for the sport. It shows—for pure tennis viewing, with nothing but sky and a few circling crows and slow-moving jets to distract you, it’s hard to beat this little court in the desert.

Today, though, there are a couple of people who don’t seem to be enjoying their time here. Those are the two players, Haas and Almagro. Maybe it's because their one-handed backhands make them feel oppressed and endangered, but each man is exceptionally high strung. After a miss, each lets loose with a spiky torrent of his native language. Each stares at his player’s box and, like a willful child throwing a tantrum, threatens to smash his racquet. Each strains mightily not to bite the heads off of offending linespeople.

For once, on this day, under this sky, inside this court, it feels better to be a fan than a player.

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