Tennis With Your Tekkamaki?

Friday, March 07, 2014 /by
Anita Aguilar
Anita Aguilar

INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—What’s the biggest attraction at the brand-new Stadium 2 here? Judging from its main entrance, it’s all about the...food. When you look at the arena’s low-slung Spanish-style exterior from the middle of the grounds, one word stands out on its front wall. It’s not “tennis.” It’s not “BNP Paribas,” the tournament’s title sponsor. It’s not even “Larry Ellison.” It’s NOBU. Which actually makes sense, in a way. When Ellison, the event's owner, spoke at the stadium’s ground-breaking ceremony here a year ago, the first thing he mentioned was that in 2014 the man standing just behind him at that moment, Roger Federer, was going to be able to order sushi on court “whenever he gets hungry.”

On cue, one year later, Federer made his 2014 debut on Stadium 2 today, in a doubles match with his Davis Cup teammate and new fellow Grand Slam champion, Stan Wawrinka. Federer didn’t get a chance to order anything from Nobu, but his team did get a win over sixth-seeded Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq Quereshi. As expected, the fans of Southern California packed the new house, but this time they seemed as happy to get a glimpse of Federer’s partner as they did the man himself. In the first game, the Swiss team reached deuce on Bopanna’s serve; because no-ad scoring is used in doubles here, that meant Federer and Wawrinka had to choose which of them would return serve on the next point. The spectators near me made their preference clear: “Stan!” three of them yelled in unison. The advice was sound: Wawrinka took the return, and they won the point to break.

Federer spent the first few minutes gazing up and checking out his new surroundings, but his appearance inside the compact, 8,000-seat arena wasn’t an accident.

“I requested to play on Stadium 2, to be honest,” Federer said afterward, “just to see how it was going to be. I’m happy we did, because, I don’t know if it was sold out, but it felt like very, very full. You’re not going to achieve that on center court for doubles. But that was a perfect set-up, and we can thank the tournament and Larry Ellison for building such a court so quickly.”

Federer’s last point isn’t a minor one. This year, the Australian Open was played with its third-largest stadium, Margaret Court Arena, still in the middle of a massive revamping effort. Hammers and drills accompanied early practice sessions; at times it felt like you were watching from the middle of a construction site. When the U.S. Open debuted its new Court 17 three years ago, permanent bleachers had yet to be built. But Ellison’s project, originally scheduled to take 22 months, already feels complete, though there are sure to be additions. The process was helped by the fact that the underground infrastructure was installed before the 2013 event. That’s the benefit of owning the open land surrounding your tournament site.

So far, the reviews have been positive. “It was great,” Federer said of Stadium 2 today. “It’s nice to see the game grow and seeing people coming out and enjoying it.”

This month’s Palm Springs Life was even more enthusiastic. “Like a concrete butterfly emerging from an inspired cocoon,” the magazine metaphorically raved, “Stadium 2 rose from the desert in less than a year’s time, cementing the BNP Paribas Open as an undisputed monarch among professional tennis events.”

Stadium 2 was designed by Watkins Construction, whose CEO, Jody Watkins, worked on the 16,000-seat Main Stadium that was erected here in 2000. At half its size, Stadium 2 has a Mini-Me feel to it; the shape, the color scheme, and the two-tiered structure are much like its big brother arena. My early reaction is that this is one of the building’s architectural downsides—there’s little that’s new about Stadium 2’s atmosphere.

That’s my early reaction to the new court in general; as with any expansion project, for everything gained, there’s something lost, and vice-versa. Walking from the main stadium to Stadium 2 today, I was reminded of one of the weirder and more frustrating aspects of the U.S. Open: The main stadium was virtually deserted as Bradley Kahn and Marinko Matosevic played, while the line to get into Stadium 2 to see Federer-Wawrinka snaked out of the arena and all the way back to the entrance to the grounds. At the same time, inside Stadium 2, the upper, general-admission seats were packed, while many of the more expensive seats below went unused—anyone who has watched the French Open at lunchtime knows how this looks. In the Ellison era, Indian Wells has been the tennis-tournament equivalent of an ambitious kid who moves from the country to the big city. The transition yields more money and prestige, more attention and excitement—and more sushi if you can afford it—but it also requires more time spent in traffic.

As the afternoon in Stadium 2 continued, two more of its trade-offs became apparent:

Upside: Stadium 2’s upper tier has been built on top of columns and moved forward—“cantilevered” in architectural parlance—to create steep walls and bring the spectators up there a little closer to the action. 

Downside: The steeper you build any stadium wall here, the less you can see of the tournament’s greatest attraction, the sky and mountains and desert that surround it. 

Upside: As it does at the Open, music pumps over the loudspeakers inside Stadium 2, and you can feel the arena’s energy around the grounds.

Downside: At times today, the sounds from the Federer-Wawrinka match threatened to drown out the sounds on other, smaller side-courts nearby.

None of this is a surprise, especially if you’ve seen how Ellison has upped the spectacle level of the America’s Cup over the years. It’s not really something to regret, either; this tournament’s golden, small-town past was also a time when the event struggled financially, and was nearly sold and moved overseas. Plus, on the right evenings, with the right matches, Stadium 2 promises to have an electric atmosphere under the lights. One thing you get in the big city is nightlife.

Another is food. Instead of the customary luxury boxes, the middle section of Stadium 2 houses three restaurants: Nobu, along with less-famous local favorites the Chop House and Piero’s PizzaVino. Fortunately, rather than forcing the rest of us to listen to knives and forks and dinner chatter—the way they do at the royal Monte Carlo Country Club and used to do at the semi-royal West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills—the restaurants in Indian Wells were behind glass today.

So we were spared having to smell the steak from the Chop House and get hungry as we watched Federer and Wawrinka. But we didn’t get a chance to see Rog yell up for a California roll and wolf it down on a changeover. For everything gained, there’s something lost.

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