It took a friend’s 83-year old tennis playing mom to turn me on to the excitement of the Indian Wells BNP Paribas Masters tournament. I’d played varsity tennis eons ago when rackets were made of wood, Stan Smith tennis shoes were cool and Borg-McEnroe’s feisty encounters were the main event. So long ago I don’t even remember why I hung up the racket and took to watching tennis from the couch.
My friend’s mom was serious about her tennis, visiting Palm Springs from Seattle to play hours a day. Over dinner, after cutting it up on the dance floor at Melvyn’s, she enthused about the Indian Wells tournament: “such a great experience, an exceptional chance to see the best men’s and women’s players, not to be missed”. Caught up in her lively energy I decided it might be worth a try. Always urging friends to “take advantage of the museums, the theatre, all that great stuff – why don’t you ever go!” it was time for me to walk my talk.
I decided to wing it; if I could spontaneously get a ticket I’d go. Entering the grounds I was immediately caught up in the crowd’s anticipatory energy and buzz and felt relieved to score a decent seat for the day’s matches in the main stadium. My first impression was simply wow – what a magnificent setting! We residents sometimes forget how spectacular the desert is and the stadium, dramatically framed by azure blue sky, waving palm trees and the San Jacinto Mountains, was surrounded by a view that truly did look like paradise. The abundance of happy grins and colorful summer attire was a giveaway out-of-towners were soaking up the sun and warm winter weather we take for granted. My pants, long sleeve t-shirt and sweater (“in case it gets chilly”) seemed out of place but, hey, evening temps below 60 mean winter here!
Wandering around to get my bearings I noticed a lean, super tall guy and thought he looked familiar. Wait a minute…it was top US player John Isner walking into the player’s cafeteria! While there are restricted areas to give players privacy there’s also a lot of opportunity to see them casually going about their day which was a fantastic treat.
The practice court was my favorite: it’s general admission and you sit courtside on bleachers, right up in the action. A small crowd “oohing and aahing” led me to Rafael Nadal belting out practice forehands with astonishing intensity. The sound of his racket hitting the ball at such close range was like having the sound from a musical note vibrate right through you. To hear his accompanying signature grunt was icing on the cake. Mesmerized – this is amazing! – I oohed and aahed with the best of them then watched Rafa sign balls for a line-up of fans (mostly kids). He was smiling and relaxed, stopping to pose for pictures until pulled away to return to business. I’d read Indian Wells is a much-loved, favorite tournament for many of these players and you can really see that’s true.
Heading up to the main stadium I stopped on the stairs to take in the stunning views, the beautiful day, and the experience so far. The stadium was impressive with a Grand Slam feeling that promised epic excitement. Everything about the facility was top notch and showed great attention to detail. I hadn’t even seen a match yet and I was hooked.
And, oh what matches! When a frustrated Juan Martin del Potro argued with the chair umpire there was a collective holding of breath; a wave of “yeah, stick it to the man!” rippled through the crowd. That segued into shouts of “come ON girl” when Maria Sharapova took the court. It was a lot of fun meeting the folks around my seat and observing how we all watched and responded to favorite players. I was sandwiched between two delightful, quiet women who came to life once Roger Federer appeared. Reverent gasps and hushed exclamations came thick and fast. Federer’s supremely elegant style of play made his match look deceptively easy. The woman to my right leaned over to say she was from Colorado and took daily tennis lessons. Her coach told her she needed to come here to watch the pros in person because it would really help improve her game. She was positively inspired. Feeling a bit like a slacker the only thing for it was to have an ice cream bar and console myself by hoping yoga class could maybe count for some cardio.
The last match of the day session featured Rafael Nadal vs. David Nalbandian. The energy in the stadium shifted again and when Nadal started meticulously lining up his water bottles on some invisible ley line his fans nodded knowingly. Watching this match was a more visceral experience; when Rafa bellowed his first “vamos” and got a fist pump going I thought the man behind me was going to blow my eardrums out with his own shouts of “GO Rafa!” He leaned in to share he “wouldn’t miss this for the world” and drives from Arizona for the entire tournament each year. His kids play tennis but he’s never picked up a racket. He simply loves watching his favorite players.
I hadn’t picked up a racket either yet was fired up with adrenaline. We’d all been glued to our seats for hours, too excited to budge. It really was incredible that in one day I’d seen so many top players in such pleasant and beautiful surroundings. When it was time to leave the stadium before the night session began, my seat mates thanked one another for the shared experience, knowing we’d all witnessed a slice of history and feeling so appreciative we’d just seen some of the greatest players in the history of the sport.
Admiring a brilliant coral pink sky as the sun set behind the mountains I decided to cap off a great day by walking through the gardens. With echoes of “vamos” still ringing in my ears I stopped off in the gift shop for a teal blue t-shirt then ambled by a laid-back crowd lounging with drinks outside the stadium in front of the giant-screen TV showing live matches. The beer gardens were in full swing and delicious smells wafted from food booths. I was a little starry-eyed, thinking we surely had an old tennis racket buried in the garage somewhere, when I remembered our dog was patiently waiting at home for her long overdue potty break.
Ah well. Better to savor this remarkable, special discovery and look forward to adding on an extra day (or two) to the tournament next time. More matches on the outer courts, a new second stadium and other improvements are planned for 2014 – I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Sheila Holley has lived in the Palm Springs area eight years with her husband, two cats and very patient dog. A yoga practitioner who loves to watch tennis, she can’t wait for a pair of re-issued Stan Smith originals tennis shoes and winging it at the Indian Wells Tennis Tournament.
She writes for LA Splash magazine.