On one side of the main stadium at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, white picket fences separate the players, their entourages, and assorted tour types from the fans. There’s a small plot of green grass near the practice courts, where the athletes jog after matches, or – like Scotland’s Andy and Jamie Murray – kick a soccer ball around to pass the time. The setup has a looky-loo and show pony quality, like a human version of horses being led around before a race, though in truth, the BNP Paribas Open presents one of the most free and easy atmospheres in terms of player-fan interaction, with many of the pros walking through the complex amongst the general public.
In the cafeteria, a young Belgian female player and a French former doubles and current serve-and-volley specialist wait for pressed sandwiches from a discombobulated culinary institute intern. At tables, the players fraternize with one another, sometimes across national lines, while an older women’s champion and a famous trainer sit alone. The one moment that even some pros dispassionately turn to stare is when Rafael Nadal ducks in to grab a quick bite before his first-round singles match, dropping his ID card as his transaction is rung up by a girl with Snooki- or Adele-like mascara.
Out in the practice area, some members of the Spanish Armada – Tommy Robredo, David Ferrer, and Ferrer’s coach, Javier Piles – hang out in the sole shady corner of a court in the early afternoon, then Robredo gets up and hits serves. To sunscreen or not to sunscreen? The question is moot these days for health reasons, yet there’s still a contrast between the hordes, mostly players, who look healthily tanned, and the smaller contingent, primarily older male coaches, who have taken on a leathery appearance. For the latter, this facet conveys experience and a certain kind of hardened masculinity, like that of a war admiral’s.
The French players Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon rally and volley in the piercing sun, their styles a study in contrasts. Gasquet, once heralded as Federer’s heir apparent, has compact, classical strokes and a bullish physique, while the gangly Simon, who has outperformed expectations, is all looping limbs in comparison.
The largest crowd is gathered for Roger Federer’s practice session with compatriot and doubles partner Stanislas Wawrinka. A giant Swiss flag with ‘Rogelio’ and a jeweled crown on it is unfurled on the fence of one side of the court. Federer’s posture and gestures are of a different sort than the other athletes here, if not kingly then debonair and large, like an old-time matinee idol, whether he’s sitting with legs crossed or outstretching an arm near Wawrinka’s chair.
At night, as two junior players make up for their short stature with loud grunts on the next court, Croatia’s Marin Cilic gets in a practice session under the eye of his coach, Bob Brett. After a promising beginning, Cilic’s 2010 was a bit of a disaster, but he’s gradually been regaining confidence, and is assured on court, winning almost all of the practice points he plays.
A lithe Ana Ivanovic, fit and focused in a way that should prove interesting in the coming months – particularly clay season — has a playful warm up with ESPN’s and Adidas’s Darren Cahill overseeing on one of the main practice courts. Her round of hitting begins with an amazingly long rally, and a few minutes later, she chases down a lob and hits a ‘tweener shot to the crowd’s approval. Her opponent that night, Kimiko Date-Krumm, practices on the furthest corner court to a much smaller gathering of onlookers, one day after an earthquake and tsunami have wreaked devastation in her home country. Date-Krumm is the oldest player on the WTA tour, and her flat-hitting technique, catching the ball early on the rise, is of an entirely different era.
At the end of the evening, the rising young ATP player Adrian Mannarino has a clowning session with a hitting partner on an another obscure side court. The pair begin each rally by placing the ball atop the net, then they gently nudge it back and forth within the service lines in a manner that combines slapstick physicality with characteristic French finesse. Next to no one is watching them, they’re simply enjoying the game.