The process of parking and getting to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden is a bit of a roundabout involving dusty lots and a bus ride. On the morning of March 11, day five of the two-week BNP Paribas Open, touring tennis professionals drive up and sidle through a lot by the main stadium, some passing two-story two-dimensional images of themselves on the building’s wall.
Outfitted in characteristically flamboyant trousers, veteran tennis historian Bud Collins takes a seat in the row behind us in Stadium One during Rafael Nadal’s first doubles match, and is impressed by Nadal’s play. A few hours later, during Nadal’s press conference, he teases the current Wimbledon as well as French and U.S. Open title holder by suggesting he become a doubles specialist, and approaches him immediately after the Q&A session. There’s some rapport between the tennis historian and the current number one.
With his arched left eyebrow and wide array of facial expressions – the muscles on his face get as much of a workout as the rest of him – Nadal sets off by far the most flashbulbs, but there’s more excitement in the room during Novak Djokovic’s presser.
“I could not ask for a better start to the year,” the world number three says, when asked if he’s currently the player to beat on the ATP World Tour. “The last two months I’ve been playing probably the best tennis of my life.” As in 2008, Djokovic has started the year on top by winning the first of the four annual majors, the Australian Open. But the Djokovic of today, while still prone to seeing the comic side of things, is less given to clowning and more likely to consider his words, which come between long, deep intakes of breath. (The dry conditions at Indian Wells may impact his respiratory issues.)
On the subject of Twitter and Facebook, Djokovic resignedly says “right now, there’s no choice” about whether or not to use social networks. “Follow me on Twitter,” he jokes, when fellow pro Andy Roddick lobs a question his way as he passes through the press room later. (Djokovic happens to reappear right when Roddick begins to answer a Djokovic-related question by snarking that “He [Djokovic] and Charlie Sheen are talking about winning.”)
On Saturday, March 12, women’s number one seed Kim Clijsters makes quick work of her first-round opponent, but it’s hard to keep up with the upsets and three-set marathons going down on the men’s side of the tournament. To move from one court to another sometimes involves navigating a maze of green fenced-in corridors. In the main stadium, 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina defeats the defending champion at Indian Wells, tour veteran Ivan Ljubicic, making another step in his recovery from injury in the process. At Stadium Two, the perpetual motion machine that is David Ferrer goes down in straight sets to ace machine Ivo Karlovic in a Goliath-crushes-David scenario that pits the tour’s biggest server versus its best returner. (Ferrer, ranked sixth, is 5’9”; Karlovic, ranked 239th , is 6’10”.) After the match, Karlovic judges his service performance as “Okay.”
But the day’s wildest story is Donald Young’s victory over perennial major bridesmaid and current world number four Andy Murray, who has been in a tailspin since losing the Australian Open final in straight sets to Djokovic in January. I first catch sight of the impending upset in the lobby of the media center, where a few bored old timers briefly awaken from naps to note that Young has claimed the first set tiebreak. “This would be the upset of the year,” one of them remarks, before dozing back off again.
We quickly find courtside seats in Stadium Two, which, like most second-or-third-in-command courts, has a more electric atmosphere than its largest relative. Young maintains his cool during the second set, using his lefty serve and forehand to control points, even after the occasional double-fault. Murray, on the other hand, seems more wholly absent than merely absent-minded, not even lapsing into his trademark grouchiness and surliness as he sends one ball after another floating past the baseline.
As a junior phenom and next big thing now ranked 143rd and largely consigned to the minor-league Challenger circuit, Young has taken numerous hits from the entwined US tennis establishment and ESPN, as well as fan sites. (He and his family also passed up an offer to practice and train in Spain with Nadal relatively early in Nadal’s reign as a major champion.) Short in stature and often fiery-verging-on-bratty in temper, he’s struggled to mature. This match may or may not be a rite of passage, but his wide smile of pleasure after winning the final point is easily the most emotional moment of the tournament’s first weekend.