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Joel Drucker: Tennis' Greatest Stroll

3/11/2013 4:00:00 PM

by Joel Drucker

Saturday morning at 9:59 a.m. at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. One minute away from the start of what’s likely the best weekend in tennis, a carnival of commotion, commerce and competition.  Fans are lined up outside the gates, not quite the thousands that will surface by day, but a minute hence just enough hundreds to enter smoothly, less the flood of Wimbledon, more a stream.

Already there are practices in session. Players even longstanding aficionados couldn’t identify are on the back courts. To see these lesser-known strike groundstrokes with such velocity is vivid and powerful recognition that any pro who makes it on to a court on this day is in the one percent of tennis skill.  The south end of one court houses a backboard. In its upper left corner,the words “Welby’s Wall,” a tip of the hat to Welby Van Horn, the legendary teaching pro who taught tournament founder Charlie Pasarell.

More familiar faces appear, revealing the circular flow linking present and past. Former world number one and 2010 champion Jelena Jankovic on Court 12, driving her trademark backhand, sulking a bit as she’s prone to do. A cult favorite from the ‘70s, Eddie Dibbs, giving a clinic on 13, barking with all the public park moxie that took him to the top five and has hustled so many.  On 14, simply with his own basket of balls and a group of eight beginners, there’s Jimmy Connors, feeding lobs and volleys. “Nothing to it,” he says to a woman who’s just struck a volley winner.  

As more fans stream in, red hats courtesy of Emirates Airline dot with increasing frequency, heads bopping as if they were an arriving new militia in a sci-fi film. Is the smell of sunscreen in the air too?  Bleacher seats along the main practice courts rapidly fill up. Coffee in hand, Pasarell strolls down a pathway. “We love your tournament,” say a pair of fans. One asks if Pasarell will pose for a picture. He complies, then with his trademark languid walk ambles to a corner near a practice court where veteran Victor Hanescu is drilling one ball after another into a corner. “That guy can play some really good tennis,” says Pasarell.

The narrative thrust commences too. Defending champions Roger Federer and Victoria Azarenka are on the schedule.  Ditto last year’s finalist John Isner, up against two-time winner Lleyton Hewitt. In the evening it’s Rafael Nadal and America’s new darling, Sloane Stephens.

If the tournament is the Mississippi River, it’s only now just tricking down from Minnesota. A week hence the river will bottom out in New Orleans, all eyes in the stadium for semis and finals, winners, sponsors, posterity, national TV. Within 24 hours construction will begin on the tournament’s new stadium,an 8,000-seat spot that will also incorporate tournament owner Larry Ellison’s beloved restaurant, Nobu. Ellison’s arrival has upped the ante. While in the past the wealthy have often come to tennis as patrons, tossing in their dollars and staying beyond the fray, Indian Wells CEO Ray Moore and tournament director Steve Simon are aware that Ellison wants the tournament to thrive as a business. The spirit of growth, of now having more resources to satisfy demand, pervades the tournament – a striking turnaround from four years ago when it was being courted by representatives from Doha and China.

But neither the narrative nor the economic tale is what matters to the stream. The stream loves the stroll. Moore knows this too, trekking to Court Two to watch a match between fourth-seeded David Ferrer and Moore’s South African compatriot, Kevin Anderson.  Moore had only intended to watch a set, but as the match thickened – Anderson eventually earning the upset – Moore was no different than any fan: caught up in the action on an intimate court.

Intimacy.  Smorgasbord. Food. Water. Friends.Famous. Hang over a fence and watch the incredibly fluid Spaniard, Nicolas Almagro, lash one backhand after another. There’s veteran doubles player Cara Black fielding volleys. Azarenka in her trademark hooded sweatshirt, attempting to be private and recognized all at once; of course a contrast to her famed companion, Redfoo. A corner near the player-media dining area where fans congregate to gather autographs.

Back inside the stadium into a suite hosted by Malibu Racquet Club (also owned by Ellison) and its manager, former pro Trey Waltke. Versus Hewitt, Isner’s in familiar territory – a tiebreaker.  Isner takes it, but Racquet Club teaching pro Craig Cignarelli is certain the 32-year-old Hewitt will win.

Off through the grounds for more. The Tennis Wearhouse tent, featuring every possible racquet.  Posters of past champions everywhere.  Exhibit booths for everything from hospitals to nutritional supplements to vacations, clothes. The food court – hot dogs, crepes, pizza,coffee.  Trek east to Court 4, where 50 fans are watching lefty Lucie Safarova. Take in a few points and continue the stroll.        

On the back row of practice courts, hang over a fence and glance at the slashing Spaniard, Nicolas Almagro. Is he running?  Not much. Playing points?  Not today. Instead, Almagro’s practice partner is grooving balls down the middle. Almagro rolls crosscourt forehands – the forehand he’s always trying to improve. Then, time for his signature shot, a backhand of breathtaking fluidity.  Almagro’s backswing is a loop he takes up higher than his ear, the arc of his frame, linked to his hips, shoulders and knees, building energy by the millisecond. Almagro could probably launch the ball onto Highway 111. Instead it’s fired down the line. Then another crosscourt.  

A glance at the iPhone reveals Hewitt has leveled the match. Back to the stadium. Chips and salsa.  More water. Hewitt wins. Hail the prognosticating skills of Cignarelli.  Enter Federer, who carves up Dennis Istomin.  Next Azarenka.  She goes down 4-1 versus two-time Indian Wells champion Daniela Hantuchova. But it’s not enough. Azarenka rallies, takes the match, fields questions from courtside announcer Andrew Krasny. The lights are on, and as big-time as this tournament is, there’s also a sense of tranquility, that it’s very much tennis’spring training – where hope springs for players, where fans roam across time and pace, place and space.  As T.S. Eliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration/and the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.”

-- Joel Druckerfirst covered this event in 1983.

Joel Drucker has been involved with Tennis Channel since it hit the airwaves in 2003, initially as co-producer of the interview show “Center Court.”  Subsequently he has been involved in dozens of the network’s activities, including work as story editor at all the Grand Slams and the production of numerous TC events