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Court & Spark: Tennis and Beyond with Joel Drucker

3/16/2011 12:00:00 AM

Desert Dreams
by Joel Drucker

They come by land.  They come by air.   They come from dozens of countries, dozens of states, all eager not just to watch the tennis – but to experience it up close and personal.  Such is the flow and flavor of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, which along with the forthcoming Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Florida form tennis’ version of spring training-spring break.             

Even the journey oozes tennis.  On my flight ten people toted racquets, headed to the tournament.  The trifecta: play, watch, party.  The trick, one woman from Marin County once told me, is to squeeze out as much viewing as possible without sweating excessively so that you’re hot and bothered when you leave the Indian Wells Tennis Garden (IWTG) for a night on the town.  Her suggestion for the tournament committee: on-site showers.                 

A day at IWTG is a carnival of commerce and commotion, competition and color.  Here are the practice courts, many lined with bleachers.  There’s Rafael Nadal, whipping his forehand with trademark fury.  Here’s Roger Federer, his feet gliding across the earth in his distinctive feline manner.  Over on the adjacent soccer field, check out Maria Sharapova, gearing up for her practice session with a jog and a stretch.  Across another row of backcourts, one ATP and WTA player after another.  As the sun beats down, the dry desert air eclipses 80 degrees.  Stand a few scant feet away and see all the craftsmanship of their strokes, movement and ability to generate sustained depth, placement and accuracy.  James Blake, Andy Roddick, Caroline Wozniacki, Kim Clijsters, Ana Ivanovic, Mardy Fish – and a ton of others vaguely familiar but all supremely-skilled.                 

Then come the matches.  Stroll out to the seven field courts, where there’s not a bad seat to be had and on most days you can roll in casually and glimpse a surprise – a singles match that’s turned tight, a rising star showing it to you first-hand, a doubles match bristling with volleys and sizzle.  So long as you’ve got water, sunscreen, hat and schedule, you could spend the better part of the day ping-ponging from one court to another at this tennis smorgasbord.                

There will come a time to enter the massive stadium too.  Each time of the day there has its own feel.  Often for the first match and even into the second, the energy is subdued, acres of empty seats, fans adjusting to the heat, players seeking their own level of high intensity.  But then, usually after 3:00 or 4:00, as the third match of the day commences, as the sun begins to head west, thousands more pour in, seeking the kind of drama and engagement – or simply mere star power -- you’ll only find inside a big stadium.             

Yet for all the great tennis that’s played here, for me there is something even bigger afoot on these grounds.  My childhood tennis life took place in tennis-rich Southern California.  As an adult I’ve lived in Northern California.  Having come to this event for nearly 30 years, I witness an eternal carousel.  There’s the person I played for the first time last month.  Ten minutes later, there’s someone I played in a junior tournament in 1977, a coach I just met on the phone but now see in-person for the first time, a linesman I last saw a year ago.  Way out on the furthest practice court, there’s Ross Case, a weathered Aussie legend, giving a clinic.  Here’s the man who made this whole tournament happen, Charlie Pasarell, discreetly taking in the atmosphere on Stadium Two.  Outside in the playing dining room are three of the men I admire most, psychologist Allen Fox, coach Vic Braden and strategic guru Pancho Segura.  Check out another practice court and there’s Jimmy Connors in a practice session with his lifelong buddy, Eddie Dibbs.   

And I suspect what is true for me holds for the thousands who come here roaming and viewing: The BNP Paribas Open is a criss-cross gathering of so many tennis communities, a chance for both random and planned encounters with dozens of tennis friends new and old, eternal and transient, looped in a circle of time and tennis. Here once again in the desert, hope has returned with the scent of bloom.  “We shall not cease from exploration,” wrote the poet T.S. Eliot.  “And the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.”

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Oakland-based Joel Drucker is one of the world's leading tennis writers. Author of the book,
Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, Drucker's work has appeared in a wide range of print and broadcast media, including Tennis, USTA Magazine, ESPN, CBS and Tennis Channel. For Tennis Channel he's worked as an on-air analyst. An avid recreational player, Drucker's lefthanded 4.5 game attempts to combine the tactical array of Brad Gilbert with the variety of John McEnroe, a style he fondly refers to as "Spinning Ugly."