Watching the crowds—and the tennis—at this year’s BNP Paribas Open.
Elena Vesnina at Indian Wells.
Tennis followers have shifted their gaze toward Florida for the next tournament, but my mind is still on the BNP Paribas Open, known casually by the name of the small, fifty-year-old resort town in the Coachella Valley where it’s held: Indian Wells, California.
More than a week has passed since I was there, having flown in for the men’s and women’s finals. As I watched the tennis press feverishly filing match reports and injury updates, tweeting about whatever nuggets of information they’d come across during press conferences, I wondered what it would be like to write off the beat, out of synch, out of time. I have a friend, a distinguished historian, who goes out of his way to keep his comments on current events to the bare minimum. He thinks it takes fifteen to twenty years before we really know what happened at any given time; whenever conversation turns to current events, he chimes in with, We won’t know for a long time what was going on, or, That seems to be what happened but we don’t know yet what it means, or, when the hot takes are really flying, Meh.
I like his style. I don’t have twenty years to spare, but I figured I’d take a week to let the tournament settle into the past. There’s a lot to ruminate on: with apologies to the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati, Indian Wells is the second great American showcase of tennis. The BNP Paribas Open is a “Masters 1000” event for men and a “Premier Mandatory” for women—the next big thing, in other words, after the four major opens. Indian Wells draws more spectators than any tennis tournament outside of those majors; among permanent tennis stadiums, only New York’s Arthur Ashe Stadium is larger than the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, which seats more than sixteen thousand. The city itself was incorporated just fifty years ago; the tech billionaire Larry Ellison bought the tournament and the tennis grounds in 2009 for a cool hundred million dollars. Since then, it’s bejeweled itself with trappings of wealth and lavishness that rival even the U.S. Open, including sprawling franchises of the restaurants Spago and Nobu, the former with tableside views of the main court. Both restaurants are open for just the two weeks of the tournament.
Being more the grab-and-go type, I stepped out of the media suite between matches and tried my luck with the feta salads, falafel meze, lobster rolls, and vegan burgers on offer at the numerous, colorful faux-California concession stands under the remorseless midday desert sun. The tournament offers a fifty dollar grounds pass for people who want to enjoy the atmosphere but not the stadium prices. They’d bring their folding chairs, if and when the scolding sun allowed, to the grassy zone on one side of the stadium where an enormous screen broadcast the live action. By the time I arrived, all the action was on the main court, and the congregation of tennis faithful outside had swelled, doing their best to stick to the rare swaths of shade. The heat I experienced at Indian Wells—the type of heat that led to one of the ball kids to pass out on the job; the type of heat that erased, momentarily, the memories of compressed piles of snow clumped into grimy turrets on corner after corner in New York—reminded me that the hundreds upon hundreds of people dressed in tennis whites weren’t necessarily busting a class move. There was function behind the fashion. I found that I reminded myself of this often.
The drive to the tennis grounds is a kind of somnambulant, sun-strobed time-tunnel. I turned on Kirk Douglas Way, then Doris Day Drive. I passed Bob Hope Drive, found Fred Waring Drive. The desert stands as a memorial to the industry that made it. But the echoes of another past are clearly there, in the old trails paved over by the highways and the clipped histories, in brochures, of these towns that were once stops along the route to unearthed gold, with people already having lived there for centuries. There’s little outward sign of all of that now. Looking out at the beautiful mountain ranges, I started to realize the extent to which I’d arrived not only at a resort community but at a reboot.
I was struck by the vast number of people who walked around the area—which includes Palm Desert, Palm Springs, and Rancho Mirage—with rackets and racket bags. They were at the airport, on the streets, loaded up in cars, gathered in hotel lobbies and on the grounds themselves, where they could take lessons or even get a game in on one of the practice courts. It’s a Shangri-la for the tennis weekend warrior and the tennis-loving retiree. It dawned on me that the city is a tour stop as much for the fans as for the players themselves: here the interest shared between fans and players reaches peak intensity. In this sense, the tournament at Indian Wells is a mirror of its community, or at least the community it most wants to project out to the world; unlike the great urban tournaments, Indian Wells is a celebration of the sporty resort, and of the lifestyle that keeps it running.
Even their new tournament director fits the part: the thirty-eight-year-old Tommy Haas is still a touring pro, though he’s on the verge now of retiring. His Hollywood good looks, slicked-back dark hair, and classic backhand play well with the crowd, as do his tales of mixing it up with Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. When the news came that Nick Kyrgios was withdrawing from his quarterfinal match against Roger Federer, Haas took to the court himself to play an exhibition set with Vasek Pospisil, who’d been eliminated a few rounds prior.
The players themselves have never seemed more like performers, generating a kind of aspiration as they play the roles of younger, superior versions of the audience. Maybe this dynamic was at the heart of the 2001 incident in which the crowd turned so savagely and unfairly on the Williams family; maybe it’s why, in turn, the Williams sisters boycotted the event from 2001 until 2015. For all of the sport’s beauty and grace, the perfume of Narcissus exudes from the crowds at Indian Wells. They tend to love what they see most when they can plausibly see themselves.
Unsurprisingly, then, they idealize Roger Federer. When Federer plays a match, the press questions are all about him. And when Federer doesn’t play a match, the press questions are all about him. At Indian Wells, I was able to witness this up close; words fail to explain it. My heart goes out to any tennis pro with the initials R. F., because he or she will no doubt end up fielding four to five questions a match about the pressure of having the same initials as Roger Federer; or if he or she has asked Roger for advice on having the initials R. F.; or if he or she has ever considered a name change.
No player has suffered the slings and arrows of Not Being Roger more than his Swiss compatriot Stan Wawrinka. Asked on live television, right before his quarterfinal match, if he’d seen Federer’s demolition of Rafa Nadal the night before, Wawrinka had to remind the interviewer that, no, he in fact didn’t see Federer play … because he himself was playing on another court at the same time. Unbowed, the interviewer followed up with another question about Federer. Wawrinka is a three-time major champion; if Wawrinka wins Wimbledon he’ll attain the rare Grand Slam. He retweeted a summary of his pregame exchange, laughing it off as a “new level” of what’s long been the usual for him. At this year’s Australian Open, a spectator yelled out to him, “Let’s go, Roger!” “He’s not here,” Wawrinka coolly replied.
It came as little surprise, then, that Wawrinka ended up losing the final at Indian Wells to Federer. Sure, of the twenty-three times the two have played, Wawrinka has only won three—still, the loss stung. Most of the games were closely disputed; they came down to a stray return of serve here, a forehand there. At five-all in the second set Stan lost his serve, all but sealing his fate. Wawrinka had broken Federer’s serve earlier in the match—he was the only player to do so in the entire tournament—but to hope for that a second time was too much. Someone made an excellent diagram of how Federer put Wawrinka away on match point: it’s a microcosm of the entire match, with Federer living between the baseline and the net, pushing his opponent back, robbing him of both time and space. During a press conference the night before, Federer had recalled facing a young Wawrinka many years back, noting how far behind the baseline he stayed—the strategy of a clay court specialist, which is what, at the time, Federer thought Wawrinka was destined to become. That hasn’t proven to be the case—the obligations of the tour mean that players must compete on all surfaces to have a chance for higher rankings—but I noticed, during the final, that Federer had turned Wawrinka into the kid playing ten feet behind the baseline again, as the latter must have felt, even as he was helpless to stop it.
In the ceremony after the match, Wawrinka accepted his runner-up trophy choking back tears. He’d faced a string of tough three-set matches before the semifinal, staring down at numerous match points as if they were a fistful of dwindling firecrackers; Federer, conversely, had gotten a walkover in the quarterfinals, as the electric and mercurial Nick Kyrgios had to withdraw because of an illness. Wawrinka blamed his emotions on ten days of exhaustion. Then he said, “I would like to congratulate Roger. He’s laughing: he’s an asshole; but it’s okay. I lost some tough one against you. But when you played the final in Australia I was still your biggest fan so congrats for your comeback and congrats for today.” Federer later clarified that he was making faces to lighten his friend’s mood. It was the only question about Stan that anyone asked him.
The men’s final pitted Swiss against Swiss; the women’s final pitted Russian against Russian. But though she was born in Saint Petersburg, Svetlana Kuznetsova is a sketch of Spain: she moved to Barcelona when she was thirteen and speaks Spanish with her coach. Her opponent, Elena Vesnina, was born in Lviv, Ukraine, studied sports psychology in college, and talks like she plays: quick, steady and upbeat.
One of my favorite behind-the-scenes moments of the tournament was when an employee interrupted a triumphant Vesnina’s postmatch press conference and took the Indian Wells trophy away from her. You see, they only had one actual trophy, and now they needed it down on the stadium court for Roger Federer’s presentation. Vesnina laughed it off with a brightness that came easily to her. You’d think it was the adrenaline of winning, but she’d been like that the whole time I was at the tournament. At thirty, she has an all-time career-high singles ranking of thirteen. The Indian Wells title is only the third singles tournament she’s won in fifteen years on the pro tour. Everything clicked for her. Miami has proven to be a different story—Vesnina lost in the first round on a windy side court to Ajla Tomljanovic, the 594th-ranked player in the world—but her approach at Indian Wells was a picture of poise and grace, and I want to believe it’s set her up for a second spring in her thirties.
I arrived to the stadium court hours before the finals to discover Vesnina and Kuznetsova sharing the court, practicing with their hitting partners as their coaches looked on. For a second I wondered why they’d give away their strategy; but then I recalled that, like Wawrinka and Federer, these two are international teammates, who no doubt have hundreds of hours of shared court time between them. There they were, together but hardly conscious of each other, sharing the space they would in a little while vie for. Vesnina had endeared herself to the crowd with her solid play and constant postmatch expressions of gratitude. When she played Venus Williams in the quarterfinals, she was up against a wall of sound encouraging Venus on. Vesnina won in three hard sets; Venus fought off some resilient injuries; in victory, Vesnina noted what a champion Venus had been, and thanked the crowd for their great support. This was something of an invention, but it paid off: the crowd embraced Vesnina like one of their own in the matches to come.
I watched the Vesnina-Kuznetsova match stretch to more than three exciting hours of tennis. People began to wonder when Federer and Wawrinka would start; I began to wonder if that match could live up to this one. I remembered the cliché being batted around in the press, given that all four finalists were all over thirty: thirty is the new twenty-one. But as I took in player interviews, the body language between games, the chess battle of mature point construction that the younger players treat like a coded language, I know that’s not it at all. Thirty is the new thirty. Someone just needs to say it. What was so great about being twenty-one anyway? As my friend the historian might say: Meh.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s most recent collection of poems is Heaven. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a 2013 Whiting Award, a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
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