The American Tournament Designed with Tennis Fans in Mind
The racket rips across the top of the tennis ball like a cracking whip, sending it rocketing, brutally fast and spinning ferociously, toward the net. Standing 10 feet from the edge of the court, I swear I can hear it whizzing through the air. As it clears the net—by many feet—the player who hit it, intense and powerful, finishes his swing. Most players finish forehands across their chest. This one, his palm nearly underneath the racket handle, has an above-the-head follow-through, like he’s a rodeo cowboy twirling a lasso. Before his shot drops, quickly, heavily and almost at the feet of the opposing player, he’s back to ready position, knees bent, stance wide and looking like he ate a heaping bowl of Eye of the Tiger for breakfast.
I’m confused. This player, with bulging biceps—at least by tennis player standards—and beads of sweat escaping a headband knotted at the back of his unruly hair, is a dead ringer for Rafael Nadal, the Spaniard who was the youngest player in history to win a career Grand Slam (he did it by age 24), the winner of 14 Grand Slam titles (including nine French Opens) and, since 2005, ranked as one of the top five players in the world. Spectators could never get so close to Rafa, though, could they?
“As we’ve grown, one of the things we’ve tried to do with all of our facilities is to get people as close to the courts and action as possible,” says Steve Simon, the chief operating officer and tournament director for Indian Wells’ BNP Paribas Open, the annual two-week tournament widely considered the front-runner for the colloquial title of the Fifth Slam. The smallest court at the U.S. Open seats 2,500. At the BNP Paribas Open’s Stadium 9 there’s seating for 1,250. The crinkling of a wrapper in the back row can disrupt play. The 20 practice courts are even more intimate. “You can be as close as you’d be sitting across a desk from someone as you can be watching [Roger] Federer practice hitting balls,” Simon says. I guess it is Rafa I’m watching on one of Indian Wells Tennis Garden’s practice courts.
Last year, when my boyfriend suggested a march trip to California’s Coachella Valley to watch the BNP Paribas Open, I had no idea what I was getting into, other than the valley’s spectacular late-winter weather—seemingly always 80 degrees and sunny. A newish tennis player preferring to play rather than spectate, I had previously seen parts of the four Majors: the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open. But always on television. And always only parts. I’d get so inspired, I’d text a friend and we’d head for the courts ourselves before the match I had been watching ended.
“Watching in person is different,” explained my boyfriend, a lifelong tennis player who records matches on television and watches in person as often as possible. He said that when he’d been at the BNP Paribas Open before, he’d often be on the grounds for upwards of 12 hours. A day. For several days in a row. Researching all of the things to do in and around the valley—Palm Springs’ great mid-century modern design stores and home tours, fabulous hiking, a scenic tram, spas, Joshua Tree National Park is nearby—I doubted I’d watch 12 hours of tennis one day, much less multiple days.
We were in the valley for four days and I never made it further from Indian Wells Tennis Garden, which was purpose-built in 2000 to host the tournament, than where we stayed. When you’ve got the freedom to wander around 20 practice courts and in and out of nine stadiums and to rest in between matches on soft, well-manicured lawns, watching the world’s best tennis players in person is graciously all-consuming.
The BNP Paribas Open (most people call it Indian Wells after the town it is held in) draws most of the talent pool—there’s a 96-player singles draw for both men and women—that shows up at the U.S. Open or Wimbledon later in the year. It doesn’t have Grand Slam crowds, though. Look past the stadiums and it does have snaggletoothed peaks—some snow-capped—rising 10,000 feet into a Georgia O’Keeffe desert sky. It also has an army of over 1,200 volunteers whose primary goal is to make the tournament the best possible experience for both players and spectators. Stadium 2, added last year, doesn’t seem to have a bad seat in the house and does have an outpost of Nobu.
Of course, Nobu overlooks the court; it’s also a great place to spot players. “The players love to eat at Nobu,” says Kris Gerring, the volunteer manager of the players’ lounge since 2000. “They go there all the time.” And all of this is in a laid-back, resort destination. Golf at one of the valley’s 120+ courses or hike on San Jacinto Peak in the morning and watch tennis all afternoon and evening. Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2015, there’s no other tennis tournament like it in the world. That was the idea from the beginning
“When it was first developed, it was an extremely quaint event located in a beautiful resort,” Simon says. “The uniqueness of it at the time was that you could enjoy a world-class tournament in an idyllic setting and never have to get in the car.” That was in the early and mid-80s, when 30,000 people annually came to watch pros play at the La Quinta Hotel & Racquet Club. Even in 1987, when the tournament moved to the 350-room, 10-acre Grand Champions Resort Hotel, where there were 12 courts, including a 10,000- seat stadium, it felt wonderfully small. “We could have stayed at the Grand Champions and kept on as this quaint, intimate event,” Simon says. “But we wanted to pursue growth opportunities and had confidence we could do that while maintaining the sense of intimacy that makes us special.”
The Indian Wells Tennis Garden was completed in 2000 and, at 54 acres, has the same footprint as the U.S. Open site, the National Tennis Center. On March 8 of last year, when the BNP Paribas Open set its new single-day attendance record, 31,764, the only line I had to wait in was three minutes, for a frozen lemonade. From no more than 20 feet away, I was able to watch Rafa, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and Grigor Dmitrov hitting on the practice courts. Checking out the latter, a towering Bulgarian whose one-handed backhand, among other parts of his game, is almost a mirror of Federer’s, I think we had the bleachers all to ourselves. With a general admission ticket, you could wander in and out of all nine stadiums, watching Kei Nishikori, Flavia Pennetta (who went on to win the women’s title) and Tommy Robredo. In the smaller stadiums with no assigned seating, you could often score the seats of your choice—I liked front-row baseline center, especially during Aussie Sam Stosur’s match. Television does not do justice to her kick serve, heavy forehand or muscled shoulders.
After its move to the tennis garden, groups in the Middle East and Asia offered to buy the tournament for enormous amounts of money, but the owners, determined to keep the event in the Coachella Valley, resisted. The tournament needed investment, but partners held out for someone who would carry on their legacy of continuous improvement here. In 2009, they sold to Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle and an adrenaline and tennis junkie worth upwards of $50 billion. Under Ellison’s ownership, the tournament became the only one in the world to provide Hawk-Eye technology, used by players to challenge calls, on every match court and for every match played. “We’ve always said here that if you’re doing the same thing you did last year, you’re going backwards,” Simon says. “We don’t want to do that to fans or players.”