After all these years of living in Southern California and feeling stupid about not having been to Indian Wells, I am glad that I rectified this gaping hole in my resume. Going there made me feel even more stupid about having waited so long, but such is life, you live and you learn. Here are some notes from my day there.
Emotional investment: As a kid I was a massive fan of Steffi Graf, and in a deeply emotional way. That intense sort of fanhood makes it very hard to enjoy watching the game. You are always tortured, either by hope or by fear, your emotional barometer swinging rapidly up and down. Others to have given me the pleasure of exquisite torture are Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Andy Murray, but I am mostly unaffected by that sort of suffering-by-fanhood at this point in time. (Though Murray does put me through the wringer from time to time.) This is why it gives me great perverse pleasure to see others suffering through Federer-fanhood while I laugh at them demonically.
Federer has basically won all there is to win, but his fans (worshippers?) aren’t quite satisfied yet. (And neither is he, presumably.) And so I got to sit in the Federer-Wawrinka match, and yell “Go Stan” at random intervals and annoy lots of people around me. Stan the man (or “Wow-rinka,” to steal a friend’s pathetic attempt at humour) lost in three, but it was fun while it lasted, thanks in no small part to the two beautiful one-handed backhands on display.
It was yet another of those matches where a few critical points separated the winner from the loser. Federer is, of course, a master at playing those points, while Wawrinka came short once again. It’s only a small fraction of all points that determines sets and matches and consistency at those points is what separates the good from the great. And so it was.
Women’s tennis: What was not fun at all was the Kvitova-Kirilenko three-setter before that one. I don’t know what the stats are on this but it seems to me that the tendency of the women players to completely lose the plot in the middle of a match is much higher than in the Graf days. Someone will be playing well (Kvitova, in this case), and then the serve will suddenly desert them, and we’ll be treated to a series of double faults and some severely inconsistent tennis. I don’t know if it is the mental game that gets shot, or if it is the conditions (it was a very hot day, the seats were scorching to sit on) or if it’s something else, but the only words out of my mouth were, “I’m reminded once again of why I don’t watch women’s tennis.”
I am not usually a traitor to my gender, but I do find myself questioning a lot of things related to women’s tennis. Would it be outrageous to make the court a bit smaller for them? Maybe slow their game down by using special balls or rackets? Would those things help? And, worst of all, do they really deserve equal prize-money? It is impossible not to ask that last question when you see a Kvitova-Kirilenko (quarterfinal) game followed by a Federer-Wawrinka (fourth round) game — the contrast in the two viewing experiences was extremely stark.
Men’s tennis: Of course, it is not true that all men’s matches are of the quality of Federer-Wawrinka. Far from it. I saw a lot of the Tsonga-Raonic match, and it was also marred by inconsistency, mostly from the 22-year old Raonic. I saw a bit of the Murray-Berlocq match (first set tie-breaker), which was being played at the same time as Federer-Wawrinka and though it too was not of the same quality as Federer-Wawrinka, there was some pretty consistent playing in it. (There was also some pretty consistent Murray-yelling-at-himself in it, which I got to see from up close. Oh Andy, you poor little kid, what are we going to do with you?)
Star Power: On a day featuring all eight of the men’s fourth round matches, a men’s match that I could have seen but didn’t was between Kevin Anderson and Gilles Simon. I don’t have a good excuse for this, except to say that I was not the only one not seeing it. It was the first match on the main court and people were far more interested in watching the “stars” practice on the courts outside than in watching the “journeymen” play a proper match. Even though one of the journeymen (Anderson), had beaten one of the stars attracting attention on the practice court (Ferrer) in the previous round.
The power of fame and top-seededness (yes, that’s a word) really does make a difference. I did not watch Murray or Nadal practice, but I did see a bit of Ferrer, Djokovic and Federer. Federer gets the royal treatment from fans, of course, including people running after him as he leaves the practice court, wanting pictures and autographs.
The organisers of Indian Wells have done quite well by making the practice courts so accessible, and by putting up the practice schedule of all the players. (Most practice 2-3 hours before they are scheduled to play.) But it does seem a bit disrespectful to prefer to see a star practice over seeing an actual match.
Women’s equality: As we were watching Djokovic practice, a female fan jokingly commented on his legs, and then, seeing that she was getting a reaction from some of the men added, for good measure, how tight his butt was. Clearly, the days when objectifying the other gender was the sole prerogative of men are behind us. Women have now joined them in this. Women’s equality has finally arrived.
Miscellaneous: I had never before noticed the knee rests for the ball boys and girls near the net. Nor the strange rod-like “seats” for line umpires. I did not know that line umpires sometimes moved across from the centre service line to one of the sidelines, once the ball was served. Officiating in tennis does seem like a demanding job, requiring constant focus, much like umpires in cricket.
I did not know that the net sometimes needs to be changed from one game to another, for instance if it has WTA or ATP written on it.
I did not realise that ball boys and girls need to be trained too, and so there are some really young and tiny and cute kids at Indian Wells, especially in the rounds before the quarterfinals. I suppose some of them progress to the US Open in later years.
I did not realise that Sam Querrey was the only American in the draw at that point, but the American crowds were as enthusiastic as ever. The giant outdoor screen and people hanging out on the grass was the epitome of California-style relaxation.
I knew to sit behind the service line (though we did not), but I didn’t realise until we were doing it that sitting facing the west is just silly and uncomfortable and very hot during the day. Temperatures do fall rapidly in the evening though, as always in desert climates.
I didn’t realize just how long the day would get, and how many matches we would end up missing at the end of the day, it being a day in the middle of the week, and the drive being 2.5 hours. The last match ended past 1am.
I wondered before going how many Indians I would run in to. We are a nation of tennis fans, though mostly of the armchair variety. I heard some Hindi within a few minutes of entering the grounds.