Considering we earn our livelihood from observation, it's amazing how often we journalists fail to see what's in front of us. The upcoming dual-gender event in Indian Wells summons to mind an edifying moment. I was walking across the grounds of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden with another journalist I'll call Ray. A long-time football writer, Ray took a look at a flock of fans wandering around in their tennis togs and scoffed in disgust.
The stadium at Indian Wells
"What do these people think?" he asked. "They're going to be asked to play? You don't see people wearing football helmets at Raiders games, do you?"
I wanted to tell him he missed the entire point, that for all the times his newspaper has shipped him to Indian Wells and Wimbledon, Flushing Meadows and beyond, he'd failed to grasp one of tennis' most captivating and unique aspects: This is a sport you can both play and watch — and for your entire life.
We who hang out in press boxes and player lounges and interview areas spend our lives writing all too often for mere fans. At the mercy of editors who barely know or care about tennis, we treat the sport like a passing fancy or curiosity for viewers rather than an ardent passion for players.
Which leads me to the subject of this column: How can an active player truly get the most out of the Indian Wells experience? Exhibit A: My friend BJ Miller is the unofficial gang leader of a retinue of approximately half of dozen friends of mine from Northern California who each year trek down to Indian Wells to watch the tournament for nearly a week.
Last years champions Justine Henin
and Roger Federer
But they are not merely spectators. Each of these people — men, women, husbands, wives — occupies that 4.0-5.0 playing range. They are, to my mind, the forgotten sweet spot of tennis, often overlooked by instructors who build their lesson approach more to beginners and hard-charging juniors. BJ and his troupe are zealous. These are the folks who play league tennis, enter tournaments and are likely to walk into your clubhouse on a Saturday afternoon and say, "Don't tell me the result of the Nalbandian-Costa match. I taped it and am going to watch it later."
So what's the key to happiness during Indian Wells? First, if possible, give yourself a few days to soak it all in. But you won't see BJ and company parking their butts in that oversized stadium (don't get me started) during the quarters, semis and finals. They'll be headed home by then. Then again, you'll rarely see them in the stadium during those early days either. It's the periphery — the practice courts, the back courts — where BJ and company devour the tennis.
More often than not, the best matches are on the outer courts.
BJ studies stroke production with the meticulous attention to detail of a wine lover at a tasting event. An engineer by trade, BJ makes careful observations of the ways various players hit the ball, and can spend hours at Indian Wells in rapt awe at the techniques employed by world-class players — and by that I mean not just the extraordinary shots, but the simple little signs of craftsmanship that add up to excellence.
Over the years he's told me about things like Steffi Graf's footwork in between shots, the way Roger Federer keeps his head down on the spot where he's hit the ball and Daniela Hantuchova's backhand backswing. Stare this closely and you'll realize you might not even be particularly good at even holding the racquet. All of these are things that, if you sit in the press box (or even watch on TV), you're not likely to see because you're more obsessed with the outcome than the process. Like a gold miner with a pick and shovel, BJ comes to the desert to excavate nuggets he might employ (or at least attempt to employ) in his own game. And why not?
Calvin and Lynn like to pick a player and track him across two or three matches. Last year, like many others, they discovered
Then there's Calvin and his partner Lynn. They too listen to BJ's technical input, but admit it's a bit tricky to try and actually detect how a player times his split step for a volley. Instead, they'll pick a certain player and track him or her across two or three matches. How does one style match up against another? Can this guy who served 20 aces one day do it again? How does weather affect recovery after yesterday's big win? Is Giselle Dulko the real deal?
And then there's my buddy David. Like me, David likes to rush the net, and so we have whiled away time hoping to see if some of today's players indeed have the cojones to make their way in. Granted, contemporary groundstrokes and extremely slow courts make it harder than in the past. Still, it's refreshing to see big-time attacking tennis from five feet away. That benign forehand volley that's the bane of recreational players everywhere? Not an issue for top pros. Very educational.
Technique, playing styles, tactics. These are the cornerstones of improvement. As for the plot line of the tennis year, BJ and company certainly follow that, and are always pleased to see a player they first spotted on the backcourts eventually blossom. But scanning a score of a familiar face in a newspaper is nothing compared to hitting balls for a half hour and realizing you're at least trying to move like a Graf. This sport, Ray, is for players — at any level. If you head to the right spots — and bring plenty of water and pack your own lunch — you'll say "Eureka!" constantly at Indian Wells.
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