Oasis lost

March 21, 2021

Missing Indian Wells, tennis’ bustling island in the desert

Last week in New York the sun came out and the temperature finally, fleetingly, rose above 60 degrees. Walking down Manhattan’s avenues and luxuriating in this welcome burst of warmth, I had the same reaction I always have when spring begins to approach in early March. As I breathed in the balmy air, my brain whispered, “It’s time to go to Indian Wells.”

Does it sound strange that as soon as the weather improved where I am, I wanted to go somewhere else? I’ll bet other tennis fans around the US have had a similar feeling. I attended Indian Wells every year from 2006 to 2014, and the urge to return each spring has never left me. Sadly, like a lot of other people, I have to stay home again. For the second straight year, the tournament was cancelled due to the pandemic. (The 2021 edition is currently postponed.) That means 475,000 fans won’t make their annual pilgrimages to the Southern California desert. They won’t spend their mornings wandering the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and watching the top players practice from a few yards away. They won’t spend their evenings seeing the sun glimmer behind the nearby San Jacinto Mountains.

I’m not sure I understood how serious the coronavirus was going to get until Indian Wells was called off on the eve of the tournament’s opening day last March. How could something so big, so sprawling, so full of life just go... poof? In the 12 months since, of course, we’ve seen virtually everything else go poof, too. But up until then Indian Wells had seemed unstoppable.

In 2009, Larry Ellison rescued the event from an uncertain future, and began building and expanding on his $100 million investment. As the years went by, Venus and Serena Williams returned for the first time since 2001; a second show court materialized in what felt like a matter of weeks; Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal,and Novak Djokovic kept coming back and kept winning; star players made doubles a must-see part of the show again; and in 2018 and 2019, two unseeded players named Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu won the women’s titles and signaled a new future for tennis.

That’s how the history books will remember Indian Wells in the 2010s, anyway. Everyone who traveled there during that time will have their own stories. With little more than sky and mountains and desert for miles around, Indian Wells is a kind of tennis oasis, where fans come to wander and immerse themselves in the sport. There’s a stark beauty to the site-to the light posts that stick up against the blue sky during the day, and light up the surrounding blackness at night.

My Indian Wells story usually began like other people’s: With a semi-harrowing flight over the desert mountains and into Palm Springs that, at its worst, felt like the world’s longest and least-enjoyable amusement-park ride. But it was worth it for the chance to walk through the Palm Springs Airport, which is mostly outdoors and pleasingly human-scaled. You know right away you’re not in New York - or Seattle, or Chicago, or whatever cold land you’ve escaped - anymore.

Indian Wells is known for expensive hotels and five-star golf resorts, but for most media members it’s motel city: the Holiday Inn, the Fairfield Inn, or maybe a Motel 6 on Route 111. Still, there are worse places in the world to spend 10 nights. The Holiday Inn has (or had, anyway) a tennis court; a pool you can look at, even if you don’t have time to get in; and a breakfast buffet that features a pancake-making machine you might have to help Camila Giorgi learn how to use.

The motel’s walls are admittedly thin, but your neighbors will probably be like-minded people. One morning I was woken up by an older couple in the next room loudly perusing the day’s OOP. All discussion of who they were going to see ended when they discovered that a certain SoCal legend was on the schedule. “Tommy Haas is playing!” one of them cried. “We have to see Tommy!” Tommy was so popular in the desert they made him the tournament director.

The defining feature for me of Indian Wells is proximity. Whether it’s the practice courts, the side courts, the on-site exercise field, the interview room, or the local sports bar, there are few barriers between player and non-players. You might think that would lead to a mass invasion of the stars’ space; but in reality it makes the atmosphere more relaxed, like tennis’ version of spring training. The usual formalities are dropped.

At Indian Wells, I sat a few feet away and listened to Jimmy Connors patiently talk Andy Roddick down from the ledge of frustration during one of their practice sessions. Tried to keep up with Nadal and his coach for the week, Francisco Roig, as they went back and forth and back and forth and back and forth about his forehand take-back. Saw Federer show up for a day-time practice in a T-shirt and the tuxedo shorts he had worn the previous year during night sessions at the US Open. Listened to Jelena Jankovic invite a San Diego reporter over for “milk and cookies” at the house she was planning to build there. Watched Stan Wawrinka and Benoit Paire celebrate the end of their tournament with a few rowdy rounds of the Big Buck Hunter video game at the bar down the road. Applauded Ivan Ljubicic and Flavia Pennetta during their Cinderella runs to the title. And was there for Serena’s emotional return after 14 years away.

Serena, more than anyone else, knows that Indian Wells is not always an idyllic or welcoming place; she faced the fans there at their most vicious in 2001. But the event at its best can offer a needed perspective. Maybe it’s the relentlessly good weather, or the lack of city traffic, or the sky that dwarfs everything under it. Maybe it’s the way that, for a New Yorker like me, the busy world back east seems like an afterthought when you’re in the California desert. Put them all together and Indian Wells can make you feel that a tennis tournament is just a tennis tournament; it’s an impermanent oasis, something to savor for as long as it lasts, leave behind when it’s over, and look forward to next year.

Hopefully we’ll all get to have that feeling again in 2022. Hopefully, when spring approaches next March, we’ll think “it’s time to go to Indian Wells,” and we’ll be right. -tennis.com

Oasis lost