Why every tournament should aspire to the Indian Wells tennis in the desert phenomenon…

Alexandra Willis

“It certainly is the best tournament in the world that’s not a Slam, and it can be more enjoyable than some of the Slams.” Without stating the knock on the head obvious, that’s a rather big proclamation to make. A tournament better than the easy charm of Melbourne, the vigour of Roland Garros, the pomp of Wimbledon, or the bright lights of Flushing Meadows? But Larry Ellison, the world’s fifth-richest man (according to Forbes), does not mince words.

He is referring to the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, a tournament that, by reputation, is universally adored. The postcard-perfect views, the far from pedestrian facilities, the oh so Californian surfer dude atmosphere, and the fact that everyone is just mad, fall-over-backwards, keen on tennis. According to some fans, the air even smells different. It is a racket and ball-lover’s oasis, rendering any Indian Wells’ storyteller to a mushy ‘I just love tennis so much’ wreck.

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Rafael Nadal in practice at Indian Wells

A 2-ish hour ride along a terrifying Los Angeles freeway, through a lot of sandy mountains (some snow-capped), a wind farm, and many, many cactuses, the Indian Wells tennis garden sits on the doorstep of Palm Springs. California’s answer to Brighton, the desert oasis houses the leather-skinned rich and famous who’ve supplanted themselves from the Los Angeles cacophony for a more peaceful existence. The houses are palatial, the pools extensive, and the palm trees? Unsurprisingly hence the name, everywhere.

Indian Wells as a tournament is thus the elderly uncle to the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Miami, the tour’s frat-party hotspot, and a favourite among many players for lively buzz and bustle. But what the desert lacks in late nights and speedy driving, it more than makes up for in everything else. And that is down to a few things.

No.1 – healthy investment. Owned by Larry Ellison, whose $39.5 billion wealth and regard for spending it is akin to that of Thomas Crown capsizing a million-dollar yacht, the facilities at Indian Wells are outstanding. Ellison has reportedly poured upwards of $8 million into landscaping and refurbishing since he took over the desert’s tennis garden, but the biggest addition this year is the installation of hawk-eye on every court, the first tennis tournament in the world to do so. And at around $60,000 dollars a court, you can understand why. Add to that a beautiful player restaurant and lounge area, complete with picnic tables outside, a grassy knoll on which to play football and stretch all day long and whatnot (good for wannabe paparazzi), a huge expanse of practice courts that rivals the Flushing Meadows set-up, a main stadium court that is the same size as Rod Laver Arena, and seven smaller ones (with new additional seating), and a beer-drinking and shopping area that rivals Melbourne Park’s Heineken garden.

No.2 – the players. Being an ATP Masters 1000 and WTA Premier Mandatory events, to give them their proper technical terms, Indian Wells brings the biggest and best altogether for the first time since the Australian Open. A 10-day tournament that’s practically a mini-Slam, winning in the desert has a great deal of kudos attached. Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic won three years ago, Rafael Nadal and Vera Zvonareva two years ago, and…erm, Ivan Ljubicic and Jelena Jankovic. And not only that, many of the top players also, shock horror, play doubles too. Roger Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Andy Murray, all giving the two-man game a very decent whirl. More time on court, more matches, better preparation. It makes sense. Even if you’re Sam Stosur and Francesca Schiavone. They did win a round.

No.3 – tennis-friendly fans. Indian Wells is probably closest to the Australian Open in terms of spectator attitudes. Viewers here are both enthusiastic and easy-going at the same time, milling about in flip flops, sitting on grass, hibernating under the Corono awnings. True, some turn up kitted out head to toe in tennis gear, complete with rackets, as if Federer would just happen to ask for a hit, but you can forgive them that. It’s quite sweet. But on the whole, it is a sell-out event. Both days of the first weekend were sold out in the day, crowds were as condensed as vegemite, and above all, interested. Members of the media like to roll their eyes when a fan comes out with some sort of ludicrous statement, such as “wow he’s serving 140mph and he’s not even trying,” but at least they care enough to comment.

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The 15,000 capacity Stadium 1 court at Indian Wells

No.4 – the location. Who could possibly be unhappy when you’re sitting outside in wall-to-wall sunshine, surrounded by palm trees, craggy peaks, and can see snow in the distance? Yes, the very dry Indian Wells vista does make one inexplicably thirsty, but it’s a pleasant, skin-warming dry heat, rather than the hot and sticky ick you get in other places. Just don’t try going for a run around one of the many neighbouring golf courses. A recipe for discombobulatory disaster.

No.5 – place in the calendar. A seemingly minor, but very important point. Sitting roughly a month after the end of the Australian Open means that players come to Indian Wells eager to start playing again, if they’re in the top 20, or eager to continue playing, if they’re in the top 40. They’ve had a bit of a rest, re-charged their dynamos after the gruelling off-season then straight into Grand Slam epic that is December and January, and are generally chipper indeed. This makes for good humour on the court, exciting performances, and, a possibly minor addition, media friendliness. The plushness of the hotels probably has something to do with it too.

And all of that is before even starting on the actual matches, the favourites, the upsets, the day-to-day thrillers -the flour, butter and sugar of any tournament, but made even better in the Indian Wells mixing bowl.

In conclusion, Indian Wells is  brillarrific. Try it sometime.

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  • Rob

    Very good. I’ve only seen Indian Wells on TV. And in blogs & reports. With hardly a word against it. And as for “discombobulatory”. Wonderful. Haha.

  • jmc

    I heartily agree with this post. As a tennis fan, I attended Indian Wells this year for the first time, spending the open weekend plus a couple more days. My only major for comparison is the US Open. Indian Wells was by far more fan-friendly, from the venue to the location to the ticket price.

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