The year was 2008. Having just re-immersed myself into the world of being a tennis fanatic — you know the kind: bleary-eyed from watching dodgy tennis streams in the wee hours of the night, voraciously reading every article or message board posting on our favorite players, getting iPod’s engraved with our favorite player’s virtual trademark* — I finally decided to bite the bullet and attend my first tennis tournament. Having only experienced the sport through the filtered lens of a television, I had no idea what to expect. “What could viewing tennis live really add to the experience of watching tennis on television,” I naively asked no one in particular. At least on television you can see close-ups of the players, watch points develop from a better angle than the cheap seats, and you could do so from the comfort of your own couch.** What’s the point of spending the money and taking the vacation days to, at best, replicate the experience of watching from home?
And then the BNP Paribas Open happened. Things haven’t been the same since.
Let me first address your ill-conceived notions that a slightly worn brown leather couch is a far superior venue for watching tennis than Indian Wells. I know you’re thinking this and I can understand why. Snow-capped mountains? Eyesore. Fresh desert air that carries lingering floral notes of honeysuckle? Disgusting. Bright warm sunshine during a time of the year where heavy jackets and rain boots are the norm all across the nation? Who wants that?
But in all seriousness, when I arrived at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in 2008, I was introduced to a whole new way to experience tennis, one that absolutely cannot be replicated in the close confines of my house. What I learned that year, and what I have been reminded of every time I’ve attended a tournament since, is that professional tennis is about so much more than just the matches. That’s a fact that I easily forget when I become tethered to statistics and scoreboards. This is a sport made up of people. Fascinating people. People who can do things with their bodies that none of us can dream of. Come to a tennis tournament like Indian Wells and you’re watching 96 men and 96 women who are, give or take a few rankings outliers, the absolute best at their jobs.
Come to a tennis tournament and hang out around the practice courts or, as is the unique case at the BNP Paribas Open, the practice field, and you quickly realize how down-to-earth and grounded these players are. They interact with fans, they goof off with each other, and they basically act no differently than any of us would if we were in their shoes. Television simply doesn’t capture this side of the game.
This is now my fifth straight year at the BNP Paribas Open, having attended both as a fan and as credentialed media, and it speaks volumes that my favorite memories have very little to do with the matches I’ve seen. My memories are filled with random snapshots from around the grounds. Whether it was sitting courtside during an Ana Ivanovic practice session in 2008 and almost getting hit with a shanked forehand for which Ivanovic and her then-coach Sven Groeneveld apologized profusely for, or seeing Rafael Nadal jump two sets of fences in 2011 to try and avoid the throngs of screaming fans as he headed to practice, or shyly stopping Samantha Stosur after a practice session in 2010 to ask for a picture (to this day that remains the only picture I’ve ever taken with a player as a fan), Indian Wells has become more than just a place to watch tennis. It’s the place where I can come to remind myself that these players are just people. They laugh, they play soccer, they’re friends, and they
‘re just as enamored by their peaceful, picturesque surroundings as I am. And in being surrounded by that I’m reminded as to why I love this sport and the people who play it.
Aside from the little insights into the players that I’ve gleaned over the years here, the other common thread has been the relationships that I’ve built on the grounds. The BNP Paribas Open has become a destination tennis vacation for a lot of fans and there’s some comfort and continuity to seeing the same faces sit courtside year after year waiting patiently for Roger Federer on the practice courts. Over the years those faces have become friends and the BNP Paribas Open is now the place where I reconnect with those friends, whether over burritos in the food court or under the shade of the Corona tent.
My enjoyment of tennis has only been enhanced by my decision to regularly attend tennis tournaments as a fan. Having the opportunity to see these players go about their business in such a relaxed environment made me appreciate them more and sharing my experiences and observations with other tennis fans has enriched my tennis fandom in immeasurable ways. I had no idea my decision to attend the BNP Paribas Open in 2008 would have such a profound effect and the tournament has remained a hallmark of my growth as a fan of this nutty sport we call tennis.***
* The author of this post may or may not have a baby blue iPod shuffle that reads “Ajde!” on the back.
** The author of this post may or may not be a complete and total homebody.
*** Despite the author’s penchant for humor, sarcasm, and hyperbole, in this instance she is dead serious.
Courtney Nguyen is a tennis blogger and contributing writer for SI.com’s tennis blog, Beyond the Baseline [link: http://tennis.si.com/] and a weekly guest on the No Challenges Remaining [link: http://nochallengesremaining.