“Welcome to Tennis Paradise” reads the flower-encrusted archway over the entrance to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
And for once in this culture of fake news, that’s not total hyperbole.
A bit of backstory: One day at a time, for over 30 years I have surrendered my addiction to alcohol. But nature abhors a vacuum, and one of the things that has sprung up in its stead is a fervent—an unkind person might call it obsessive—interest in women’s professional tennis.
I started by acquainting myself with the four annual “grand slams”—the Australian Open (hard court) in January, Roland Garros aka the French Open (clay) in June, Wimbledon (grass) in July, the U.S. Open (hard court) right around Labor Day.
Then, slowly, God help me, I came to understand that the tournament schedule lasts, with the exception of December, the whole year. I learned the difference between a Premier Mandatory, Premier 5, Premier, and International. I pored over the WTA ranking system.
I downloaded an app—ATP/WTA Live—that delivers live scores, daily schedules and for every match the bios—height, weight, place of birth, current residence (why so many in Monte Carlo and Geneva? Ah—tax purposes!), WTA ranking, total career money earned (fascinating!) and previous record between any given two players.
I downloaded another app called Time Snap so I could synch, as need be, with the clocks in Dubai, Qatar, Singapore, St. Petersburg, Stuttgart, Prague, Tokyo, Wuhan. I started sleeping fitfully when an exciting middle-of-the-night PST match was taking place halfway across the world.
I had players I loved to hate, a cherished underdog (the spitfire Italian Camila Giorgi, who is coached by her wild-haired father and whose mother sews her tennis costumes), and for the past several years, a worshipful attachment to the Venezuelan-born Garbiñe Muguruza: tall, elegant, and the only player to have beat both Serena Williams and Venus Williams in a Grand Slam Final.
For a brief time in 2017 Garbiñe reached Number 1 in the world, but at this writing is ranked Number 20, and her emotional and psychological stability have been a source of perhaps unwonted concern to me this past year.
Every year a two-week Premiere Mandatory tournament—one step down from a Grand Slam—is held right here in Southern California’s Indian Wells: the BNP Paribas, named after its French banking services sponsor. This year the winner on the women’s side will take home $1,354,010.
Tickets are expensive and parking is 25 bucks. But the qualifying rounds, when the lower-ranked players compete for a place in the main tournament and which take place during the first two days, are free.
And if you’re a tennis nut, you could hardy find a better setup: mountain backdrop, balmy desert breezes, tons of places to buy food, drink and gear, multiple courts you can wander around to all day and take in any number of games, sets, or full matches.
I’ve attended many times over the years, developing preferences as I go based largely on the player’s outfit and whether I consider her a “good sport.” Offenses to my mind include unseemly fist pumping, ferocious glares, crowing, preening, loud grunts or shrieks, and beating anyone I like.
Upstart Diyana Yastremska (Ukraine) at this point is one such person. She and my idol Garbiñe stand at 2-1, Yastremska’s favor, and to make matters worse, she is a mere 18 years of age, rose meteorically in the rankings last year, and has at least twice called what many considered questionable medical time-outs in the final minutes of a match.
Which brings me to another stellar feature of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden: the 20 practice courts. Here you can watch the top players hitting for an hour in “street clothes,” their coaches lurking about and perhaps engaging in a bit of patter or guidance.
It was really quite exciting this year to thread through the crowds and spot Anastasija Sevastova (Latvia) in her signature white headband, Dominika Cibulková (Slovakia; gutsy—rooting for her), and in the flesh: Diyana Yastremska—all in black, gorgeous, and with an insanely strong, sure swing.
On my way back to LA, I attended the noon Ash Wednesday Mass at La Quinta’s St. Francis of Assisi.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Does who wins a tennis game matter in the end? No, but what does maybe is acknowledging that my love for the sport also allows me to project the hurt and anger and fear I feel in my daily life onto more or less arbitrary targets.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and can hardly wait for next year.
But the most valuable part of my time away may have been the long, solitary walks I took along the arroyo at dusk, crying out with the Psalmist like a pelican in the wilderness; praying desperately—one more time—to repent and believe in the Gospel.