The Coachella Valley is known for spectacle. The Santa Rosa Mountains shadow desert landscapes, dotted with oases of affluent country club life – all in sync with a backbone of Mexican flavor found everywhere, especially in cuisine. Streets named after Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Dinah Shore — See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet — remind inhabitants of decades gone by, when crooners made listeners swoon – a stark contrast to the bands entertaining throngs at the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in April.
And then there’s the tennis.
It’s an institution here for locals, snowbirds, and fans of the tournament that began 40 years ago this year, first as a fund-raising event in Arizona before it landed in Palm Springs, then La Quinta Hotel, a buena vista drive just minutes from the current Indian Wells Tennis Garden and permanent home to the tournament.
Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, saved this combined ATP and WTA event from slipping into oblivion when he bought it in 2009. Since then, the sky’s seen no limits. The grounds feel like a festival, a spring moment to rejuvenate relationships with friends and families, and a 2-week span to heighten the world’s senses about the game, which leans in atmosphere to hip Californian life styles. Maybe it’s the abundant sun, date palms that line the walkways, and authentically happy, friendly folk that stroll the grounds.
And why shouldn’t they be happy?
Twenty-one practice courts spread at their feet, literally built into the landscape at a lower level than the walk-ways.
Warming up this morning was Mardy Fish, a former Top 10 player who picked March to return to the game with a protected ranking of No. 25. He’ll put it to use here and in Miami, where he’ll assess his next move.
This is the Los Angeles resident’s first appearance at an ATP event in 18 months. Fish was sidelined due to a heart problem almost three years ago, which lead to an unpleasant experience with anxiety. “At his worst,” reported The New York Times, “Fish had hourly panic attacks and was unable to leave his home for months.”
Fish was easy to pick out on court, his baggy shorts and low-cut socks remaining signature components of his K-Swiss kit. He still puffs his cheeks when he contacts the ball and glides effortlessly along the baseline.
Agnieszka Radwanska, currently ranked No. 8, was practicing as well, wearing the tiniest of short shorts as she batted balls with Andrea Petkovic, a new member of the upper crust – seeded No. 9 for the tournament.
Belgian Yanina Wickmeyer’s familiar ‘oh mee’ grunt echoed, but in lower decibels than during a match while Vera Zvonareva carried on an intense (naturally) heart-to-heart with a team member after her session had ended.
Defending champion Flavia Pennetta and Garbine Muguruza drew fans in, as the Italian exchanged sharp-sounding words with her coach. Karolina Pliskova walked by unnoticed, but if she performs as expected, those pleasant days of incognito life will be short-lived.
The tournament expects to top last year’s total attendance of 431,527 during what’s become known as the real, authentic and heralded ‘fifth slam’ of the tennis galaxy. Total prize money of over $6.1 million trickles down in diluted denominations to first-round qualifiers, who earn a bit over $1,000.
Thanks for this skyrocketing growth should go to Ellison, coupled with vision contributors like CEO Henry Moore, Tournament Director Steve Simon, and countless others associated with all compartments of a spectacle such as this, especially former player and Tennis Hall of Famer, Charlie Pasarell. He orchestrated the tournament’s move from Arizona to the Coachella Valley, diverting a possible route east to Florida.
By the time you read this, the WTA draw will have been set. One first-round match-up — forget the quarterfinal possibilites — is American wildcard Taylor Townsend versus Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Townsend didn’t look too pleased, as she helped out at the draw ceremony this afternoon.
Victoria Azarenka, seeded No. 32 and no longer-labeled ‘dangerous floater,’ is two rounds away from a showdown with No. 2 seed and 2013 Indian Wells winner, Maria Sharapova.
The youngest player in the main draw, No. 31 seed Belinda Bencic, is on a trajectory to face No. 4 seed Caroline Wozniacki. Wildcard and No. 1 seed Serena Williams looks to have an ‘easy’ path, which is appropriate after a 14-year-hiatus. On her side of the draw are No. 3 seeded Simona Halep, No. 10 Muguruza, and Karolina Pliskova, at her highest seed yet (No. 14) .
More to come later today, until then-
What were your thoughts as Day 1 of Indian Wells came to a close?