INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — For years, I’ve cheered Andy Roddick during his tennis matches.
Last week, for the first time, he actually heard me.
“The crowd was great for me today,” Roddick said after winning a difficult three-set match at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. “They really pushed me. I really appreciate the help.”
Each March as the BNP Paribas Open started in Indian Wells, Calif., I cranked up the heat in the living room and shut the blinds on the snow outside the windows in a Midwest attempt to simulate the California desert. The television brought images of impossibly cloudless blue skies, swaying palm trees, sun-tanned spectators and endless hours of tennis from the top players in the world. This time I saw it all in living color.
During the first two sets, Roddick said he couldn’t have hit a return into the ocean from the beach. When he looked to be in trouble, the crowd combined their voices to urge him on to win. It’s that moment in sports when a fan can feel as though they had an impact on the outcome. Fans become more than a mere spectator in a sport that puts immense pressure on an individual player. There are no teammates for cover in a game of great physical endurance and mental problem solving.
“You know you are out there exposed by yourself,” Roddick said. “You are playing pretty terrible tennis for an hour-and-a-half in front of 16,000 people who are — all they want you to do is play better.”
Roddick said for all the general sports talk tennis doesn’t get its due for its physicality and endurance, often in extreme weather. It’s not a sport where a player can pass a ball off, Roddick said.
“So there are a lot of things that are going on in a tennis match that I don’t feel like translate to watching it go back and forth on the TV very well sometimes,” Roddick said.
For those who want to see the difference, Indian Wells offers a fan-friendly experience with a warm climate for a winter escape. You wouldn’t have to leave the Indian Wells Tennis Garden grounds during the trip. It offers food, entertainment, shopping and opportunities to see nearly every big name and up-and-coming player in the sport in a 96-player draw.
Jon Solari of Lodi, Calif., attended the Indian Wells tournament for the first time this year. His son, Michael, chose the trip for his 21st birthday over Las Vegas.
“I like it,” Solari said. “You get to see everybody.”
Solari watched Roddick play Lukasz Kubot of Poland while he said his son watched Nadal practice with Fernando Verdasco. The tennis garden is so self-contained even a casual tennis fan has options to take in several matches or just relax in the sun or shade and watch them on the big screens. Costs for the event range from $12 to $90 with club or box seats going for $160 to $510. The event was sold-out over its first weekend.
Solari was able to watch a set of tennis, walk the landscaped grounds and see players off the court as well. Seats and a schedule of play on the practice courts let fans get even closer to players.
“That’s what’s so much fun,” Solari said. “It’s fun just watching the practice court.”
Michael said the trip ranked at the top of his best birthday presents.
“I like how close you can get when they are practicing,” he said. The event includes scheduled autograph sessions and entertainment with musical attractions. A number of fans had large tennis balls in tow and a list of players they wanted for signatures. They lined up at a dedicated autograph spot to catch players as they walked between the practice courts and players’ lounge.
This time, I didn’t have to catch the replay after work. This time, I was in the stands watching Roddick, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal. I hopped between stadiums to see as many players in person as possible. There was Richard Gasquet’s flowing backhand and David Ferrer’s feisty return. For a Minnesotan, there was Mardy Fish, an Edina native now ranked eighth in the world — the highest ranked American.
Mardy wasn’t the only Minnesotan on the grounds. Roger McCalla, who grew up in Howard Lake and graduated from St. Cloud State University, is one of the 1,300 volunteers at the tennis tournament who take their vacations to volunteer and see some tennis.
“Everybody enjoys this place,” McCalla said. He now calls Billings, Mont., home. “They come from all over the world. I was just overwhelmed that over 350,000 people will come to a tennis tournament. It’s just overwhelming how dedicated these tennis players are.”
“We really want to make it a fan-friendly venue,” said Judy Strobl, media services chairperson and media room volunteer coordinator.
The BNP Paribas Open set records for attendance for the sixth straight year with 370,408 people attending in 2012 during the two-week tournament. The tournament also set a single-day record with 24,271 fans. The tournament announced the attendance makes Indian Wells the most attended men’s and women’s combined tour event in the world. A spectator who also took in the U.S. Open in New York expected Indian Wells to suffer in comparison. It didn’t, she said. For fans, the options to see favorite players up close comes with 80-degree days, abundant sunshine and without breaking the bank.
Steve Bellamy, founder of the Tennis Channel, said after walking the grounds at Indian Wells: “It’s clear to me this is the fifth grand slam.”