Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Our Time at Indian Wells Has Come to a Close

They say all good things must come to an end, and unfortunately for us, that holds true for our time at Indian Wells. We here at The Outer Courts have had a great six days covering tennis's best non-Grand Slam Tournament, but unfortunately Kentucky now beckons once again. We came into this experience unsure about what to expect. To the casual sports fan, the professional tennis tour is a bit of an unknown, a conglomeration of random stops across the world that occasionally seem to be mere holdovers to the big four events where the sports world takes notice.  But after spending this week in beautiful Indian Wells, I can attest, there have been very few more pleasurable sports experiences Drew and I have had than the BNP Paribas Open.  From great tennis, to star player encounters to dealing with the most arrogant media members the world has ever seen, we have had a tremendous experience that sets us up well on the path to becoming the top-notch tennis bloggers we hope to one day be. As we get ready to fly back to cover the NCAA Tournament with the Big Blue Nation, here are five takeaways from our time in the desert:

1. You Will See The Most Bizarre Looking People in the World of Tennis:  Tennis has without question the most absurd grouping of humans that I have ever seen at any sporting event on God's green earth. I used to give this award to NASCAR races, where the strangest pockets of our nation pour out to huddle in a mass, while drinking, partying and revving their engines in ways that bring out the absolute best in people watching. But after spending time in the tennis world, I think NASCAR has found its match. Tennis has by far the most beautiful people in all of sports, as the men and women that play come from all around the world, fit, soaked in sun and wearing few clothes, so as to provide true eye candy for spectators everywhere. But then there is the other half, the greatest selection of oddities this side of a 1930s traveling carnival. Every form of height, weight, age, gender ethnicity, national origin, hair style, skin tone, clothing choice, cleanliness, accent, and intelligence level is represented, sometimes in a bizarre amalgamation that is likely found in no other locale on the planet. The cultural stew that is created has its majority characteristics (generally older, more wealthy, etc), but whatever you are looking for, you will find at a major tennis showcase. If the great flood comes again and Noah is assigned to save the greatest cross-section of humanity, there is no doubt in my mind he will head directly to his nearest ATP/WTA 1000 level Masters event.

2. Everyone at a Professional Tennis Tournament Looks Important:  As part of our media duties, we were able to mingle in the cafeteria area of Indian Wells, ground zero for players, coaches and families to socialize and spend their non-playing moments. Surprisingly to me, most of the best players would spend their free time actually hanging out in this area, eating the delicious yogurt parfait (with blueberries and graham crackers...I had ten) and talking to their fellow competitors. While that helped create sights such as Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic mingling over a salad, it also can leave the onlooker confused, because in such areas, everyone has the look of someone you should know. The event is filled with hundreds of individuals ages 17-60, all fit, trim, tan and in tennis gear, ready to run out on the court and play/instruct. The tennis paraphernalia is ubiquitous, as everyone involved in the sports refuses to dress like a normal human being, instead wearing only tennis playing gear, regardless of whether they intend on playing. The peer pressure to conform becomes immense, leading even Drew and I to ditch our sweaters and jeans and instead pick up tennis polos and shorts. We had to fit in didn't we? I am sure as I grow more accustomed to the tennis scene, I will learn to be able to differentiate between the players, coaches and entourage members to determine exactly who I should spend the most time gawking at during lunch. But for now all I will remember about the Indian Wells cafeteria area is how it looked to the outsider like just one big blur of faceless Nike and Adidas logos.

3. You Should Find a Non-Superstar to Root For:  Our goal at The Outer Courts from Day One was to try and find a non-star player and get behind him, hopefully to magically pull him on a run deep into the bracket. In my view, anyone can root for a superstar who wins at a regular rate, but true character is built by rooting for someone who feels the same adversity we all deal with in life, winning some, losing some and generally having an anonymous existence. Our first attempt at finding that player was to go and see Jack Sock take the court, hoping that his game and personality would match the absurdity of his name in joyful harmony.  Alas, it was not to be, as he screamed, argued and pouted through his match so thoroughly that we didn't feel comfortable giving him the gift of Outer Courts fandom. But his opponent, Ivo Karlovic, struck us as interesting. He was strikingly tall (listed at 6'10", but just as wrestlers have their weight exaggerated a bit...think Yokozuna weighing over 700 pounds...I think Ivo's height may be slightly inflated), had a very reserved demeanor in the face of a loud opponent and even gave us a wry smile as we cheered him on against a crowd pulling for his American opponent. After Karlovic got the victory, we learned more about Ivo and realized that we had found a diamond in the rough.  His Twitter account is dryly brilliant, his sense of humor on tour is legendary and his interaction with the fans helps him win over even the most antagonistic crowd. As we watched him lose to American Sam Querrey, Karlovic still found a way to entertain, making jokes during the match, heading a ball over the net and causing fans in the first few rows to break out with laughter. Now Karlovic's career is not one of superstardom, he has only won four tournaments and all have been in secondary events, but his personality is clearly that of a Grand Slam winner in the game of life. So as the season goes on, I will be watching the draws to determine how Karlovic does, and pulling for his every success. You can have Andy Murray and experience the joy of rooting for a New York Yankee-like mega franchise. But I will take my Pittsburgh Pirates with Karlovic, and he sneaks up and wins the pennant this year at Wimbledon, oh you will see a true Outer Courts celebration.

4.  Meeting an International Superstar is Still Very Cool:  I have already written pretty extensively about my opportunity to meet and interact with Roger Federer at Indian Wells. The excitement of going up to one of the world's biggest athletes and then having him agree to come on my radio show (even if only to say five words...the "Hello Radio Guys, Go Cats!" heard round the world), is a moment I will always remember. But I was also struck with how nice he, and many of the other top names, have been as well. At times part of the ATP Tour rankings seems to be in inverse relationship to the friendliness of the players. While we have met a few players who I can categorically define as "jerks" (I will leave the names out in a spirit of goodwill), virtually all of the players we have seen from the top of the rankings have been wonderful. We had positive interactions with Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Tsonga and Del Potro, and each showcase none of the trappings of great success and fame. In my short career covering sports, I have met many of the best at their trades and they generally have been a mixed bag in terms of personalities you would actually want to deal with on a daily basis. But in tennis, the best of the best seem to also be as close to normal as one could hope in such circumstances. And that to me, is an unexpected positive.

5. Covering Tennis is Not a Bad Gig at All:  Let me be clear. Drew and I in no way consider ourselves part of the tennis media establishment.  In fact, I can actually say that I probably feel as much of an outsider now as I did before I arrived at Indian Wells. With the exception of Courtney Nguyen of Sports Illustrated (who could not have been kinder) and our Tennis Channel colleagues, virtually everyone we met in the media room was either rude or dismissive. It started from the moment we arrived, when a person began yelling that we were in his way (before we had even said hello mind you), to moments before we left when we overheard two reporters talking poorly about those "bloggers from Kentucky" (he didn't think we were experts in the field and wondered if we were so country that we thought "Red Foo was a real star"...I might add that he was saying this while downloading a roll of pictures he had taken of Red Foo playing soccer...but apparently irony is not a word defined in his journalism handbook). The tennis media group is not exactly Mr. Rogers in terms of welcoming us to their neighborhood. But with that said, working in the tennis field is a pretty sweet gig. The pace of movement is so different to what I am accustomed, with everyone moving so much more leisurely and carefree. Part of it may just be the vibe of California or the tennis player mentality in general, but there was no (with the exception of the first person we met) barking orders or acting at a breakneck pace. Covering tennis involves traveling to some of the world's most luxurious spots and watching a game that is actually quite beautiful to see in its highest form. From the grace of Roger Federer, to the surgeon-like quality of Novak Djokovic to the blue-collar intensity of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to the flair of Rafael Nadal, the top mens' players are an absolute joy to watch. And this year's tournament also gave me an increased appreciation of the women's game, which is not only played by some of the more beautiful women in the world, but has an increased athleticism and power that makes it an altogether different sport than that of even ten years ago. To be able to cover that sport, see these places in the world and spend your time writing about something you love...well it is a pretty amazing gig and worth dealing with some of the pretentious blowhards that accompany you on your travels.

So that's it. We are off in the morning to Kentucky and back into the world of college basketball and March Madness. Thanks to the folks at Tennis Channel for inviting us along the way and we hope to be able to join you again for another tournament and more tennis coverage down the road. If you don't remember one other thing that you have read this week, remember this. Always keep your head up, because one day Rafael Nadal could be coming towards you and you don't want to be like Drew, staring down mindlessly looking at the flowers.  Until next time...