It was the first Friday at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California and I watched (in order): Verdasco vs. Ferrer, Wozniacki vs. Bartoli, Federer vs. Gasquet, and an especially riveting set between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Alexandr Dolgopolov. “What?” you’re scratching your head, scanning the day’s underwhelming order of play. “The only way the top guys took the court today was to play doubles!” (Yes, Rafa/M.Lopez, Novak/Troicki and Roddick/Fish all played on Friday.)
But that’s the beauty of Indian Wells, where the practice courts are open to the viewing public and you can get up close and personal with the top players without shelling out for prime stadium seats. (Though I’m sad to see more fences and guards this year than in previous years .) Watching tennis greats practice is as much of a treat as watching them play, especially when we’re in the first few days of a tournament and everybody’s still around, hoping to make it deep.
If a match is an oil painting, a practice session is a sketch – the strokes a bit wilder, the spirit more spontaneous. Players play in the moment on the practice courts – laughing, swearing, hitting the ball into stands filled with awe struck fans. They’re comfortable in the knowledge that no player’s future was ever decided in a practice set.
When you watch players practice, it’s like observing them “in the wild,” at their most basic and showing off their essential natures. I never understood just how well Ferrer can wrest control of a point from the server until watching him whoop Verdasco this morning. Of course his prowess didn’t stop him from lambasting himself as if he was choking away a title. Del Potro is all “POP!” You can tell it’s him just from the sound the ball makes coming off his strings. Anyone who’s ever seen Nadal practice (and a lot of people saw him today – I could barely catch a glimpse, there were so many people crammed around the court) immediately realizes that this guy grinds and works and grunts for every point. His game is serious.
As for Roger Federer, well, Roger is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. His public practices, even with someone as accomplished as Gasquet, are casual to the point of blase. Yes, there’s genius, but there are also plenty of water breaks. It feels like Roger spends as much time sitting during these public practices as he does hitting the ball. Roger even made Gasquet wait at times, between serves, while he watched a point play out between Wozniacki and Bartoli on the neighboring court. So, set a tennis neophyte on Court 15 today at noon (why does Roger have to torture us with his high noon practice time?) and what else could she say but: “Wow, that guy sure makes it look easy.” Roger at practice is Roger at his core: relaxed, casual, effortless.
(With Roger, I differentiate between “public” and “private” practices, because reports say that he’s an animal during his own training sessions in Dubai and elsewhere. Every time I’ve seen him practice at a tournament, it’s been light-hearted fare.)
We did catch a couple matches today, the highlight being Flavia Pennetta vs. Carla Suarez Navarro. As much as I love Carla and her one-handed backhand, I was immensely impressed with Flavia and her ability to place the ball exactly where it should go.
We hope you enjoy the photos Fritters took today at the tournament. He’s getting his big lens tomorrow, so stay tuned for some great shots from the practice courts and beyond.