Why Indian Wells is the one trip every tennis lover should take

By Gerald Marzorati

Sure, keep Wimbledon on your bucket list. But for pure tennis joy, nothing beats Palm Springs in March, writes Gerald Marzorati.

The BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells is a great event to see some of the best tennis players in the world. Photo / Getty Images
The BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells is a great event to see some of the best tennis players in the world. Photo / Getty Images

I can tell you the precise moment when I realised that the BNP Paribas Open, held a half-hour drive south of Palm Springs, California, in Indian Wells, is the most resplendent place on Earth to watch tennis.

It was five years ago, mid-morning, an hour or so before matches were scheduled to begin. I was in a bleacher seat out on one of the practice courts at the southern edge of the tournament grounds, watching Rafael Nadal hit baseline forehands one after another, working to calibrate his turbine-like topspin to the desert air.

The only sounds were the thwock of that buggy-whip stroke of his and a grunt, which could almost double as a sigh, as Nadal followed through above his head. In early March, when the tournament is held, the Coachella Valley floor doesn't heat up till afternoon; the air was cool and dry. The sun, just above the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the east, was purpling the folds of the Santa Rosa Mountains to the west. It was an Albert Bierstadt painting with fuzzy yellow tennis balls, and I have since returned at winter's end every year.

It's not just the beauty that keeps me coming back. Indian Wells, as the tournament is called by players and fans, has the most alluring atmosphere of any tennis event I've attended-and I've been to a lot. Yes, night time tennis at the US Open is something special, raucously glamorous in a way New York is and tennis not so much. And, sure, put Wimbledon on your bucket list for all the reasons you already know. But a decent ticket to a Centre Court match in the second week at the Championships can cost you several thousand dollars. Even if you love tennis, as I do, is being there really worth that much? A courtside seat at the Indian Wells men's final: less than US$500 ($700).

Rafael Nadal in action against Novak Djokovic at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Photo / Getty Images
Rafael Nadal in action against Novak Djokovic at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Photo / Getty Images

But don't build a trip around taking in the final. (Actually, that goes for any tennis tournament.) Stadium 1, the big show court at Indian Wells, seats 16,000 and is as charmless and nearly as cavernous as the US Open's Arthur Ashe Stadium out in Flushing, Queens. If you have only a weekend-and a weekend is doable, as there are direct flights to Palm Springs from New York, Chicago, and West Coast cities-plan on going the Saturday and Sunday before the final. Or, if you have more time, stay on early into the second week, Monday and Tuesday, when the crowds, never as overwhelming as they can be at a Grand Slam, thin to densities you might find at a lively county fair.

Either way, you can get a daily grounds pass for US$50 ($70), and, beginning at 11am, you can see matches all day long on the outer courts. You get close-up views of many of the top players in the world, almost all of whom make the trip to what some refer to as "the Fifth Slam." Sit through an entire match if it is holding your attention-these are all three-set matches, not the five-setters the men play at Grand Slams-or wander from match to match, staying for a set here, a set there. That's what I tend to do. It's a way to survey different players and to get, now and then, a reprieve from the sun, which can grow fierce, come 1.30 or 2pm.

The official name of the 54-acre tournament grounds is the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, and there is enough shade beneath palms and tents to feel like one. You will want to stick around until late afternoon, the loveliest time for tennis viewing. The mountains make for an early-ish sunset, the air in no time surrenders its heat, and the light pinks are sublime. If you want to stay on for the night sessions, or if you prefer tennis after dark-or if you just want to avoid the sun, period-I'd suggest purchasing tickets to the newer, cosier Stadium 2, where the sight lines are terrific and the dining options include Nobu.

A courtside seat at the Indian Wells men's final will cost you less than US$500. Photo / Getty Images
A courtside seat at the Indian Wells men's final will cost you less than US$500. Photo / Getty Images

If that weren't enough, the top 10 players on both the men's and women's sides are slated to be playing this year. Roger Federer, fresh from his remarkable run at the Australian Open, will be there-he missed last year due to a knee injury-as will Rafa Nadal, whom Federer defeated in the Australian Open final. The Williams sisters will be playing, too, along with Novak Djokovic, who has won the tournament the last three years, and Andy Murray, the No.1-ranked men's player, who has never won the trophy here.

For me, though, Indian Wells has always been a place to glimpse rising players at the beginning of the season. I'll be looking to watch Alexander Zverev, the 19-year-old German phenom who lost a heartbreaker to Nadal at Indian Wells last year. CiCi Bellis, the 17-year-old California native who just turned pro, has also gotten off to a surprisingly strong start this year. And don't forget doubles, which get stronger billing at Indian Wells than almost anywhere else on the tour. The top singles players often find partners, and this year's tourney may represent one of the last chances to see the legendary (and aging) Bryan brothers play in their exuberant style.

If you want to work in a few serves yourself ahead of time, or just get in a round of golf, you'll want to stay at La Quinta Resort and Club or one of a number of other resort hotels within a few miles of the Indian Wells grounds. Otherwise, I'd suggest staying in Palm Springs, which is no longer Dean Martin's Palm Springs. There are rooms at any number of revamped retro-chic hotels to choose among, and the Avalon hotel has 13 quiet bungalows situated among citrus trees.

Go for a hike in Palm Springs while the desert is in bloom. Photo / Getty Images
Go for a hike in Palm Springs while the desert is in bloom. Photo / Getty Images

If you bring the family, or a group of four or five friends, do as I have started doing: Use Airbnb to rent a restored mid-century modern house with a little swimming pool out back. Wherever you stay in town, you will be within walking distance or a short drive from good restaurants. If you are up for a longer morning walk-not a bad idea, if you are going to be spending hours sitting and watching tennis-hiking trails abound in the nearby desert. It's springtime, remember, and a desert in bloom is a thing to see, as colourful and absorbing in its own way as the tennis.

Other favourites

For a drink: The Amigo Room, Ace Hotel and Swim Club, 701 East Palm Canyon Drive. A funky bar with 20-plus beers on tap.

For a bite: Rooster and the Pig, 356 South Indian Canyon Drive. Inventive Vietnamese cooking in a small, casual, strip-mall joint.

For a walk: Agua Caliente Indian Canyons, entrance on South Palm Canyon Drive. Hike down miles of footpaths among flowering cacti through desert, along gorges, and down into watery oases on land sacred to the Cahuilla Indians.

For a slice of history: Kaufmann Desert House, 470 West Vista Chino Rd. One of Richard Neutra's last designs, completed in 1947. A mid-century modern masterpiece.

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