At Indian Wells, the Players Have a Playground of Their Own

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — More than $100 million has been spent building a tennis temple in the California desert with its two main stadiums, dozens of other courts, a gargantuan video wall, a courtyard full of restaurants and murals honoring past champions.

But many players’ favorite spot at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden is the one place where the tournament built nothing at all.

It is the player lawn: a big rectangle of natural grass just inside the west entrance that can serve as an outdoor gym, social nexus, soccer field, meditation center, makeshift television studio and children’s playground — sometimes all at the same time.

“It’s funny, but I think when a lot of us are thinking about Indian Wells, it’s the lawn,” Marketa Vondrousova, a Czech star and a 2019 French Open finalist, said as she headed to the grass on Friday afternoon.

The lawn, with its dramatic view of the Santa Rosa Mountains, is directly in the flow of traffic for the players: a transitional space between their restaurant and the practice courts.

The player lawn is distinct because it allows fans to interact with the players, like Carlos Alcaraz, top, or Ben Shelton, above.

“I love it,” said Holger Rune, the powerful Danish player already ranked in the top 10 at age 19. “I don’t know why more tournaments don’t do something like this.”

It is not quite without parallel: The Miami Open, now held in cavernous Hard Rock Stadium, allows players the same sort of free rein on a stretch of the natural grass football field inside the main stadium that hosts the Dolphins.

But the lawn at Indian Wells remains without peer, and what makes it so rare is that, unlike most player areas, it is in plain view of the public. Fans pile into the adjacent area known as “the corral” to chase autographs and photographs, or they fill up the bleachers and elevated walkway that form the border on two sides of the lawn.

“It’s the zoo,” Marijn Bal, a leading agent and a vice president of IMG Tennis, said as he watched the fans observe player behavior and the players observe the fans.

The concept was, in part, borrowed from golf, said Charlie Pasarell, a driving force behind the creation of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

Pasarell, 79, grew up in Puerto Rico and was a leading tennis player in the 1960s and 1970s, excelling at U.C.L.A. and on tour. But he made a bigger impact as a tournament director and entrepreneur, founding and elevating the Indian Wells event with his business partner, the retired South African tennis player Ray Moore. The Tennis Garden, built on barren land at an initial cost of $77 million, opened in 2000, giving the longstanding tournament a grander setting before it was sold in 2009 to the software billionaire Larry Ellison, guaranteeing that the event would remain in the United States.

Maria Sakkari of Greece, left, and Iga Swiatek of Poland worked out on the lawn.

Pasarell said the tournament was one of the first to make practice sessions a happening: constructing bleachers around the practice courts.

“It reminded me of when you go to a golf tournament, and you go to the driving range where you have people watching the players hit balls and they put up stands and announce the players’ names,” Pasarell said. “I always wanted to do that here, and the players loved it, although there were a few like Martina Navratilova who wanted to keep their practices private.”

The lawn was an extension of the open-access philosophy, even if Pasarell acknowledged that the space was created “a little bit by accident.”

“We had this area, and all of the sudden, the players started using that as a place to do their roadwork and to stretch,” he said. “One day somebody got a soccer ball and started kicking it so we put up soccer nets.”

A few years after the Tennis Garden opened, it was continuing to expand, and Pasarell said there was a serious proposal to build another show court on the lawn.

“I said, ‘Do not touch that grass!’” Pasarell said. “They were saying we could build a real nice clubhouse court there, and I said, ‘This is really important.’ And I was able to convince them, and so far, so good. I mean the players love that area, and it just sort of evolved into a great thing for the tournament.”

The lawn has been used for competition: often, pickup soccer. Rafael Nadal scored at the 2012 tournament in a game that also included Novak Djokovic.

An elevated walkway forms a border on one side of the lawn.
Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece played soccer on the lawn. Pickup games sometimes break out on the lawn.

But above all, it is used for warming up for practices and matches, and to spend a few hours watching players and their increasingly large support teams come and go is to realize how the game has changed.

The warm-ups are now dynamic: full of quick-fire footwork combined with hand-eye challenges. Bianca Andreescu, the Canadian who won the Indian Wells title in 2019, was balancing on one leg on Friday, leaning forward and catching a small soccer ball with one hand. Aryna Sabalenka, the imposing Belarusian who won this year’s Australian Open, was running side by side with her fitness trainer as they tossed a medicine ball to each other.

Pierre Paganini, the cerebral longtime fitness coach for Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, popularized this approach, tailoring exercises to fit precisely with the complex demands of tennis. The emphasis was on repeating short bursts of speed and effort to mimic the rhythm of a match.

During Andreescu’s warm-up, she quick-stepped through a sequence of cones that were of different colors, reacting to her coach Christophe Lambert’s call of “red” by quickly moving to the red cone.

“It’s a lot more professional,” said Michael Russell, a former tour-level pro now coaching Taylor Fritz, the top-ranked American man at No. 5. “Everybody is doing dynamic warm-ups. Some might go 15 minutes. Some might go 30. But there’s a lot more preparation and bigger teams also.”

Reflecting that, players often navigated the lawn in small packs, typically in groups of four.

Jabeur, right, in a training session with a member of her team.

“There’s the physio, the strength and conditioning coach and the coach,” Russell said. “So you have teams of three or four people whereas before it was just the coach, and they would use the physios provided by the tournaments. But now with increased prize money, more players can have bigger teams of their own.”

The added support has extended careers but also the workday. “It’s getting longer and longer,” said Thomas Johansson, the 2002 Australian Open champion who coaches Sorana Cirstea of Romania. “When I played here, if we started at 11 a.m., maybe we left the hotel at 10:20, got here at 10:35 and ran back and forth two or three times, swung my arms a little bit and then you were ready. Now, some who play at 11 are starting their warm-up at 9:30. It’s a different world now, and it’s positive because now you know how to eat, drink, train and recover, but you have to find the balance. You cannot live with your tennis 24/7 or you burn out.”

But at least life on the lawn is not all about tennis. It’s a place where Ben Shelton, the rising American player and former youth quarterback, can throw a football 60 yards. A place where the Belarusian star Victoria Azarenka’s 6-year-old son, Leo, can run free with other players’ children or with players like his mother’s friend Ons Jabeur. A place where Vondrousova can juggle a soccer ball with her team, shrieking with mock horror when it finally strikes the ground.

“Today’s record was 84,” she said on Friday, a day that she did not have a match but still chose to spend some quality time in pro tennis’s version of a public park.

“Thank God we didn’t build on it,” Pasarell said.

Leylah Fernandez of Canada played soccer during last year’s competition.

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