Defector Tennis Bureau Indian Wells Dispatch Day 4: The Desert Dads Are On The Loose

The action at Indian Wells, one of the season’s biggest tournaments in men’s and women’s tennis, is well underway. Defector tennis bureau chief Giri Nathan and correspondent Patrick Redford have been on the grounds all week, and they’re back to discuss apian invasions, the life-giving powers of the humble smoothie, Carlos Alcaraz as comedian, Maria Sakkari’s thunderous power, various desert phenomena, and more.

Giri Nathan: One of the most majestic sights in sports: guy in wraparounds and rock-and-roll hair serenely vacuuming several thousands of bees with the sun-gilded San Jacinto mountains in the backdrop. This was as close as I’ve come to enlightenment this week. What Lance Davis said about presence of mind and execution was also the best sportsman quote of the week, too. Bee removal is high-stakes performance and there’s no time for second-guessing.

Patrick Redford: It was sincerely beautiful to see the late afternoon sun spangling the upper-level promenade, lighting up an extremely zen Davis as he laconically plucked bees one by one into a cage. Tennis is such a fussy sport, and such a disruption seemed to rankle both the crowd and the players, yet Davis was the man for the moment, an island of calm in a sea of fidgetry. We didn’t see this, because we were at this point sprinting towards the bees, but he was rightly hailed as a hero by the crowd.

GN: Carlos Alcaraz is always a charmer in press conferences, but the subject of bees boosted his charm tenfold. “I saw the sky and there was thousands, thousands flying, stuck in my hair, going to me. It was crazy. One of them was hitting on me,” he said, smiling. “I’m a bit afraid of them. I had to stay safe, and yeah, I was running everywhere. Nothing (indiscernible) bees anymore.” Really appreciate how the official transcript rendered that last bit. 

PR: That (indiscernible) bit is so good, though I am choosing to think it stands in for “gets me going like,” as Carlitos played probably the best hour of tennis we’ve seen all week after play resumed following a near two-hour delay. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone hit that many un-chased drop shots; he was in total control of the match.

Alexander Zverev, as you told me, is an intriguing stylistic foil for Alcaraz, as he’s one of the only top dudes in the men’s tour who can hang in those long exchanges with Carlos, and it was thrilling to see our boy problem-solve his way around that potential stalemate by dragging Zverev around the court with all manner of profanely zapped-out backhands and glacial drop shots. On the point that earned him deuce in the third game of the second set, he was popping forehands and backhands down the line with such explosive muscularity that the crowd began to collectively snicker under their breath before he even nailed the winner, each deep-landing groundstroke a smirking little in-joke for everyone to enjoy. What are you supposed to do besides guffaw when you see someone nail a sprinting pass like this? There are scores of adjectives for something like that—rude, nasty, etc.—but the primary one is “funny.”

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GN: Yes, something about Alcaraz’s ball seems to sit comfortably for Zverev—it could be that, for all its heaviness, it pops right into the 6-foot-6 guy’s strike zone. Zverev looks pretty sturdy in those side-to-side baseline rallies, so one key for Carlitos was getting this guy to move north-south. The defining mystery of playing Alcaraz is whether he’s going to push you six feet behind the baseline with a forehand blast, or lure you up into a drop shot. Those two hypothetical balls land about 30 feet away from each other, and Alcaraz is so good at not giving away his plan until the moment right before contact with the ball. I can still hear Zverev bleating in misery as he realized he had to sprint ahead to another slow-sailling drop shot. There were at least two droppers in the second set that Zverev didn’t even move a toe for; he knew it was futile. Alcaraz was rolling at that point, interacting with the crowd. In his last service game, he noticed a fan wearing a t-shirt with his face all over it, mouthing “I love you,” generally freaking out. He blushed and smiled before holding at love.

PR: Carlos’s open-mouth, full-face smile when they cut to him is so pure. It’s lovely to see someone’s visage so clearly communicate a single, pure thought, in this case, “Wow…”

I must say, I really love the Indian Wells crowd. Navigating the aisles between changeovers is like 40 percent more difficult than it needs to be, because nobody knows how to hustle up or down stairs. I recall vividly the double-scooped-up ice cream dad who ran past an usher during the bee delay whining “You guys keep changing the rules, so there are no rules! It’s anarchy!” It would be really funny if that guy got stung by a bee.

GN: As you pointed out, it seems like a crowd full of dads who have never been told no, and the prospect of thousands of bees was not enough to make them accept a no, either. Ice cream dad was really on one. In general, though, I really enjoy the desert creatures out here. I’ll never forget the last time I was here I saw several septuagenarian ladies crushing Michelob tall boys before noon. While driving we saw a golf cart with a Blue Lives Matter decal on it. Every day at the venue we park adjacent to a megachurch that looks like a sprawling office park. I haven’t seen this many reflective wraparound sunglasses since my last visit to Bushwick. We’ve also still got to check out something in town called “The Patriot Store.”

PR: The spiritually miasmatic effect of TPS is counteracted, thank God, by the best place of business in Palm Desert, and perhaps the entire Coachella Valley. I am loath to big-up a business that isn’t sponsoring these chat segments, but I sincerely feel this is a useful piece of service journalism, so I have to tell everyone: We blew a bag at Luscious Lorraine’s. Stadium food tends to do Vitamix shit to your digestion—You can buy $89 caviar at the fried chicken stand? There is a very ominous, perpetually empty place in the corner by Stadium 2 called Le Burger?—and the only way to survive and keep from doing chemical warfare to those seated around us turns out to be seeking out vital smoothie nutriment. I was feeling like Giannis out there on Thursday.

GN: Shoutout Luscious Lorraine’s, keeping us humble, nourished, and regular. We’ve put in some 12-hour days on the grounds and we needed them to get us through it. 

PR: Oh wait, one last fan. After Tommy Paul smoked Casper Ruud, I noticed Zaza Pachulia was seated a few rows behind me, so I chatted him up. He was very generous with his time, and he clearly knows ball. He said he was rooting for Alcaraz, and after I tried to quickly self-extricate, he wanted to keep chatting, saying more or less unprompted that rest and mental balance is key to performance. Hard to argue with him there. Transitioning ungracefully here, who do you think looked notably rested and mentally balanced this week?

GN: We came away from this week with some new faves. I’d seen a few Diane Parry matches but watching her scrap with Maria Sakkari for three sets made me a believer: huge forehand that she likes to run around, crafty one-handed backhand shit, change of pace, great feel. This was her first time in a 1000-level main draw and she made it to the fourth round and nearly managed a big upset; now she’s on the cusp of the top 50 at age 21, and I think there’s plenty more room to grow. Another fun breakout was Yuan Yue, a 25-year-old who just won her first title. We watched her dispatch Daria Kasatkina on a chilly Wednesday evening. Stadium 2 is perhaps the slowest hard court I’ve ever seen—Daniil Medvedev said as much to us in press—with a super-gritty sandpaper-like surface, so the ball was just sitting up in the air. Temperatures get down to the 50s at night, slowing things down even further, and I was awed as Kasatkina (who’s typically more of a finesse player) and Yuan unloaded on the ball in these 20-shot exchanges, praying that one of those shots would break down the defenses. Basically a clay-court match.

PR: I think I’ll be a Parry fan for a long time. Sakkari was super locked-in, really pushing the Frenchwoman, yet Parry was up for it, forcing Sakkari to move more than she’s probably comfortable with and exhibiting what seemed like a pretty nuanced understanding of pointcraft. She had her chances there—airmailing a break point slam so bad that Sakkari had to grin, getting broken on a disgusting net tip that prompted Sakkari to break out the rare two-handed apology—and she seems like someone who is on the cusp of strengthening the connective tissue of her game and breaking through in a big way, though maybe I am simply wish-casting a one-handed backhand into the upper echelons of the women’s game.

Yuan is also a very fun player, and while neither she nor Kasatkina could do much besides trench-warfare-ass exchanges on the highly frictive surface, she kept trying to seize the initiative. Sakkari’s more established than those two, though I hadn’t watched her much, and man, she’s a super impressive athlete. I wish my shoulders could ever be 20 percent as sculpted as hers. I have been so impressed by how many great athletes there are here, and how many different anatomical paths there are to being a great athlete (e.g. Zverev’s torso is too long, I don’t care for it). 

GN: It’s something else to see these players up close. In many cases I feel the camera undersells quite how physically imposing they are. Jiri Lehecka carries my bodyweight in his quads, I think. He looks like he could be crushing cobbles in Paris-Roubaix—that frighteningly vascular endurance-athlete build. Alex De Minaur has some latent track star in him and I loved watching him scramble around; it almost looked as if he’d recovered back to the middle of the court before he’d even finished his groundstroke. Always admire Iga Swiatek’s ease getting into these deep lungey stances without compromising her hyper-modern whippy strokes. Coco Gauff and Medvedev devouring expanses of court like an Olympian and a flappy inflatable car dealership guy, respectively. You can spend a whole match just watching footwork and have a totally psychedelic experience. Now you even know what a “split step” is! I think from afar it might seem that tennis players are just hand-eye coordination geniuses, but there’s so much long-run stamina and short-run burst required that you end up with some of the most well-rounded athletes that have ever lived.

PR: Well-rounded being somewhat literal in Holger Rune’s case. It’s a shame Aryna Sabalenka crashed out so early, I would have loved to see her power up close. Weirdly, I think Tommy Paul is maybe the best athlete I’ve seen this week? He’s so sproingy, like someone turned the gravity sliders down 10 percent. He’s always casually spinning the racket and doing behind the back dribbles with the ball, and also he can serve mid-130s heat. You described him as a sort of ur-jock, which feels spiritually and athletically coherent. You just know he can flip the hell out of a plastic water bottle.

GN: After watching Paul go toe-to-toe athletically with Alcaraz twice last year I knew he had something very rare, and I suspected he could rise atop the heap of young Americans. He’s playing even better than last year and I suspect he’ll give Medvedev a spicy semifinal. Hard to argue that it’d be spicier than Jannik Sinner-Carlos Alcaraz Volume VIII, however. The players are all bowing down to a Sinner this week: Tommy Paul, borrowing an Argentinian term, said he’s playing “absolutely naked,” and Carlitos hailed him as the best in the world at present. Sinner’s last match against Lehecka was a bit of a dip, and it took him time to find his rhythm, but he’s still 16-0 this year, and has won 37 of his last 39 matches.

PR: Not to be narcissistic, but I would also describe Sinner’s legs as “notable.” To be fair, he had to play when it was all cold and windy, which was a funny little contrast with the ubiquitous TENNIS PARADISE branding all over the grounds. Odder still than Thursday morning’s wind storm was last night’s unexpected, hilarious rainstorm that left the mountains above us coated in a fresh, breathtakingly beautiful dusting of snow. I’ve lived briefly in the desert and it still surprises me with its capacity for harsh beauty.

GN: The desert is replete with beauty and scourges alike. Not just the bees, either. My friend told me that on his way home from the venue the other night he got caught in a zero-visibility sandstorm and was just cruising ahead praying he could see the center line on the asphalt. We’ve seen lots of orthopterans with Anthony Edwards-type bounce; one hopped from the ground onto the sofa as I was writing last night. We’ve seen big leathery moths so heavily armored that I saw one fly away unfazed after you’d unintentionally stepped on it. The only desert thing left on our checklist is a date shake and a Joshua tree.

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