INDIAN WELLS – I’ve walked the grounds of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden all week searching for its pulse. What is it that makes this event tick?
There appears no underlying mission here at the BNP Paribas Open. No cause. No mission. There’s nothing visible on site about what charitable causes the tournament supports. There’s little to no imprint at the venue of what they’re all about. So when I went online to do some research, I Googled “BNP Paribas charity”. I half-expected a picture of a smiling shareholder to pop up.
That’s not to say there’s no altruism here. Before the event, players sometimes host their own fundraisers; that included the John McEnroe charity event for a couple of years, as well as the “Hit for Haiti” back in 2010 (okay, that one turned out to be a little awkward).
Annually, there’s the Desert Smash charity event at nearby Mission Hills gold resort that attracts many of the players participating in the BNP Paribas Open.
But for a tournament of this size, one that generates so much, its eerie how little bandwidth is dedicated to what it gives back. There’s no mention of a single charitable venture anywhere on the tournament’s website.
(The tournament’s main sponsor did announce a pair of $15,000 college grants to local-area high-school students Friday).
The title sponsor is a bank – a big, French bank. In 2015, BNP Paribas was assessed a record $8.9 billion fine by the US Justice department for eight years’ worth of violations to the extensively-named International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act. Sounds serious, but obviously not serious enough to affect its sponsorship relationship with this event (BNP Paribas is heavily involved in the sponsorship of the game all over the world, not just here in the desert).
This year’s tournament also seems to lack a defining narrative – at least so far. There is no dominant player everyone is gunning for, no streaks on the line, no newcomer bursting onto the scene. No records are at stake, no careers are on the brink. Some will have a good Indian Wells, some a great one. Everybody here is simply playing for more. More money, more points, more titles, more status. More, more, more.
There seem to be few consequences here. There is no real losing in this land of abundance. Everybody here at Indian Wells is going to be fine. The players, their entourages, the stores, the vendors. They will all find success these weeks, some just more than others.
The men’s storyline was assured by the luck of the draw with one quarter absolutely overloaded with big names. But I’m struck by how rudderless the women’s game seems at the moment. The WTA is having some bad luck of late with several top stars battling injuries and off-court situations, while most of those who are here in the desert are struggling to find form.
Heavily-bandaged Venus Williams, who will be 37 in just a few months, is leading the way. I can hear her thinking, “Yo, a little help please? I’ve been at this for 20 years now. Somebody please grab this torch.”
Late today, the ATP celebrates with Federer-Nadal XXXVI, the 36th meeting of their storied rivalry. There is a fair bit of hype about this meeting, which last occurred less than two months ago in a throwback Australian Open final. But in the end, the winner will advance; the loser will rest up for Miami. Little else will be settled with the outcome of this match.
As I walk these grounds surrounded by the haves and have-even-mores, I’m struck by how little stress is here. In my week of staking out every corner of the venue, I’ve heard no arguments; I’ve seen no questionable behavior. There’s security here, but considering the size of the crowd, they leave very little footprint. Every day, these have to be 40,000 of the most well behaved, angst-free people I’ve ever been among.
There are strong reasons for this, of course. There’s a singleness of purpose here in the desert. The players are here to play. The patrons on vacation are here to be entertained by the players playing and they’re willing to pay a pretty penny to do it.
As most destination locations are, these weeks in the desert can be an exercise in self-indulgence. World-class food and shopping are around every turn; luxury goods and status symbols dominate the sponsors booths. There’s even a roped-off VIP champagne tent dead center on the grounds.
A reflection of its location, the event itself almost feels like a mirage. A month ago, the stadiums were here, but none of the luxury accessories. Come load-out day on Monday, the site will quickly go back to being a sleepy tennis oasis. The players, many of whom have already moved on to the next top in Miami, will all be gone. All of us here in attendance – fans, local media, volunteers – will go back to our regularly-scheduled lives.
If this seems a little dark, maybe I’m overthinking it. Tennis is a business; the name of the game is to make money – that’s why the tournament owners, the sponsors and the players are involved. It’s not, at its core, a charitable endeavor, even if you wish sometimes that was a bigger element of it all – especially when there is so much conspicuous consumption.
It’s probably easier to believe in the mirage, and just enjoy it for what it is – a word-class sporting spectacle. Regardless of cost.