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Off the Couch: Serena, Serenity, and the Day North America Won.

PART II

 

CHAPTER 6: You Can’t Escape that Scent.

Day 2 of my adventure at Indian Wells began with a random degree of separation, I guess. While I sat on the balcony of my hotel room, my mind conjured up this:

  • I’ve heard that people look at the desert the same way America looks at the New York Yankees organization: Love it or hate it.
  • I’ve also heard that people in the desert look at Serena Williams the same way people look at the New York Yankees.

On Sunday, I would get to test both of those theories.

Good morning!

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Ah…the desert. I jogged around the Agua Caliente Casino—a Sunday morning tradition—and came up with cheesy rhetoric for describing it: the vast openness, quietly loud and wind-swept…with the loneliness being magnified because, much like Indiana, there’s nothing around for miles and miles and miles.

Speaking of Indiana, I quickly wondered if anyone had created “Hoosier Daddy?” or “Hoosier Mama?” or “Hoosier Kardashian?” shirts yet, or if there was an entrepreneurial opportunity waiting for me in the Midwest.

I had no chance—zero hope—of eluding the perfume and cigarette smoke aromatics. Even with 20 mph-plus gusts of wind picking up through the valley, “that” smell—the familiar cocktail that reeked of over-worried teens trying to cover up the their first drag of a Marlboro with whatever cologne/perfume was closest—fluttered across my nose. The lasting power was incredible. I imagine that’s what the cockroaches will smell like if there ever is a “Day After.”

No matter. I guess I fall into the category of “Hates the Yankees, loves the desert.”

Run complete. The rest of the morning flew by like a Wes Anderson rundown.

  • Hair…fancy.
  • Sunscreen…really fucking hard to completely rub into the skin—puts back in the basket!—but I did my best.
  • Hat…check.
  • Car…zipped on and ready to roll.

And we were off, ready to witness that quasi-random slice of tennis history.

 

CHAPTER 7: The Breakfast Interlude.

Living in the past is definitely a sports-type trait. Whether that be a high school phenom, reliving the glory years—in between insurance sales—or the Best of the Best reminiscing about how “their” era was better than the “current” era any day of the fucking week, twice on Sundays. What “that one guy or girl did back then was…you remember?” is as much of sports as hot dogs and beer—some of it bad, and some of it good.

For Serena Williams and her relationship with Indian Wells, the past was bad. It wasn’t worth reminiscing, and nothing that came of it was good or even close to the best. Forgetting and erasing Indian Wells from the memory bank seemed to be the remedy to what happened 14 years ago.

During that time—2001—both Williams girls (Serena and her sister, Venus) were the hot item in tennis, breaking through to the mainstream side of US culture. They were different in a sport that doesn’t really do different. They had the hair, the style, the sheer power and overall game…and they had their dad, Richard.

Yep…there’s always Richard.

Both Williams’ moved through the draw, as expected, setting up a Williams-Williams semi-final match. It was a must-see event: two of the best, top-ranked, who also happened to be siblings.

However, the match never happened.

And so it went…

Before the match—minutes until game time— Venus pulled out with  “tendonitis.”

Say Wha’…!?!?!?!

No one knew what the hell was happening. The tournament directors, according to an ESPN article by Joel Drucker, learned of the news via the PA system—the same one used to wish “Happy Birthday” to people and to MC the after-match spectacle of players hitting signed balls into the crowd.

That was how the news…broke.

The sudden withdrawal gave Serena the walkover to the final—it was a controversy that turned out to be more grueling than a three-hour slug-fest in 100-degree heat.

Many in the tennis realm questioned the sudden “injury,” blaming it on Mr. Williams’ orchestrated tactics: a deceitful twist on the truth in order to get his chosen flavor of ‘Williams girl” the head-to-head win.

This time, it was little sister Serena.

It happened before Indian Wells, too. This from Elena Dementieva, who lost to Venus in the quarterfinal, giving her predictions about the semi-final match:

I mean, I don’t know what Richard thinks about it. I think he will decide who’s going to win tomorrow.

Q: That it’s a family decision?

Yeah, because I remember when they played in Lipton. If you saw this match, it was so funny.

Of course, with that kind of doubt already cemented in the minds of tennis fans, analysts, etc., it gave the entire viewing population at Indian Wells fuel to complain, question and boo the hell out of anything dealing with whatever Williams came to sight.

And, oh man, did they boo!

As I devoured my Denny’s All American something or other, I watched that clip over and over. I was amazed. Remember this: these are slow-paced desert folk, happy about the nine iron they hit into the No. 6 green, or their new mode of transportation…or just life, in general. They don’t need Pharrell’s song.

On that day, however, they were fueled shame-torches, hatefully happy to be shedding light on all the shade the Williams’ were throwing. Basically, they let ’em have it.

The clip, as usual with historical recollection, also helped me understand the entire situation more clearly. Yeah, I had a general idea of what went down with the Williams’ back in 2001. But the revolving explanation and opinion I received over the last six years, while coming to the BNP Paribas, became a version of “Pass it Along.” The story was always cloaked by racism. But I wasn’t sure that was really the entire case.

This from Serena:

Race? I think, you know, black people have been out of slavery now for just over a hundred years, and people are still kind of struggling a little bit. It hasn’t been that long. I don’t know if race has anything to do with this particular situation. But in general I think, yeah, there’s still a little problem with racism in America.

Now, pass that along for 14 years…it was an unfortunate primed-and-ready topic, waiting for different versions to appear.

The story, the actual unfolding of it all, was more interesting, however. It was like a New England Patriots scandal, wrapped up in a tennis skirt.  It had it all: The talking heads, the dynasty at blame, and the pissed-off fans. Richard Williams was Bill Belichick, complete with undermining, smart-ass comments.

Richard Williams, on the controversy at Indian Wells:

From now on, I don’t speak English, I don’t speak English.

So, where were you 14 years ago when…?

I was 21, and in college, so I’m going with “drinking some type of beer, possibly pitching or getting yanked from pitching…or drinking more beer. The scandal meant very little.

It still means very little.

And the return?

In my mind, the most intriguing element wasn’t her willingness to come back to Indian Wells, making strangers feel happier about their tennis viewing experience, it was her willingness, as person of sport, to forget the past. That’s not easy to do, especially when your success has catapulted you into a Diva-like status.

Regardless, I was getting excited to see her play.

Onward.

 

CHAPTER 8: Tennis, anyone. Again?

The grounds always seem less packed on Sunday. At least, in the morning hours it seems that way. The parking area doesn’t have the same controlled chaos as Saturday, and the walk into the venue is less hectic. The security crew laughs more, cares less about how much water is in your bottle, and have an overall warm feeling that is rarely reciprocated when you’re doing that gig.

Could be the serenity.

Could be Serena.

Could be…both.

Never afraid of the repeated factor, I had another picture snapped, explaining “Hey I’m here, again.” This time, while sticking with the history theme, I decided to pay Social Media homage to the past…and mix it with the present.

Yep, that’s me…same shirt, sans Mrs. Roddick.

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………….Sorry, random trance there for a second.

We made our way to the main stadium; Serena would play a Kazakhstan gal, named Zarina Diyas. It’s never too early for a beer, so I got one—a big fella with fewer calories than…something.

The excitement I had seemed mutual among the fans. I looked around the stands, the giant size of the stadium, and saw more than a few people screwing with their phone’s camera/video recorder, readying themselves for “the” moment. Just like me, they probably never saw Serena play live. Or maybe it was the heat.

Then, she entered…

Close to 53 minutes later, she exited.

It was an interesting, yet brief, moment, nothing too special. Sure, you wouldn’t expect Serena to need six hours and some lucky calls to escape a second-round match. But the buildup, maybe just in my mind, caused the spectacle to fall flat—like anticipating a giant Fourth of July show, with thousands of explosive, colorful and dramatic scenes, then have it fizzle to the sound of a lone Whoopie Cushion.

(Fart Noise!)

There were impressive moments, no question. The power Serena can produce—some serves coming close to 128 mph—and the ease that she can do it, is shocking. It would defeat most men—professionals on the tour; not just club-level Joe.

She was extremely gracious, soft spoken—even with the mic’ shoved in her face. She knew how to handle the crowd, this her second entrance from the 14-year absence. The first was more emotional, of course. She cried.

But hell, Bill gates was there, man!

This time, however, she just seemed…over it. Not a down and frumpy kind of way, like she didn’t want to be playing the game anymore—she has too much desire for that. Instead, It looked as though she was simply tired of playing this game, the one of ambassador to making the audience happy. Waiving, smiling, thanking and re-thanking the crowd so our collective, sunshiny happiness wouldn’t melt like the ice cream cones they were peddling at the stadium.

No blame or shame if that was the case, really. None. She’s a tennis player, not a benchmark for the way society should treat each other.

And then I had a thought (again maybe it was the heat)…

Was this Serena’s entire shoulder-pressed moment to sweat out, overblown like a MLB star’s 162-day farewell tour? After all, there were three people hosting that party back in 2001. Only one of them is getting the YELP review?

Where’s Venus…14 years later?

Where’s Mr. Williams…14 years later? Has he learned English, yet?

¿Qué pasa, hombre?

In the end, too much of it teetered on the past—the same occurrence that tons of sports-related shit teeters—and that cheapened the moment, to me anyway.  Not surprisingly, as short as it was, the amazing element was to simply watch Serena play. Just witnessing her greatness was good enough. It didn’t need to be based on some feel-good sequel to the tune of one more fucking puppy in a crowded litter of 101.

Watching an athlete, at their world’s best, was all the history I needed.

When it came to the rest of the onlookers, how “they” felt was a brief afterthought, carried away in the wind. And I certainly didn’t care if they were Yankees fans (or not).

 

CHAPTER 9: Then America—All of America—Won!

Since the retirement of Andy Roddick—back in 2012—America has been yearning for another “McEnroeConnorsCourrierChangSamprasAgassiWithMoreSamprasAndMoreAgassiAndMoreRoddick” to the point of morphed exhaustion.

There have been players come close, on both sides of the tour, with John Isner leading the way, but nothing near the same staying power and domination from past decades—yep, the past again.

Quite simply, tennis isn’t the NFL.

However, as I walked out of Stadium 1, with my thoughts up in the air, things quickly turned red, white and blue…and red…and white, again.

And by quick, I mean real damn fast…faster than you can say: Stevie Johnson.

We stumbled into Court 3, thinking it would be fun to watch Ivo Karlovic—all 6’10” of him—blast serves at his opponent. That opponent happened to be Stevie Johnson, a USC grad with a good serve and…decent strokes. My expectations were low—although Ryan Harrison, another American, defeated Karlovic only a few weeks prior to Indian Wells.

Pop!

Karlovic’s service motion creates such an angel; it’s like an over-head spike at the net. Stevie did what he could; blocking back his best guess with the same low percentage most players have when Dr. Ivo serves.

Then…Stevie broke him.

What?

Then…Stevie won the first set.

Huh?

Stevie’s father sat across from us. He was working the coach face and taking every shot with no change in demeanor. Random thought: Papa Johnson, also a Steve, is a great guy in tennis. He once spoke at the Riviera CC about the “current” state of American tennis—oddly enough, he said it needed a jump-start. Even more random: For sun protection, Papa Johnson covered himself in towels, which caused a funny look… like he was waiting for a steam bath.

Stevie got the second set to a tiebreak. Most of the fans were excited, though an expected hesitation was there: Karlovic rarely loses a tiebreaker. The intensity was…well, intense. (I needed to borrow one of Papa Johnson’s towels.)

Then…Stevie won.

It wasn’t a top-10 upset, but Karlovic wasn’t exactly a wild card either. In fact, since winning in Florida a few weeks prior, he’s been hot. Smoking.

Yet, Stevie…Stevie Johnson…won. I looked up to the sky just to make sure the Sun had not exploded, and to my left, to make sure the baby laying in his mom’s lap hadn’t grown a mustache and started spitting fire. Mel Gibson was nowhere in sight.

‘Murica!

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Stevie’s reaction was perfect, an impromptu celebration with his camp: High-fives and cheers, with a fully (thankfully) clothed father elated—yet not too elated—expressing his approval.

The crowd took it in, too. It was an unbelievable moment not only to: a) see Karlovic lose a tie break but, b) see an American win, and c) be at the right place/right time to hear Stevie’s mom, unknown to most of the crowd, with the line of the day:

Unknowing fan to Stevie’s Mom: “Aren’t you going to stick around to see if you get a ball (hit to you)?”

Stevie’s Mom: “Oh, no, that’s my son…I can just get one later.”

Winners!

Editor’s Note: I really hope that was some kind of record for using “Stevie” that many times in a story.

I left the stadium a refreshed fan, long removed from the Whoopie Cushion I witnessed only a few hours before. By then, the desert heat of the day had turned into a calm evening, with the crowd growing and the beer tent gaining in popularity. I had one more, of course, because of the low calories. Look out beach season!

There was still another match we wanted to take in, a doubles deal that started later, so we had some time to kill. We hit the shops, including the racket/racquet store. The Babolat rep’ listened to me ramble about specs until I was blue in the face. He would have listened longer, too, but he had to go…and help that guy way over there.

No your specs, dude. Rule number one, probably.

We continued our stroll over to some of the smaller—call it, cozier—courts. Nothing major, tennis-wise, but you can only eat so many BBQ sandwiches, gang. Something has to eventually give during a time-killing period.

So, yeah, we did some more tennis…stuff.

The match, another doubles deal, featured Ernests Gulbis and some other players. Gulbis has a private Jet and owns Latvia, or something like that. My interest level: black socks for Christmas.

However, It would be the move that I will forever consider “That lucky move that made us look smart as hell moment of 2015.”

Yes, call it blind luck. I did, although I saw it too, so…whatever. But the match we wanted to see got moved to a smaller court, one we just happened to be sitting next to.

Big deal? Hell yes!

Part of the day mapping that goes on at Indian Wells is making sure you are at, or near, the good matches you want to see on the smaller courts. They fill up extremely quickly, and if your just finding out about them, forget it; too late.

Remember the Brooklyn Decker photo? Yeah, that great moment happened because I was unable to get in to a packed, old Stadium 2 to see the Blake-Roddick/Murray-Murray doubles match…and neither did she.

Today was different, though. We were in, gang!

We sat. The view, worked:

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It was Feliciano Lopez and Sam Groth, up against a fun pair, Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil. Mainly, I wanted to see this match for Groth’s serve—a beast that has reportedly reached 160 mph. Here’s a fuzzy, slow-motion YouTube video claiming such:

What happened, though, was something completely unexpected. It was the most-fun match of the trip, a two-setter that left me chanting, once again, for American tennis.

This time, however, it was North American tennis. The red. The white. The blue. The red. The white…eh!!

The pair’s joy—by both teams—was addictive. They had an easy-going energy, mixed with subtle humor, that made you remember how much of sports really are pure entertainment, not a history lesson. And, really, there’s nothing quite like watching good doubles. Remember that, too.

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The points were incredible. The fact a ball boy was unfazed when he was clocked with a Groth serve was even more incredible. Even though the second set didn’t hold a candle to the first-set tiebreak, the final point felt like the ending to a good movie—it was the feeling I was expecting to have when watching Serena.

But, hey, or eh, better late than never. Which, by the way, is a perfect slogan for (North) American tennis.

(Cue the snare drum and score from Rocky!)

That’s it; I’m done. If you have a waitress, tip her. If you actually stuck through both parts of this eyeball-aching ramble, I should be tipping you. Sheepishly, I thank you for reading my adventure to Indian Wells and the BNP Paribas.

We came.

We saw.

We had a good time.

For the last time…I zipped on the car.

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