BNP PARIBAS OPEN: MIDDLE SUNDAY SNAPSHOTS

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MIDDLE SUNDAY SNAPSHOTS: Wimbledon takes its middle Sunday off. It is an incredible respite – greatly cherished and much needed. Never mind that it probably costs them some money. But so what? The day off is great for their brand, and they have, it seems, almost as much money as the queen.

Having said that, let us note that there is nothing in tennis quite like middle Sunday at the BNP Paribas Open. It’s relaxed, joyous and user-friendly. Hunky guys and trim women of all ages abound. Everywhere, world-class athletes play in great gear or practice with no shirts. The grounds are a mecca for beautiful people with deep tans and eager kids who have bright futures and big tennis balls waiting to be signed. The preferred fashion statement this year is bright orange, which gives off a fluorescent glow.

This is the good life in the affluent California desert, far from the rust belt’s chill or the unwanted worries of the workplace. Okay, a slightly frantic voice on a walkie-talkie somberly informs security that, “two kids are trying to sneak in through the rose bushes by the concrete pillars.” A retired salesman from Santa Monica laughs, “Oh, my God, what a crisis! Kids trying to sneak into a sports arena! I did that in 1954 – some things never change.”

All the while, John McEnroe, wearing his blue and orange Mets cap over his silver-grey hair, heads out to practice court 4 to hit with a young blonde woman, while a 93-year-old woman – a retired University of Wisconsin music professor with a tiny black poodle on her lap – is pushed in a wheelchair to the front row of a practice court to watch Rafa Nadal practice.

Across the way, far past the big screens and inviting lawns, Tennis Channel’s Jon Wertheim is deep in thought just before the cameras are switched on. Around the corner, two twenty-somethings passionately smooch. “Get a room,” mumbles a disgruntled boy in a Federer shirt.

As the PA blares the song lyric, “I’m gonna grow old, nothing to lose,” folks flock to the Rum Chata Oasis for a stiff drink, or head up to trendy Nobu’s Restaurant, where eleven sushi chefs create their fishy delights. Smima agi and big eye asparagus rolls attract our eye. But we’re old school. For us, it’s rock shrimp and a slightly oaky chardonnay. There, at a table with a view of Stadium 2, a veteran ballgirl from Thousand Oaks shares tales of kind players – Rafa and Djokovic, and, surprisingly, Nick Kyrgios. Then she speaks of the rudest player on tour, who would cruelly never hand her his towel.

As a rising German and an aging Frenchman score wins, out on the player patio broadcaster Jim Courier munches on lunch and reviews his notes. Nearby, on a lush green soccer field, Novak Djokovic chats it up with the celebrity du jour – Iron Mike Tyson. Then he signs endless autographs and heads to what is essentially the tournament’s Green Room, where edgy players pace and stretch as their almost hapless coaches look on. Djokovic jokes with his friend and fellow No. 1 Serena Williams, then strolls by this correspondent, and offers a kind smile and a generous word of support.

After all, here spirits are high. It’s Middle Sunday in the garden – the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Venus Williams may have lost in the first round. Roger Federer is under some faraway palm tree working out. Serena, Novak and Nadal all survived curious scares, and half the women’s seeds have already toppled. Goodness, there isn’t much talk today about mysterious Latvian drugs or supposed match-fixing. Rather, breezes are warm, smiles are radiant, and the best part of our sporting life is on display.

SERENA SURVIVOR: Nothing is easy. The Serena Williams model invites concern. So often she seems to be up on a tightrope – no net in sight. Her playbook is crowded with adventures. Her second-round match today against Yulia Putinseva, a little-known Kazak with a long ponytail and a short resume, should have been a simple stroll in the garden.

But the world’s best woman player was again out of sorts. Her footwork was lethargic, her volleys found the net, she parked backhands in the alley, and was quickly broken in the first set. But she broke back to even the match at 5-5. Then she promptly was broken again – at love no less – to go down 5-6. “Where’s her mojo?” one volunteer asked her friend. One wonders, what other dominant champion so often gets off to such a slow start – or recovers with such power? Serena won the first set tie-break and then powered her way to a 7-6 (2), 6-0 win. In other words, just another day at the Williams office.

Despite his dominance and incredible consistency, No. 1 Novak Djokovic has had plenty of scares over the past year. And against the lowly-ranked American, Bjorn Fratangelo, he stumbled out of the gate. The world’s No. 149 whipped the Serb 6-2 in the first set. But no one named Bjorn has beaten the No. 1 player in the world since Borg beat John McEnroe in 1981. And Djokovic hasn’t lost to a player with a triple-digit ranking since he fell to Kevin Anderson in 2008. Plus, Djokovic has a talent to call on his experience and savvy and hang in there – or step it up if things get really dicey. He knows how to survive and escape disaster. Just ask Kevin Anderson, whom he beat at Wimbledon, Gilles Simon, whom he downed in Melbourne, Mikhail Kukushkin, whom he just beat in Davis Cup play, or Fratangelo, whom Novak came back to dismiss 2-6, 6-1, 6-2.

MS. SERENA, ACE REPORTER: When asked if she was ready for this year’s tournament, Serena responded, “I’ve been playing professional tennis for over 20 years. If I’m not tournament ready now, then I’m never going to be. It’s time to think of other jobs. Maybe I can become a reporter.” The comment prompted veteran writer Art Spander to quip that with her money, “Maybe Williams should buy the paper.”

A SERENA WILLIAMS READER: After her win, Serena commented on much in the game and her life.

  • On Having a Child: “I could, actually. I have had time off where I could have had a little Rena running around. Baby Rena…she’d like tacos.”
  • On Her Studies: “I’m studying biology/kinesiology…My goal is pre-med. I want to focus on holistic medicine, because…of what my sister went through…I feel like fruits and vegetables and the earth can really heal people [of] all kinds of ailments…I like learning natural ways to take care of inflammation or your heart or your liver…I’ve had a lot of illnesses. Living with Venus [I had to] change my diet because I couldn’t bring crap in the house. So I was on the same journey. I felt good, and I had never experienced that before [Editor’s Note: Serena and Venus once endorsed McDonald’s]…One day I hope to have a family. I want to know a lot about medicine in case something happens. So definitely not professionally, but just to…have knowledge.”
  • On Indian Wells and the Support She’s Getting: “[The fans] just started cheering. I’m not used to that, because everywhere I go a lot of people cheer for the underdog.

So here they cheer for me, which is such a good feeling. There are a lot of places I go where people cheer for me. But this is one of the places I would have never thought stuck out. Do I wish I’d come earlier? I can’t say I do. I think everything happened at the right time. I had to be in the right mind frame, and I had to be not only mentally ready, but ready in my heart to come back.”

  • On Again Meeting Boxer Mike Tyson: “He’s always been really soft-spoken. He’s also really kind and someone that really seems to care a lot.”
  • On Being Such a Winner: “[Having] 21 Grand Slams behind my name…makes me feel good.”