Photo by Michael Kheir

Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh

Indian Wells

ANIMALS AND TENNIS – AN UNAUTHORIZED HISTORY: You never know what’s going to happen in sports. And today, as a fierce swarm of bees delayed the Carlos Alcaraz vs. Alexander Zverev match for 1:48, it dawned upon us why Indian Wells has long been called the “Bee”NP Paribas Open. 

Tommy Paul was asked jokingly, “Do you have a beekeeper on your support team?” And we recalled that just a week ago that we began one of our posts by writing, “Be here now. There’s no other better place to be than here in Indian Wells.”

The hero today wasn’t Coco Gauff, Tommy Paul or Alcaraz, who all advanced to the semis. Rather it was the bee whisperer Lance Davis, the courageous owner of “Killer Bee Live Removal,” whose mission is “the safe and humane removal of bees without harming or killing them.”

This wasn’t the first time Mother Nature has impacted an Alcaraz match at Indian Wells. His semifinal against Rafa two years ago was played during a howling sandstorm. Indian Wells observers also recalled a plague-like infestation of moths almost a decade ago, as well as assorted wind and rain storms. 

At another tournament, bees forced the postponement of a Petra Kvitova match in Guadalajara. Flying ants once descended on Wimbledon and floods inundated the US Open. A Tommy Haas match at the Miami Open was halted due to a rebel iguana. A sprinting buffalo broke into a Maryland court. Birds fell from the sky due to a heat wave at the Australian Open, and crickets derailed a Jim Courier–Yannik Noah exhibition. 

Once, at Wimbledon, a slightly panicked Caroline Wozniacki complained, “There are bugs in my mouth, in my hair and everywhere – we need to do something. Is there a spray? I wanted to be here focusing on tennis, not eating bugs.” 

One of Jamie Murray’s shots killed a sparrow, and a Michael Llodra serve destroyed a little house martin. 

Birds pooped on Lindsay Davenport and on Reilly Opelka’s hat. 

Of course, Spain’s Aranxta Sanchez Vicario was known as “the Spanish Bumble Bee,” and while Stan “the Stanimal” Wawrinka may have the best animal nickname ever, Aryna Sabalenka’s tiger tattoo is said to be the the best animal tattoo in the sport. And naturally, today we couldn’t help thinking of Muhammad Ali, who long ago revealed his secret: “Float like a butterfly – sting like a bee.” 

Alcaraz would explain that he “saw some bees around, but I thought it was just a few of them…But 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. I tried to stay away from them, but it was impossible…I’m a little bit afraid of them. I had to stay safe, and was running everywhere.

So he and Zverev made a beeline for the locker room, which gave us plenty of time to reflect on the impact of animals on tennis.

While Venus Williams observed a while ago, “This old cat has a few tricks left in the bag,” and Juan Martin Del Potro was described as just “a big teddy bear,” Cliff Drysdale suggested that, “Justine Henin is a sparrow of a girl, but she’s got the heart of a lion.”

Still, we suggest that amongst the ATP menagerie, Novak Djokovic is the closest to the animal world. The GOAT not only claimed that his dog Pierre is gluten free, he compared himself to a wolf, who “is hungrier when he’s running up a hill than when he’s at the top. All the guys [are] fighting each week…to get to No. 1…I can’t allow myself to relax.” 

After meeting the uber-competitive Djokovic, the late Kobe Bryant compared himself to Novak, observing, “Different animal, same beast.” When Sam Querrey upset Novak at Wimbledon, the American’s coach, Craig Boynton, explained how: “Sometimes a blind squirrel finds a nut.” 

Reflecting on the unusual gift a Swiss tourney gave him, Federer said, “It’s nice to have a cow. It’s such a quiet animal, and so big.”

Not surprisingly, player analyses have long relied on references to animals. Once, when John Isner was feeling the heat, Lenox Rawlings said, “He’s a cooked stork staggering under the broiling sun.” When Maria Sharapova had a cold, Ben Rothenberg said she sounded “yelpier than usual, like a Bichon Frise when the postman comes.” Simon Cambers once suggested that Aussie Daria Gavrilova was “as mad as a box of frogs.”

In a similar vein, tennis instruction has its animalistic side too. When talking about the importance of having a relaxed arm, broadcaster Paul Annacone said, “It’s like you’re holding a pigeon. You want your arm to be soft and elastic.” 

Spain’s beloved big bull Rafa Nadal referred to a small bird when he said, “A tennis player must take his example from the hummingbird, the only animal that combines endless stamina with high speed, able to manage up to eight wing flaps per second over four hours.” When she left the game, Li Na’s message to Chinese women was, “Be the bird that sticks out.”

And, when it comes to animal commentaries, we will always appreciate the informative Mary Carillo, who told us, “Koalas are stoned on eucalyptus all day long.”

DREAMS COME TRUE: Saturday, the BNP Paribas Open will feature a battle between the game’s two sublime rising stars, the recently undefeated Jannik Sinner and Indian Wells’ defending champion, Carlos Alacaraz.

HE COVERS THE WORLD: Jim Courier recalled Mark Petchey’s claim: “Seventy-two percent of the earth is covered with water and Carlos Alacaraz covers the rest. He’s just a roadrunner.”

‘HEY, YOU LOOK LIKE A-RUB-A-LEV:’ San Francisco 49ers Coach Bill Walsh wanted to lighten up the mood of his team just before the Super Bowl in Detroit in 1982. So he dressed up as a bellman and greeted the team as they got off their bus. It was hilarious. Everyone relaxed, and then they went on to beat the Bengals. 

Last week, Indian Wells officials thought it would be fun to send a cadre of players out and about pretending to be tournament staffers. 

So, out in the parking lot, we saw Aussie Alex de Minaur pretending to be a control freak parking attendant as he told one customer after another, “Closer, closer, closer, a few inches more…closer, closer, closer. Now back it up a few inches more.” He then complimented one customer, “Great job. What artistry!” 

Then, just inside the entrance, Russian Andrey Rublev appeared as a disheveled security guard with a ‘tude and a wand. One Asian fan told him, “You look like A-Rub-Lev.” He said, “I don’t look like him at all. I don’t like him.” 

Another fan claimed, “I know who you are. You’re Sinner!” 

Then there was Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, who was handing out maps, not of the world, but of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Fans quickly realized who the popular icon was. “I think you do great things for tennis,” said one. Another fan gushed, “I’m so happy to see you. I’m starstruck.”

Meanwhile, an insecure Maria Sakkari apologized for being such a bad popcorn vendor. She explained, “It’s my first day on the job.” 

All the while, in one of the retail stores that are very much a part of the Indian Wells landscape, a 6”6’ cashier tried to hide his identity – but it didn’t quite work. Some asked, “Are you Daniil Medvedev’s brother?” Most others realized right off the bat that it was the appealing Russian.

LAST AMERICAN MAN STANDING: For the fourth straight year, an American man will be in an Indian Wells semi. No. 12 seed Tommy Paul suffered a crushing loss at the Australian Open, but he’s rebounded brilliantly. The Dallas Open champ and Delray Beach finalist has had an impressive early season. Today, Paul scored his first top ten win since August, when he beat No. 9 seed Casper Ruud 6-2, 1-6, 6-3. The Jersey native, who’ll meet either Daniil Medvedev or Holger Rune in the semis, said, “Sometimes the painful losses are what you need.”

BTW: Paul is a student of vintage tennis matches. He loves the backhand of the former Swedish champion, Stefan Edberg. He said it’s his “favorite shot in tennis.”

PEACE BREAKS OUT IN THE DESERT: Holger Rune has had spats with Stan Wawrinka, and Casper Ruud got into it with Daniil Medevedev, who loves to stir the milkshake. The Russian took offense when, in tonight’s quarterfinal, Rune blasted a point blank shot right at his torso. But after a lively exchange, peace broke out in the desert. 

DAVIS CUP DISAPPOINTMENT: Once again, North and South America won’t be hosting any of the Davis Cup Group Finals matchups in September. They’ll be in Bologna, Manchester, Valencia and Zhuhai, China. 

NO GO, NOVAK: Novak Djokovic, who was upset by No. 123 Luca Nardi, still hasn’t won a tournament this year, and has decided to pull out of the Miami Open.

COLLINS AWARD TO DICKSON: The BNP Paribas Open’s Bud Collins Media Award went to Britain’s late Mike Dickson, who was at the forefront of British tennis journalism for decades.



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