Mohammed Layanhi

Pacific Life Open: What the Fans Don’t Get to See

Debra covered the 2008 Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells for TennisGrandStand. In this second part in a three-part series of her reports from the tournament, Debra gives a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of the media center.

Something about coming back to a familiar place instantly puts me at ease. Knowing where to go, what to do, and how to do it is comforting. But going somewhere familiar in a different capacity changes everything. So when I stepped onto the grounds for the 2008 Pacific Life Open as a member of the Media for the first time, in some ways it was as if I had never been there before.

In years past, I would get to the grounds early each day, but I would still not be able to get into the gate before all the other fans. But with a media credential, I could pretty much come and go as I wanted. Getting to the grounds before the gates opened gave a totally different picture that I had never seen before. Marat Safin, the first player I saw upon my entry on Friday morning, ambled past me without any security. Even Roger Federer could take the court for his 10am practice without the need for security. Somehow, it felt as though the players knew that the gates weren’t open yet, and they were savoring those last few minutes of “safety” before the hordes were let loose upon them.

So when I got there on Friday, my first day covering the event, I had no idea what to do. The day before when I picked up my credential, the kind older man showed me where the media entrance was. I went into the media area and saw a desk. Hooray, someone to answer my questions! She asks where I’m from, I tell her I’m with TennisGrandStand, and she hands me a booklet: ten dollars in meal coupons for the player/media cafeteria each day… excellent. In this small room, there is a large Coke fridge with hundreds of cans, a water cooler and a couple of folding tables, one with coffee and a TV showing the stadium and the other with donuts and healthier snacks like apples and bananas.

To the left of the room there is a small almost-hidden staircase that leads up to where the magic really happens, the media room. There is a reception area, with all of the necessary information – the draws for each tour, the order of play, tournament programs, other tennis-related magazines, a file folder with all of the interview transcripts, and a stack of clippings from the night before written by people covering the event. Behind the desk, an older, inviting woman decked out in hundreds of tennis pins from around the world asked if I needed anything. I admitted to her that I had no idea what to do. Since I was intent on covering the event “from the ground” (as you read about in Part One of my reports), I didn’t request a desk or locker; I knew if I brought my laptop up there that I’d miss great tennis if I spent time on it. I wanted to be out there covering the event like a fan, to give the best view. To do that, I needed to not spend much time in the media center.

The pinned woman kindly showed me around the media room. The media room is a long skinny hectic place. Little computer stations are everywhere – at each one is a phone and TV that seemed to get a variety of cable stations (I saw someone watching the Food Network…). There must be close to 100 Along the right side of the room, there is a bar of sorts with a great corner view onto the stadium. Outside some doors is the “Press balcony,” where members of the press go out to watch stadium matches.

After my little orientation, I took a seat outside the player/media cafeteria in a lovely covered section so that I could jot down some notes. A few tables over, Richard Gasquet sat with his coach Eric Deblicker, who lit a cigarette and looked rather aloof. Players, coaches, player guests, other members of the press, tournament officials, started whizzing by. Being a part of the press is definitely different. As I went to Stadium 3 to see some tennis, I found the media seating. Four seats right at the edge of the box seats area were reserved for the Media. Let’s just say that in four days, I am the only media person who I ever saw sitting in a “Media Only” seat. But more about that in Part Three of my reports.Novak Djokovic Press Conference Friday 3/14/2008

I figured a good way to indoctrinate myself to what being a part of the media was like would be to attend some pre-tournament press conferences. First up was Novak Djokovic at 12:30pm. Members of the media started arriving in the interview room right on time. Djokovic was a few minutes late. Sitting in the front row, Matt Cronin of tennisreporters.net was whining about Djokovic’s tardiness and I could not help but wonder what the big deal was about waiting ten minutes. So Djokovic finally enters a couple of minutes later and the questions pretty much just start coming the moment he sits down.

Fans get to read all the questions and answers in the transcripts that are released at big tournaments. But what fans don’t get is the little side comments that aren’t included in the transcripts and the facial reactions of the players. Near the beginning of Djokovic’s press conference, someone who clearly – like myself – had not attended many press conferences in the past asked a rather ridiculous question:

Q. Who would you like to play in the finals?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Excuse me?

Q. Who would you like to play in the finals?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: I think it’s still a long way to finals. Still playing first round. Second round, actually. I won’t talk about the finals yet.

What the transcript doesn’t evoke is the look on Djokovic’s face, and the chuckling amongst the more experienced media that someone would have the gall to ask something so dumb.

Roddick looks in disbelief But this was nothing compared to what happened a few hours later. Andy Roddick, pretty much right on time for his 4:30pm press conference, bounded in and started answering questions immediately. While Roddick’s stellar press conference performances are well-known, I don’t think any of us have ever seen anything like this (do watch, if you haven’t seen it already). Thankfully for all of us, it’s crystallized on video for all to experience, because the transcript would never do this justice. Of course, what that video does not capture is the aftermath. Despite the fact that the press conference continued on without drama, the air contained a distinct buzz, as if all hell could break loose at any moment, even though it didn’t.

Afterwards though, the young woman who somehow procured a Media credential, had to face her actions. The head of the Media Center, a very kind and busy young man who spent most of his time running between the media center, interview room, and press balcony like a controlled chicken with his head cut off, spent some time speaking to this woman about what she had done. He’s not stupid: anyone who runs a big tournament knows full well that the cooperation and support of the US’s #1 player is vital. Not that Roddick seemed upset in any way, but you can see his point. A professional press conference is no place for, quite bluntly, an idiotic fangirl who somehow got in there. Anyway, she got quite a talking-to. To be fair, it seems she meant no harm, but clearly did not ponder the effects of her actions or realize that this kind of thing was tactless and unacceptable.

Unfortunately, my three remaining days at the tournament did not provide this same kind of drama. But I still have some things to share.

The press balcony gives a fantastic view of the Stadium Court. I watched bits and pieces ofView of the Stadium from the Press Box several matches there over the days – some men, some women. It’s a little hard to tell when balls are flying out, but it’s excellent for watching spins and speed of the ball as well as players’ movement and court placement. The only thing missing from the press balcony was… well… members of the press. But more about that to come in Part Three of my series. The thing about the press balcony – and I do feel that anyone with any common sense would realize this – is that it’s supposed to be an unbiased area. It doesn’t look good if members of the media and press are cheering for a player. So, during Andy Roddick’s second round upset to Tommy Haas, a nice enough local photographer covering the event for a Palm Springs area magazine was screaming and loudly whistling for Roddick; it was one of those whistles that in between serves when it’s quiet and one spectator makes a loud cheering noise from way up in the stands, you can hear on TV. He did not understand why he was not allowed to cheer and why the Press Box was supposed to remain an impartial area. I’m not even really sure how to explain something like that.

One of the most interesting things to me is how “out in the open” the players are at Indian Wells. Their outdoor eating/relaxing/warmup spaces are all in plain view of throngs of fans. It is not like this at other tournaments I have been to. I was catching some tennis (an exciting match between Fernando Gonzalez and Mario Ancic) on the TV in the player/media cafeteria; Nicolas Massu was there with his team, watching his friend; when Gonzalez lost, Massu left. Later, Mario Ancic and his team sat at the next table over. They ate their meal just like any normal group of people would, all the while a member of the media was sitting with them chatting. The beloved umpire Mohammed Layanhi came and sat down at the next table over, and what ensued was quite interesting. After normal friendly greetings, Layanhi started complaining to Ancic about something that happened during the David Nalbandian/Ernests Gulbis match that he had just finished umpiring. I couldn’t help but find this scene bizarre. Aren’t the umpires supposed to be completely impartial, and is it really proper behavior for an ump to complain to one tour player about the actions of another? it seems to me not, but the two didn’t act like this was abnormal interaction. After Ancic and his team left, Layanhi commented to the reporter that Ancic was “one of the tour’s good guys” – again, I found this fairly surprising behavior for one of the sport’s top umpires. Donald Young Press Conference

The free entrance, parking, and meal tickets aside, the most fascinating and valuable aspect of attending a tournament as a member of the media is that I got the wonderful opportunity to see these players as the normal people that they are. They hang out with their family, they read, they eat, they relax, they chat, and they support their friends; they just happen to be blessed with a particular talent and have a high-profile job that attracts Beatles-esque fan hysteria. This was no more apparent than in Donald Young’s press conference on Monday; he had just lost a match to Rafael Nadal. It was his first match on a huge stadium against one of the game’s big big stars. Young gets a bad rap sometimes for saying arrogant things and for not always being that tactful. But this day in his press conference, he was humble, thoughtful, articulate, and good-humored.

I hope this has given you a bit of a better idea of what it’s like behind-the-scenes at a major tennis tournament. Unfortunately, some of what I saw was very discouraging in terms of how the tennis executives and media relate to the fans and the sport. I will address that in my third and final part of the report.