We’d come here for the tennis, the desert, the food and some serious pool time. Outside the four majors, this event has no rivals; there are ample opportunities to rub elbows with the pros and an oasis of experiences waiting off the courts.
Federer’s appearance meant canceling dinner for two and staying up late with a few thousand others bent on capturing the near-equivalent of a sporting eclipse. As Wall Street Journal sports columnist Jason Gay has described it: “Seeing Federer has become a sport’s obsessive pilgrimage, like seeing a religious icon, or the Grateful Dead.”
So there we found ourselves — the Fed-heads, so to speak — crowded six deep around a practice court, peering over shoulders and through the slats of a chain-link fence for a glimpse of tennis’s greatest champion. Some of those blocking our view said that they had been waiting four hours. Keep in mind that this was for a warm-up, a practice set or two.
After 20 minutes of waiting, the practice match was moved to a larger stadium court to accommodate the crowd. Federer crushed shots from the baseline, his one-handed backhands neutralizing his opponent.
“I love you, Roger,” a woman sang out, speaking for all of us.
A desert playground
A century ago, Palm Springs remained an unincorporated village of a few thousand residents. The automobile’s advent helped establish it as a way station between Los Angeles and points east, from Phoenix to El Paso and beyond.
The Hollywood crowd discovered the city in the 1920s and 1930s, seeking a getaway near enough to film lots to meet studio demands. Golf courses sprouted, as did palm-lined boulevards. The surrounding communities expanded as well, with soothing names such as Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City and Indian Wells (where the BNP Paribas Open is played).
By 1947, as the post-World War II economy sizzled, the Rat Pack made Palm Springs party central. Frank Sinatra wanted a Colonial-revival house there in 1947, but architect E. Stewart Williams talked him into an avant-garde style of clean lines and simplicity that Palm Springs has since become synonymous with: midcentury modern.
“It was more about fun than function,” guide Michael Stern told us on a small-group architectural tour. “Palm Springs’s whole goal is to provide pleasure — there is nothing here other than tourism.”
Over the course of 2½ hours, Stern ushered us through a time machine’s doorway and into the world of Sinatra, Dinah Shore and William Holden. We walked through the Edris House (asking price: $4.2 million), built in 1954, with its original Thermador double oven and a collectible Barbie edition based on Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
The low, horizontal architecture, playing off the verticality of the surrounding mountains, remains in vogue. We also toured two small developments based on 1950s styles, their yards devoid of greenery — just rocks and colorful swaths of recycled rubber.
The desert never feels very far away, even amid the battalions of palm trees standing sentinel over the urban area, and we ventured there twice.
We spent most of a day on our own exploring Joshua Tree National Park, where the twisted trees and jumbled piles of sand-colored boulders compete for attention. We clambered over some of the least intimidating ones and watched as experienced climbers scaled steeper walls.
The next morning, we piled into an open-air Jeep for a guided tour of the San Andreas Fault. Guide Les Rude conjured the desert to life in small ways: rooting in the sand to find the small shells demonstrating that this was long ago a seabed; crumbling the leaves of a creosote bush to release its earthy smell; stripping an arrow weed to show how Native Americans once could have fashioned an arrow’s shaft.
Best of all was exiting the Jeep and exploring a slot canyon, the twisted walls squeezing us on either side. Even after a walk through an oasis of palms, it was hard to imagine how the Cahuilla Indians coaxed an existence from this rugged terrain.
Nightlife for all lives
After dark, two very different sides of Palm Springs come out to play: One endearingly rooted in the area’s 1950s heyday, and another quickly evolving for a younger crowd.
Stern, our architectural guide, described one of the timeless haunts, the Casablanca Lounge at Melvyn’s , this way: “There’s a ferocious singles scene there for the over-80 set, and it peaks about 8 p.m.”
With that in mind, my wife and I braved a Sunday-night drink there. Between the low lighting, the tiny tables and mirrored walls I could almost see the vestiges of cigarette smoke circling toward the ceiling. When “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” escaped from the grand piano, the illusion of decades past became complete.
On another evening, the hip side of Palm Springs came through courtesy of a quick drink at Seymour’s, a cozy bar where mezcal shines in bartender Kevin Carlow’s inventive cocktails, such as “La Rubia” and “Oaxacan Brunch.” Later, we joined a mostly 30-something crowd at Workshop Kitchen + Bar, a paean to freshness and complementary flavors, such as Brussels sprouts communing with apples and pears, and salt-spring mussels joining a house-made merguez sausage.
Just as the desert seems inescapable, during the tournament’s two-week run, the game’s stars are easy to spot in and around town. About the time dessert arrived at the Adobe Grill, we spied Lindsay Davenport — a former top player who now is an announcer and coach — at a neighboring table.
Want to interact with the stars? At the Taste of Tennis Indian Wells, we rubbed elbows with 2004 U.S. Open winner Svetlana Kuznetsova and top-10-ranked Johanna Konta over small bites from local celebrity chefs.
Want to play with the pros? At Tennis With the Stars, a celebrity pro-am benefit, I took the court — briefly — with and against Wimbledon 2014 finalist Eugenie Bouchard and others. It was difficult not to notice that emerging star Taylor Fritz had been hitting the ball a whole lot harder during a tournament practice session earlier that day. Just about the time my awe began to fade, Madison Keys restored it with a seemingly impossible cross-court screamer past me.
The exhibition is held at the Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa, an ideal tennis home base with its spa-treatment recoveries from preceding evenings, arranged matches on the 25 on-site courts, and tuneup lessons and clinics with a pro from Cliff Drysdale Tennis.
During one such clinic, I asked a fellow Canadian participant, Robert, what had brought him all the way from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
“What else?” he said. “I’m here to play a little tennis and watch a little tennis.”
With those words ringing in my ears, we drove to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the newly renovated complex of stadiums, greenery, restaurants and practice courts where the tournament is played.
Brushes with fame
As huge as it is — 54 landscaped acres and the world’s second-largest tennis stadium — the event site invites an intimacy in the early rounds that is reminiscent of baseball’s spring training.
Entry is free for the first two days of qualifying rounds, and crowds are pretty sparse. We grabbed courtside seats and saw Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo trade deuces with American Grace Min and mutter “vamos, vamos” (let’s go, let’s go) on her way to set point and the win.
We watched German Tatjana Maria score a victory, sign six balls and hit them into the crowd, then exit the court smiling with her 3-year-old daughter Charlotte firmly perched on the shoulders of her coach and husband, Charles Edouard Maria.
We listened as former world
No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, who returned to the top ranking after winning the Australian Open in January, got on-court tips from her father and coach, Piotr, in Polish. And we waited, with these other bright lights blotted from the firmament, for one player to arrive.
We love you, Roger.
Pulaski is a writer based in Portland, Ore.
More from Travel:
If you go
Where to stay
Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa
41000 Bob Hope Dr., Rancho Mirage
This sprawling, Spanish Colonial-style resort has lots of amenities, from 27 holes of golf to a 25-court tennis center and a 20,000-square foot spa. The Splashtopia water playground and lazy river kept our daughter and a friend happily occupied. The 444 rooms are set on 240 acres of greenery. Rooms from $219.
Where to eat
Workshop Kitchen + Bar
800 N. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs
It’s busy, it’s loud and it’s amazing, especially in the courtyard under the stars and an olive tree on a warm evening. Since its 2011 opening, chef and owner Michael Beckman’s take on fresh ingredients has transformed the area’s food scene. Try a buttery smooth rib-eye steak or the piping-hot mussels with merguez sausage. Appetizers from $9, main dishes from $32.
Pappy & Harriet’s
53688 Pioneertown Rd., Pioneertown
Still going strong after more than 35 years, this iconic music venue and roadhouse is hard to find but worth the trouble. It’s set in a one-time Old West movie set, known as Pioneertown. Sip your iced tea from a Mason jar and dig into a grass-fed beef burger. Lunch items start at $9.
Wilma & Frieda
73575 El Paseo Dr., Suite 2310, Palm Desert
Breakfast is the name of the game here, and just reading the menu provokes a Pavlovian response: Kim’s banana caramel French toast; Bernie’s chile verde with pork; the brie omelet. Open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Main dishes start at $8.
Adobe Grill (at La Quinta Resort & Club)
49-499 Eisenhower Dr., La Quinta
Handmade flour tortillas, deep-fried empanadas, guacamole and salsa made tableside — this is chef Marco Aguilar’s authentic Mexican food in a tony setting. Linger over an artful dessert, such as mole (the Mexican sauce, not the tunneler) ice cream. Open for dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. nightly. Main dishes start at $17.
Babe’s Bar-B-Que & Brewhouse
71800 Hwy. 111, Rancho Mirage
Ready for ribs? Pick between St. Louis baby backs or boneless beef short ribs, and follow them up with tangy coleslaw and a crisp Honey Blonde Ale. Lunch entrees start at $14.
What to do
BNP Paribas Open
At the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, 78-200 Miles Ave., Indian Wells
Dates for this premier tennis tournament this year are March 5 to 18. On both the men’s and women’s sides, tickets become scarce and pricey from the quarterfinals on. Consider visiting early in the tournament instead, as the first two days of qualifying are free. After that, tickets run from $20 to $950.
Joshua Tree National Park
74485 National Park Dr., Twentynine Palms
Annual visitorship to this scenic desert wonderland of jumbled boulders and its namesake yucca plant crossed the threshold of 2 million for the first time in 2015. Top sights include Hidden Valley, the Cholla Cactus Garden and Skull Rock. Entrance fee is $25 per vehicle, good for seven days.
The Modern Tour
This very personal, small-group tour by author Michael Stern lasts about 2½ hours and runs the gamut from 1950s-era structures to new model homes based on original designs. Stern changes the lineup based on availability, such as when a historic home is up for sale. Cost is $175 per person.
San Andreas Fault Jeep Tour by Desert Adventures
74-794 Lennon Pl., Suite B, Palm Desert
The harsh and twisted landscape along this renowned earthquake fault line makes for fascinating viewing, especially when brought to life by a guide versed in geology, botany and Native American history. The four-wheel-drive adventure in an open-air jeep includes hotel pickup. Adults $139; children ages 11 and younger $114.
Citi Taste of Tennis Indian Wells
At the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort & Spa
44600 Indian Wells Lane, Indian Wells
The annual evening mixer features tastings from local star chefs and the opportunity to mingle with tennis celebrities. The event is scheduled for March 5. Tickets start at $200.
Tennis with the Stars
At the Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa
41000 Bob Hope Dr., Rancho Mirage
This March 6 event draws a handful of up-and-coming and established tennis stars for a pro-am exhibition benefiting the nonprofit organization ACEing Autism. Tickets start at $50.