INDIAN WELLS – The fans were packed into every nook and cranny around the Practice Court 1 and 2 area Tuesday evening well ahead of the appointed hour, waiting for their first glimpse of Roger Federer in two years.
The lineup extended right to the end of the fan corral area adjacent to the player’s field with the overflow hoping that if they couldn’t catch Federer practicing, they could at least hope to see him and get an autograph as he made his way across the field and into the players’ lounge.
Federer never showed. The fans did get the man formerly known as “Baby Fed”, Grigor Dimitrov, who did entertain then. But no substitute would do.
It isn’t unusual for players to book practice courts and be no-shows. Indeed, once last year Novak Djokovic fans wanted two solid hours for their favourite to make his date, only to be disappointed. Rafael Nadal was scheduled to practice Tuesday, but he cancelled because he was feeling the effects of a virus.
But then – suddenly – the crowd migrated left at a good clip, word having spread that Federer would indeed finally arrive – but all the way over at Stadium 3.
That wasn’t a realistic ask; first one section behind the court was filled to capacity. Then, finally, the stands on the side behind where the players’ chairs are was jammed as well with Federer fans who applauded his every move. The lower section close to the court was closed off; only two photographers were even allowed in.
It’s hard to know what prompted Federer’s desire for privacy (let’s face it, he likes having people watching him play), but it has not been a rare occurrence of late.
Three times in the closing stages of the Australian Open, Federer went to practice on the enclosed, and private, Margaret Court Arena. Even the broadcast rights holders, who pay a lot of money for this type of access, were barred from coming in to shoot for a few minutes. It was generally thought back then that Federer was dealing with some sort of groin or upper-leg injury, and he didn’t want his opponents or the media to get evidence of it.
His traveling band of fans, who come equipped with flags, banners and well-wishing posters and set up on his usual Court 17 at Melbourne Park, were left out in the cold.
So what to make of this? Has Federer simply tired of the masses who just want to see him hit tennis balls? That’s hard to imagine. Is there perhaps another injury reason he’d prefer to have some privacy? Perhaps we’ll find out when he plays his first-round match on the weekend. (Monday, the Swiss star practiced inside the main Stadium, which is closed off to fans; Novak Djokovic was in there Tuesday evening so it wasn’t available).
Federer had booked Practice Court 1, which is the main court with the most stands around it. He had options: he could have waited for the stadium court, or even the Stadium 2 court, once the qualifying matches were over. He could have booked Court 8 or 9 and had it closed off, the way Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova often have. Or he even could have practiced off-site; surely he could have persuaded another player to make the trip to hit with him.
So it was all very strange. The main thing, though, was that in the end the fans were rewarded for their patience, and far more of them got a good view of him even if the practice itself was pretty ragged.
Federer looked to be moving well enough, but he was spraying balls all over the place. You don’t often see him shadow swing after missing a ground stroke, or even replay the stroke as he sends a ball back over to the other side. But he did that repeatedly during this session.