By Anuj Nadadur and Vinay Venkatesh
They come from Los Angeles, Fremont, and Wichita. Some hail from New York, and others from as far away as New Delhi. For two weeks in March of 2022, the Indian diaspora—a growing and diverse community of Indians, Indian Americans, and others with roots in the subcontinent—thronged into the appropriately named Indian Wells Tennis Garden to watch their favorite players compete at the BNP Paribas Open.
For many, this tournament is a wonderful opportunity to get up-close and personal with their favorite stars. Although it is an incredibly popular tournament, the grounds are often not nearly as crowded as the Grand Slams.
“I was right next to Carlos Alcaraz,” says Kamal Suprabhas, who, along with his friend Sohel Ahmed, drove down to Indian Wells from Santa Clara, and watched Alcaraz practice on the intimate Practice Court 7 before his semifinal match against Rafael Nadal. “There is no way we would get this close to them during the matches. We even tried to take a selfie with [Alcaraz] when he came back around after finishing. This is a future World Number 1 right there!”
“He was practicing with a former World Number 1 too,” added Ahmed, who pointed out that Alcaraz is coached by former Spanish Grand Slam Champion Juan Carlos Ferrero.
“I have been here at least four times if I remember right. This is a wonderful tournament,” said Dhaval Shah of Northern California, who is originally from Mumbai, India. “For me, I feel like a kid in a candy shop each time I come to Indian Wells.”
It is not just the players and the environment that draws the fans, however, it is also the geography. Although Indian Americans make up only about 1.4 % of the population of the United States, they are concentrated in certain states, with California among them. Drawn by warmer temperatures and the engineering jobs in the Silicon Valley, there are over 400,000 Indian Americans in California. Telugu is the fastest growing language in the United States. And three of the oldest Indian American communities in this country are located in California: Stockton, Yuba City, and Imperial County. This means that a vast Indian and Indian American population lives at the doorstep of the BNP Paribas Open.
94-year old Mohindar Singh Sandhu is a living example of the extent to which the history of Indian Americans intersects with the tennis at the BNP Paribas Open. Sandhu, who hails from a village near Jalandhar and whose father served as a soldier in World War I, relocated to Canada as a teenager, and attended the University of British Columbia, where he started playing tennis.
He then settled in Newport Beach, where he founded a major research company, and became a regular attendee of the BNP Paribas Open and its predecessors. He and his wife, Harriet Sandhu, have been attending the tournament every year for the past 40 years.
“We bought a house here in La Quinta several years ago just so I could attend the Indian Wells tournament,” confessed Sandhu, a self-described die-hard tennis fan. “I used to have access to a suite at the tournament site, and then I had two seats at courtside, so I could watch tennis, but then take a break from the heat every now and then.”
Sandhu’s home in La Quinta is a tribute to the BNP Paribas Open, its walls adorned with paintings of Maria Sharapova, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer.
Paintings of Federer, Nadal, and Sharapova at the Sandhu household
“Of all the players that I have seen play at this tournament over the years, Bjorn Borg is my favorite,” Sandhu said. “His style of play looked like some of the modern guys today.” Of the Indian talent, Sandhu picks Vijay Amritraj as the most talented he has seen. He marveled at Amritraj’s accuracy. “He could just pick a spot on the court, and the ball would land right there.”
There is little doubt that the geography at the BNP Paribas Open places it in close proximity to many people in the Indian diaspora, Sandhu included. But this geography is not just about proximity. The tournament is well-known for its picturesque and tranquil surroundings, an environment that has given rise to the tournament’s nickname “Tennis Paradise.”
“Who wouldn’t want to come here? It is just so beautiful, and the sunsets around the courts are magnificent” exclaimed Suresh Ravi of Fremont, who attended his first BNP Paribas Open in a couple years in 2022, after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 tournament and forced the 2021 tournament to be played in October.
This year was particularly meaningful for many of the fans with roots in the subcontinent because one of the most decorated tennis players from India, Sania Mirza, announced in January that 2022 would be her final season on tour. Mirza—a six-time Grand Slam winner in doubles, a former World Number 1 in doubles, and a doubles champion at the BNP Paribas Open in 2011 and 2015—was a major draw for some of the Indian fans.
“It’s very difficult to know that it’s Sania’s last year,” said Shah. “I have always watched her at the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford when she played with [Bethanie] Mattek-Sands. I watched them play with my mom who loves tennis too. Sania even gave me a blue colored Adidas headband here at Indian Wells. I think she notices me each time I go to her matches and cheer for her. I hope just like Tom Brady in the NFL, Sania makes a quick comeback from her retirement!”
Mirza and her partner, Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium, ultimately lost in the Round of 16 to the pair of Guiliana Olmos and Gabriela Dabrowksi, but this was not before enthralling a packed arena with some incredible tennis.On the men’s doubles side, fans were excited to see veteran Indian star Rohan Bopanna, who has teamed with Denis Shapovalov at several BNP Paribas Opens. This year, the pair fell to Édouard Roger-Vasselin and Santiago Gonzalez in the Round of 16, but not before bringing together fans from India and Canada.
Srinivas Yendru (Srini) and his 15 year old son Avi Yendru, who hail from Wichita, Kansas, were delighted to join the India-Canada chants throughout the match. “We loved the match. Just wish our guys won,” said Avi. Speaking of tennis in general, Srini said “Our family is involved a lot in tennis as we host players from around the world during the annual Wichita State University pro tennis competition. I just love coming [to Indian Wells].” 2022 is the second year in a row that Srini is attending the BNP Paribas Open. The father-son duo did not leave disappointed as Avi ultimately got an autograph from Andrey Rublev after he defeated Francis Tiafoe in the Round of 32.
Aside from the practice court, the BNP Paribas Open creates ample opportunities for fans to interact directly with their favorite players. “Audi was organizing a player-fan event and Rohan Bopanna was invited to play table tennis with fans. I was very excited to hit with him. I didn’t try really hard to beat him,” Shah joked, when describing his experience from the 2021 BNP Paribas tournament.
Players often stick around at the grounds, even after they have been eliminated from the tournament, in a true testament to the beautiful environment and top-notch facilities. This means that fans see players practicing even after they are out of the tournament.
“I saw Bopanna running a tennis clinic for some younger players this morning,” said Suprabhas, just before heading to Stadium 1 to watch the men’s semifinal match between Taylor Fritz and Andrey Rublev.
The broader Indian diaspora is reflected in the players as well. Rajeev Ram, who was born in the United States to parents from Bangalore, competed at the BNP Paribas Open in 2022 with long-time partner Joe Salisbury of Great Britain. The duo has achieved Grand Slam glory and a number of enviable tennis accolades. Ram also previously won the BNP Paribas Open doubles title in 2017 with Raven Klaasen of South Africa.
Ram is embraced by Indians and Indian Americans alike. There are often Indian and American flags prominently displayed in the audience at his matches. During the tournament, Nishesh Basavereddy, an Indian American making waves himself in the junior circuit and hailing from Ram’s hometown of Carmel, Indiana, took to the practice courts to get schooled in a big tournament play alongside Ram and Salisbury. Despite being almost 40 degrees Celsius during the practice session, a number of Indian and Indian American fans pressed into the practice court to cheer on the two different generations of talent.
Ram and Salisbury eventually fell in the semifinals to the Mexican-French duo of Santiago Gonzalez and Edouard Roger-Vasselin, who had previously defeated Bopanna and Shapovalov.
Although Indian men and women did not feature in the singles main draw in the 2022 BNP Paribas Open, Indians have a long history of doing incredibly well at the Open. In 2018, Yuki Bhambri, the former Indian Number 1 singles player, had a dream run to the 3rd round, when he was finally beaten in three sets by American Sam Querrey. Along the way, Bhambri defeated Lucas Pouille of France, who was then Number 12 in the world. In 2019, Prajnesh Gunneswaran followed up Bhambri’s performance with a third-round run of his own, beating the number 17th ranked Nikoloz Basilashvili in the third round. At the time, Gunneswaran’s coach, Bastian Suwanprateep, credited the majority Indian crowd at the BNP Paribas Open for pushing Gunneswaran in his three-set thriller against Basilashvili, a match in which Gunneswaran was a massive underdog.
But the Indian diaspora does not just come to see their fellow Indians competing in the draw. Many are simply huge tennis fans. Shah recollects a beautiful moment at a past tournament: “I managed to get an autograph from Roger Federer after the 2014 finals here. I got to make eye contact with the tennis God himself.”
This year, Indian fans were thrilled to get very close to Rafael Nadal who is a three-time champion at the BNP Paribas Open. As he practiced with his coaches before his semifinal match against fellow Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz on March 19, many Indians and Indian Americans, some of whom had just arrived at the tournament grounds for the weekend, raced to the practice court, screaming encouragement to Nadal in Hindi, Tamil, and several other Indian languages. Some even gave him a yell of “Vamos,” joining the Spanish speakers in the audience.
Indian and Indian American fans play tennis at the grounds of the BNP Paribas Open as well. Once the annual tournament wraps up, the general public is allowed to reserve practice courts for a small fee and get to play and experience tennis on the same grounds where once the professionals fine tuned their game.
“We booked the courts here on my last birthday, and it was the best gift ever. I played tennis against this beautiful mountain backdrop,” says Karen Tajeda from Long Beach, who is a tennis aficionado and a good friend of Guiliana Olmos who, along with her partner, defeated Mirza and Flipkens in women’s doubles.
The Indian diaspora does love its tennis. And this is no accident. Although tennis is still less popular than its cousin, cricket, it is a sport with a growing fan base in India after it was first introduced to the subcontinent by the British during the colonial period. There is a long history of Indians doing very well at tennis. The list of famous players includes Ramanathan Krishnan, Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Nirupama Vaidyanathan, not to mention Mirza and Bopanna, who remain active on tour.
The Indian diaspora is succeeding at the highest level of the tennis game as well: in the recent past, Ram won a Silver Medal at the Olympics, and Samir Banerjee and Govind Nanda won Wimbledon Junior championships. Nishesh Basavareddy is the current top junior in the United States. And the current Number 1 Under-14 Boys player is Ronit Karki of New Jersey. His father and mother grew up in Mumbai, and are originally from Uttarakhand and Karnataka respectively.
The Indian diaspora is clearly garnering a great deal of success in tennis. There is little doubt that future BNP Paribas Opens will feature this rising talent, and that hundreds of Indian and Indian American tennis fans will be waiting for them. In the meantime, these fans will cherish their memories of what has been dubbed as the Fifth Grand Slam.
“It’s always sad that the tournament is over so quickly,” said Sandhu as he got ready to leave his home on the day of the women’s and men’s singles finals. “As usual, my wife and I will be back next year!”