Rafael Nadal returns a shot against Ernests Gulbis during their fourth-round… (Frederic J. Brown / AFP /…)
It would be hard to determine whether tennis gave itself a shot in the arm or shot itself in the foot Wednesday night.
The BNP Paribas Open is a premier event, played in a gorgeous stadium at a gorgeous time of the year in the Southern California desert. It is one of the truly prestigious sports events in the world. Its top officials are talking about total attendance reaching 400,000 in a few years.
Wednesday brought a dream schedule. Set to start in the afternoon were separate matches involving Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two truly marquee stars.
The fans came in big numbers, as usual. Some had tickets for a day session, starting at 11 a.m. Others for a two-match night session, starting at 7.
But by the time Federer took the court, a pair of three-set matches had pushed the daylight hour toward night. And when Federer struggled before closing out fellow Swiss player Stan Wawrinka, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-5, the term "day session" became a joke.
That left Nadal and qualifier Ernests Gulbis, still a day-session match, ending a second set at 8:41 p.m., with the deciding set still to come. It eventually ended, after 2 hours and 32 minutes, with Nadal winning, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5. It was 9:50 p.m.
Those with day-session tickets, and strong bladders, got nearly 11 hours of tennis for their money, if they chose to stay for it all. Those with night session tickets were not so lucky. They probably thought so, when they saw a schedule that had Maria Sharapova playing at 7 and men's No. 1 Novak Djokovic playing next.
Good luck with that.
For hours, thousands of people milled around outside, waiting to be able to enter. There were reports of people with night tickets being allowed into the stadium to take any available seats. But there weren't many of those, and tournament official Dee Dee Felich said that the policy was that night ticket-holders weren't allowed in until the day session ended.
Of course, this "Day Session" turned from day to night and had a chance to get to dawn.
The ticket policy is understandable. People with day tickets and night tickets could get testy over the same seat. These aren't cheap tickets in most areas of the 16,100-seat stadium.
Make no mistake. Federer and Nadal were cheered wildly and supported as enthusiastically as any American star might be. Federer should have closed out Wawrinka in the second set, and admitted so afterward. Wawrinka, the man with whom he won an Olympic doubles gold doubles in Beijing in 2008, had defeated Federer only once, and Federer clearly was the better player when he needed to be. But it somehow stretched out to more than two hours before he finished the inevitable.
Nadal was playing a talented Latvian in Gulbis who had never beaten him and who had to qualify just to get into this tournament, playing 14 matches in 19 days. But the baseline bashing went on and on.
Whatever happened to coming to the net to finish a point quickly? (Consider that question rhetorical).
What was a likelihood starting the day turned into reality as midnight approached. Federer and Nadal would be playing each other, for only the second time at Indian Wells (Federer won in the semifinals last year) and in a quarterfinal for the first time ever in their 28 matches. Nadal has won 18 of their meetings.
One wonders how many more there will be. Nadal is just getting back to hard courts after a long layoff and appeared to get around somewhat gingerly on a left leg that has a tightly taped knee. Federer has back problems.
Federer called any match he has with Nadal, because of their history, "a classic," but admitted their quarterfinal will match two wounded warriors.
"We are both a bit suspect going in," he said.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King chatted with a few reporters here Tuesday and, in her usual visionary way, pointed out that tennis matches are now too long, that the men's five-setters in Grand Slams were wearing down and burning out the star players the sport needs to keep it vital.
She even said the sport ought to play no-ad scoring (at 40-40, a receiver chooses the receiving court and that point ends the game) rather than a never-ending series of deuces and ads.
Wednesday at Indian Wells actually had too much of a good thing. There was great drama. Also, considerable tedium.
Federer and Nadal are scheduled to play Thursday night at 7. Tune in about 8:30.