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When does a tennis fan slip over the line into a fanatic?

An avid tennis fan weighs whether his fascination is sliding into delectable obsession.

By Paul Van Slambrouck / April 21, 2010



Not to be presumptuous, but I hereby christen the first decade of the 21st century the Time of Rehab.

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Hollywood stars, politicians, and athletes are marching through treatment programs for an ever-widening array of "addictions." Not far off, I predict, are treatment plans for failure, rehab centers for the overly competitive, and multistep recovery programs for excessive candor or obfuscation, depending upon which side of that line you habitually fall.

So, as I flew recently into Palm Springs, I started wondering about myself. Was the thing that brought me here, into this desert of dry gullies, palm trees, and a street called Frank Sinatra Drive, veering out of control?

It seemed harmless enough. I was here for a deep dunk into big-time tennis, a sport I have loved for almost all my life as both a player and fan. Which brings me to Indian Wells BNP Paribas Open, one of the world's major tennis tournaments, boasting the largest attendance of any tennis event save the four Grand Slams. I was here to "cover" the tournament as a reporter, which I did with unblinking attention and devotion. But let's be real. I didn't have to cover the tournament. I did it by choice.

So for five full days I woke up, took a bus to the splendid Indian Wells facility, and didn't return home for about 10 hours.

Going into this full-court marathon, I wondered if seeing a sport up close like this might actually be self-corrective. Over a career of 30 years in journalism, I met sports reporters who told me they entered the field out of a love or interest in athletics, only to end up somewhat disillusioned by the excesses of money, ego, and bad behavior that seem to come with modern-day professional sports. In short, for them, the thrill was gone.

Would I go home broken, in a good way, of this – let's be careful here – longstanding interest? Was it just an interest, or something more sinister, an obsession? OK, there, I've said it.

What do you call a person who swoons when Roger Federer flattens a backhand down the line? Or when Andy Roddick goes down the "T" with a 134 m.p.h. serve. Or when Rafael Nadal, stretched wide, rips a backhand cross-court passing shot from an improbably off-balance position. Or when waif-like Justine Henin strokes a one-handed backhand that is as poetic as anything in verse.

Someone once called tennis civilized boxing. It is one of very few sports that pits player against player, no cushion of a team, no way to collectively share a defeat. There are plenty of individual sports – swimming, golf, and track and field – but in tennis it is one individual against another. It's not about your own individual time or score. It is about asserting your own game against your opponent's game.

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