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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.

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Indian Wells BNP Paribas Open is an extraordinary venue, and by all accounts exceptionally popular among the players because of the generally relaxed nature of the event. Up around the media center, it is common to look over your shoulder and find current and former players mingling.

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Outside the main stadium there are practice courts, where fans stand directly behind a Federer, Nadal, or Roddick as they take a practice session. Alongside those practice courts is a large lawn, where players spend downtime playing soccer or throwing around a football. By the way, world No. 2 Novak Djokovic can throw a spiral.

That lawn area has only a short picket fence, meant to provide a gentle separation between fans and players, and that line is respected. After a hit, many of the players wander over to the picket fence and sign autographs. There is a relaxed proximity between players and fans that is hard to imagine in many other professional sports. And if there is any lesson here, it just might be that lowering walls will actually improve fan behavior.

As I walked an outer hallway during a game change, I noticed a looming presence over my shoulder and turned to see Lindsay Davenport, absorbed in her handheld electronic device. On my first day in the dining hall, a stoic Ivan Lubicic sat alone, a plate of finished pasta before him, staring at the TV monitor and an ongoing match. If I had known that he was going to shock us all by winning the tournament, I would have asked him in advance how he was going to do it.

Players are required to meet the press within an hour of their matches and those brief encounters were fascinating. Andy Roddick is sharp and collegial. Rafael Nadal is disarmingly child-like, particularly compared with his on-court demeanor. Andy Murray is relaxed and laconic. Roger Federer is confident and direct. Federer lost early in the tournament, after squandering three match points. And he lost that match by losing a third-set tiebreaker. When asked by a reporter at the press conference if he played a poor tiebreaker, he answered with some irritation: "I should never be in a breaker, you know.... That's the way I analyze tennis."

Which reminds me of a couple of trivial observations. The toweling off between points is now rampant. It naturally occurs when players change sides, but it is now a fixture between virtually every point. "Ridiculous," sniffs veteran tennis journalist Bud Collins, whose near-encyclopedic knowledge I had the pleasure to enjoy as we watched matches seated together.

And it seems every player must inspect every ball before selecting the perfect two before serving. I saw players do this even when they had just been given brand new balls right out of the can. What difference could there be? As a veteran chair umpire told me on the bus ride to the stadium, toweling off and ball inspection are slowing down the game and becoming obsessive behavior among the players.

Did I say obsessive behavior? Well, that brings us back to me, and my love for tennis.

Hang on. Before we carry this conversation further, I need to call the airline to see if I can get a ticket to next year's Indian Wells. Rehab can wait.

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