Tennis’ surprising connection to the Indianapolis 500
If you’re channel-flipping between the French Open and the Indianapolis 500 this Memorial Day weekend, you’ll likely learn about the race’s 100th-running milestone and Indy’s rich history. But you won’t hear about the event’s surprising tennis connections. That’s what we’re here for.
While there hasn’t been much overlap in the past—other than 1976 Wimbledon champ Sue Barker attending the race when she played World Team Tennis for the Indiana Loves, and former USTA president (and then-Indy resident) Stan Malless co-owning a racing team in the 1970s, in the pre-megateam era when local businessman could do that sort of thing—these days, a number of Indy 500 boldface names have a serious interest in tennis. You can bet these guys will check Roland Garros scores after the checkered flag drops.
Then: ATP CEO, 1990–2005
Now: CEO of Hulman & Co., which owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar
On witnessing tennis history: “The biggest moment I witnessed was Pete Sampras winning his seventh Wimbledon title. That match—and particularly its ending near dusk, the flashes of all the cameras going off, making it feel like Field of Dreams—was historic and magical.”
On the potential for glamping at Wimbledon (It debuted at the Indy 500 last year to instant success,): “You'd think the Brits would like glamping, but I’m not sure how the logistics would work at Wimbledon. In my day, the camping was in the queue and right along the streets leading to the All England Club. Glamping at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway includes big tents with power and beds, and shower facilities adjacent. I’m not sure where that would fit in the Wimbledon village, but it would be a big hit if they could figure it out.”
On comparisons between the sports: “There are remarkable similarities. Both come down to inches, and are about precision and doing everything better than the competition to get to or stay on the top.”
Then: Played high school tennis at Bob and Mike Bryan’s alma mater in California
Now: IndyCar driver making his sixth start; friends with Milos Raonic and Billie Jean King (Both King and Kimball are ambassadors for Nova Nordisk, an insulin maker.)
On texting with Billie Jean King: “Her texts are always full of emojis. There’s always a few buzzwords: pressure’s a privilege, champions adjust. All of her truly inspirational pieces.”
On admiring King: “Billie talks about going to the Astrodome for Battle of the Sexes the day before, and understanding that the court was slow and the bounce wasn’t great. She said, ‘He’s a big guy, I’ve heard he’s not training or doing as much cardio as he used to.’ She knew she was going to give up the first games, but if she made him run, she would win the rest of the set. She out and did her due diligence and just outworked him.”
On Raonic: “He and I went through similar evolutions in off-court/off-track stuff—developing our teams, from public relations to business management to coaches to advisors to assistants, and getting comfortable with those changes. It’s not a small change. The fact that he has been as good as he is, playing against [the Big Four] ... you see it in racing. The glass ceiling that used to be at 38 or 40 is shifting by a few years. You see that in tennis, too, as the evolution of the athlete has evolved. You see these guys who are still crushing serves in their 30s.”
On Bob Bryan’s brilliance: “I was home from the winter and hitting balls at my high school, and the Bryans stopped by. Bob picked up my racked and hit a serve with no warm up. He must have been at, like, 70%. And I said, you just ruined my racket. It will never hit a ball that hard and that well ever again.
Then: Played tennis with future wife as students before becoming the king of youth literature with his novel A Fault in Our Stars.
Now: This year’s Indy 500 pace car driver, tennis fan, recent savior of the embattled AFC Wimbledon football club
On owning a piece of Wimbledon…the fan-owned soccer organization: “I own one-seven-thousandth of the club, but I am very proud of my one-seven-thousandth of it. I also sponsor their north stands. I love that club and that part of London, and if it hadn’t been for AFC Wimbledon, they would have been left without a football club. Like soccer, tennis is very much a game of angles and geometry and opening up space. I’m really interested in how we, as people over the last 250,000 years, have opened up space. I know this is a little bit pretentions, but when I watch tennis, there’s something incredibly enjoyable about that feeling of opening up enough space that your opponent can’t get to the ball. I remember that feeling from my childhood.”
On choosing the race over the French Open: “I go to the race every year. I think it’s the largest gathering of secular humans on earth. I love being at the 500. My friends and I have all these rituals around our race day. But I come home and have tennis DVR’d.”
On his French Open prediction: “I saw Djokovic live many, many years ago, before he was a great tennis player, and I was so impressed with him. I favor him to win.”
On his favorite tennis storyline: “I think Serena Williams is one of the greatest athletes in history. We’re all so lucky to be able to watch her play. I’ve never met her, but I did once have dinner in the same restaurant that she was having dinner at.”
Then: Ranked in the top 10 in the USTA’s 12-and-under division in 2004
Now: Reigning IndyCar Rookie of the Year
On the shot he’d steal: “My favorite player was Andy Roddick. I wanted to have his killer serve. I wanted to dress like him. I wanted to have his racket—and I did. I grew up playing with a Babalot, wearing the Reebok gear and so on. The thing that I really wanted was his serve. I wanted my style to be like his, in getting the point over quickly.”
On the sports’ similarities: “Both are very intense, both require a lot of thinking. In racing, when it comes down to making a split-second decision, you have to make it faster, but at the same time, most of the time, you can take your time thinking about your decision. In tennis you’re making the decisions quicker but when it comes down to a split-second decision, it’s not as crucial as it is in racing.”