Partner practice makes perfect

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At 9 a.m., Alex Garcia Cenzano stands behind the service line of the tennis court, dwarfed by the empty stands of Stadium 1 looming behind. Later in the day, fans will populate these seats in the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, home to the world's second-largest outdoor tennis stadium. They will watch Simona Halep, ranked No. 2 in the world and a former tournament champion, play a match against Kateryna Kozlova, the woman standing across the net, preparing to pound balls with Cenzano.

It's Round 3 of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, and Cenzano, from Madrid, is one of the hitting partners the tournament provides for the daily practices professionals require. Most of the top-ranked women and many of the men on the tour travel with their own hitting partners. Sometimes coaches and fellow tour players perform that role. But many players practice with someone the tournament has vetted and invited to assume the role of a human backboard.

The Women's Tennis Assn. (WTA) and the men's Assn. of Tennis Professionals (ATP) require all tournaments in which their players participate to provide hitting partner services free of charge. Scheduling such practices is a complicated business at tournaments as large and prestigious as the BNP Paribas, which concludes Sunday and began with 256 players, split evenly between genders.

The group of practice partners is a more exclusive club. Their numbers are barely large enough to field an NFL team, unless you don't care about kickers and the long-snapper.

"This year," said Lisa Kempton, manager of the tournament practice desk, "I have a few more than I normally would have taken, like 12." That group is supplemented at the beginning of the tournament, when demand is high, by a few superior junior players from the Weil Academy in Ojai. (Its graduates include World No. 28 Grigor Dimitrov and the current UCLA No. 1 player, Maxime Cressy.) Mostly, though, it's a bunch of guys -- always guys -- hanging around the practice desk all day until their name is called.

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Peter Clemente leaves the practice court after hitting with world No. 3 Alexander Zverev before his Round 3 match.

Peter Clemente, 19, is in his fourth tour of BNP Paribas duty. He lives in Palm Springs, attended tennis academies in San Diego and was ranked by the USTA as a Top 50 junior player as a high school competitor.

Most practice desk assignments are random, but, Clemente noted, "If you have a good hit, then they win their match and they want to repeat what they did the day before," so some players regularly request certain practice players. They might request a leftie, or somebody whose game is similar to their next opponent's. They might request an Aries with Scorpio rising, and Kempton, a calm and gracious soul, will fill the need. She could soothe the seethe out of the angriest of players.

Hitting partners for a tournament of this magnitude must have the whole repertory of shots. They must have power and pinpoint accuracy. They must be fit, flexible and even-tempered. They must be male. With the exception of players like Serena Williams and Madison Keys, women simply don't hit hard enough to give tour players the competition they need in practice.

A qualified practice partner needs something else -- connections. Clemente got the call initially because a friend of a friend was the former director of the practice desk. "I was only 15 at the time," he recalled, "so I was a little younger and smaller. He had seen me hit a few times. At the time I was just good enough to hit with the girls, and then I did a lot of hits that year and all the girls liked hitting with me and I slowly built my way up and got better." His goal, he said, "is to make a living playing tennis."

The winner here gets $1,354,010. No one makes a living as a hitting partner -- at virtually every tournament, it's a volunteer position. If Clemente were to make it to the ATP tour, he would be the first hitting partner anyone in this line of work knows who has done so.

Cenzano HP23 3-19 - Copy.JPGThis is Cenzano's first time at the BNP Paribas (right). He was selected, he said, because "I have contact with WTA and ATP guys and I ask [them to put in a good word]."

Hitting partners here get a modest daily food allowance, a parking pass and access to the practice courts and players facility. Said Kempton, "It's a great experience for them."

For Clemente, a local guy with few expenses, she's right. Hitting with occasionally temperamental pros can be challenging, but sometimes it's fun. For him, the temperamental Nick Kyrgios is the most fun. "We played actual games and points, and butts up," he said, referring to a goof game in which the loser is penalized by standing with his back to the winner, bent over and holding his racket over his backside as the winner aims a shot. "[Nick] won, obviously," Clemente said, "and he hit my butt, which tells you how accurate he is."

He hits a lot with Southern California native Taylor Fritz, whose coach also performed that role for him. "We had a streak of 11 matches in a row that he and I hit," he said, including the Oracle in Newport Beach last year.

Kempton confirmed that most hitting partners are here because of who they know. "Tommy Haas [former player and tournament director] gave me a couple of names," she said. Sometimes she will reach out to former hitting partners, but don't bother posting your resume on LinkedIn -- "If we advertised," Kempton said, "we would be swamped."

TV viewers can appreciate the skill and endurance of all top players, but you can't really understand the raw power unleashed by the world's best hitters unless you see it in person. Milos Raonic hits serves of 140 mph; Williams, the hardest-serving female, reaches the low 120s. After hitting with three different players this day, you wonder how Cenzano, 23, manages to remain vertical.

At courtside, the impact of ball hitting racket sounds like a gunshot. It's so scary you want to duck if somebody misses their mark. This day, Cenzano and Kozlova almost never do. So why isn't a guy this good on the tour? Because Cenzano isn't interested in playing tennis -- "I want to be a WTA coach," he said.

He's here, and in Stuttgart and Beijing and Cincinnati to hit with the best players in the world solely for the chance to expand his professional network and promote his coaching prospects. At home in Madrid, he makes his living coaching ranked junior players and a few competitive amateur adults. Every year, he travels to six or eight big pro tournaments.

After three years as a peripatetic practice partner, Cenzano is well-known on the tour. Coaches and players regularly request him. "I practice with [Rafael] Nadal, with [Victoria] Azarenka, Dominic Thiem... almost all top 100 [players] I have practiced with," he said. "Many times you have some pressure because the players are really focused on their match."

He's just as focused on his coaching career as his partners are on their playing careers. He has to be, because the financial investment is considerable. He pays his way here, there and almost everywhere, a standard arrangement. "Sometimes," Kempton offered, "the player will tip the hitting partner, but that's between them."

And rarer than a game of butts up. "Sometimes we receive some tips from the players or coaches," Cenzano said, "but is not too usual."

Ditto for Clemente. No. 14-ranked Daria Kasatkina, 21, has banked more than $5 million in career earnings. After a hitting session at the BNP Paribas one year, her coach offered Clemente $5. He declined.

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Clemente signs balls for young fans before a practice hitting session.

Photos: Ellen Alperstein

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