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Hardcore tennis fans arrived early on Monday, March 9, to take advantage of the free-entry policy in effect during the first and second days of the 2015 BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. While there was a lot of tennis action for them to enjoy, not much of it involved the sport’s big names.

Some of the game’s stars—like Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Serena Williams—have not yet appeared to prep for the tournament, which begins main-draw play on Wednesday, March 11. The big names who had arrived—including Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic and Daniela Hantukova—worked out on the main stage of Stadium 1 surrounded by thousands of empty seats, because the doors to that court were locked all day, while thousands of diehard fans roamed the pathways nearby.

In an email, the Independent asked J. Fred Sidhu, of the BNP Paribas Open media relations team, why this area was kept off limits.

“The main stadium is open to fans at the start of main draw play,” Sidhu said via email. “It is something that has always worked for the tournament. There is really no official reason. Fans have plenty of opportunities to watch practice on the outside courts.”

Fair enough … but it was unfortunate that most of the top-flight players practiced out of sight of the fans who admire them so.

As the temperatures rose past 90 degrees, the WTA women’s qualifying draw completed first-round action in the battle for unseeded players to grab a spot in the final qualifying draw. Women’s play continued today, while men’s qualifying action got under way.

However, the biggest news of the day came when tournament officials announced that top-ranged Serena Williams would end her 14-year absence from Indian Wells when she takes to the Stadium 1 court at 7 p.m. this Friday, March 13, to begin her quest for a third BNP Paribas Open women’s singles championship.

Published in Snapshot

On Friday, March 14, the women’s singles semifinals at the BNP Paribas Open were played under relatively cool and star-filled skies at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Both matches were decided in straight sets, with Agnieszka Radwanska moving easily into the finals, and Flavia Pennetta overcoming a stiff challenge from 2014’s best women’s player, Li Na.

On Saturday, it was the men’s turn on the Stadium 1 Court. First up in the ATP singles semifinals under the blazing noon sun was the pairing of No. 7 Roger Federer and No. 28 Alexandr Dolgopolov; Federer won convincingly. During the next match, temperatures on the court pushed well past 90 degrees, and the brilliant sunshine glared into the eyes of both players when they were serving. John Isner and Novak Djokovic battled hard through three sets, with Djokovic finally pulling away to deliver a fans’ dream matchup when he faces Federer in the finals on Sunday.

No matter how challenging the conditions get for the pros, they have help: The BNP Paribas Open “ballkids,” whose job is to tend to each player’s needs.

“Our ballkids figure out the players’ idiosyncrasies so they can service them as well as possible,” explained 2014 BNP Paribas Open ballkids director Adam Jasick. “‘Do they want two towels, or do they want the balls here?’ There’s more complexity than you would imagine.”

Candidates for the tournament’s 400-member ballkid corps must be between the ages of 12 and 20 and undergo a minimum of four 2 1/2-hour training sessions before moving on to a court. One of the toughest tasks to learn: the choreography of team actions involved in retrieving and redistributing the balls when the pros are serving. That activity and others are overseen by 75 ballkid-team coordinators who range in age from 21 to 80.

“The coordinators provide the ballkids with what they need to make sure they can go out and be successful,” said Jasick. “They turn our kids into superstars and make them the best ballkids on the tour.”

In the tournament’s first week, when the tennis action is spread over nine stadium courts during both day and night sessions, the demand for ballkids is greatest. While most of the kids come from the Coachella Valley or elsewhere in Southern California, teams of trained participants come from as far away as Fairbanks, Alaska. During that first week, the ballkids are rated on their performance and attitude, with the best performers invited to stay into the second week of play. Further judging results in the selection of the elite corps of four ballkid teams who work during the semifinals and finals matches.

Joshua Phillips, of Palm Desert, is a veteran at the tournament. So what’s his favorite part of being a ballkid?

“I like to get out of school,” joked Josh. “It’s really cool. I started five years ago, and it’s nice to work my way up. And this year, I’ve gotten so close to the players. It’s a nice opportunity.”

His most memorable moment to date? “I was working a nightshift last year, and all these moths just started landing on the court,” recalled Phillips. “The chair umpire called time and asked us to pick up the moths, but I didn’t want to touch them. I wasn’t much help. I got maybe two off the court.”

Ballkid teammate Emon Shaaf, of Rancho Mirage, is also a five-year vet. The most memorable moment of his tourney experience involved one of his tennis idols.

“I was in the men’s locker room,” explained Shaaf. “And I had to use the bathroom. So while I was in there, I looked to my left, and there was Roger Federer. I was surprised.”

More great tennis action—and an unusual public moment of recognition for the ballkids—were yet to come. On Sunday, the day began with Flavia Pennetta facing Agnieszka Radwanska in the women’s final. Unfortunately, toward the end of the first set, Radwanska injured her left leg and succumbed quickly to Pennetta’s aggressive game.

Next came the much-anticipated faceoff between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic—and it provided all the thrills and tense moments one could want in a top championship match. After splitting the first two sets, Federer battled back from one break down late in the third set to force a tiebreaker. However, Djokovic regained control and grabbed the trophy by overwhelming Federer at the end.

Prior to each of the finals, the Ball Girl of the Year and Ball Boy of the Year were introduced to the crowd in Stadium 1. Winning ball girl Ally Ryan from La Quinta stepped in to flip the coin to determine the first serve in the Pennetta-Radwanska match before posing for photos with the two players. At the start of the Djokovic-Federer contest, ball boy Drew Matthews was honored in the same fashion, with renowned tennis champion and TV announcer John McEnroe getting into the photo op as well.

But once the balls started flying, everything was once again as it should be for these ballkids: They faded into the background as they did their work.

“The greatest compliment the kids can get is not to be recognized,” Jasick said. “The hope is that nobody realizes the kids are there—and then they’ve done an excellent job.”

Original version posted at 2 p.m., Sunday, March 16; revised version posted Tuesday, March 18.

Published in Snapshot

As the 2014 BNP Paribas Tennis Open moves into the fourth round, many big names on the men’s side have tumbled in the heat and swirling breezes at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

Only five of the Top 10 players have survived. Among those already heading home are No. 4 seed Tomas Berdych, No. 9 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and most shockingly, No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal.

But Team Fed remains in the game.

That’s the name the worldwide tennis media has given to Roger Federer and his coterie of coaches, family and friends. This year's No. 7 seed and a four-time BNP Paribas Open champion, Federer is a perennial fan favorite. He is lionized by legions of loyal fans who track his every move around the expansive Tennis Garden grounds. For them, Coachella Valley’s two-week tennis fest is a chance to enjoy all the pleasures of “Club Fed”—and it doesn’t matter whether Federer is scheduled to play on a particular day or not. In fact, a Federer day-off practice session provides devotees with an opportunity to get even closer to their idol.

Roger Federer was slated for a 4 p.m. workout in Stadium 8 one afternoon this week. Almost all of the other players, even top seeds Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, practice on the practice courts. Seems logical, right? However, spectator space on these courts is limited—so Federer often practices in an open stadium.

How popular is Federer? The stadium was 90 percent filled an hour prior to his scheduled practice start time. When he finally rolled up in his cart, 15 minutes late, an overflow, standing-room-only crowd awaited him.

As soon as he began walking into the stadium, murmurs turned into a swelling round of applause. Fans lucky enough to find themselves along side his path of entry excitedly held out pens and objects to ask for an autograph.

“Hi, guys. Not now; maybe later,” he said, smiling.

He moved onto the court—as the applause surged and then subsided—before picking up a racket, grabbing some balls and starting to volley with his hitting partner. Silence surrounded him as his legion of followers, many sporting baseball caps with Federer’s trademark script logo, soaked up these special moments.

“Roger is the best athlete ever,” declared one young fan. “Tennis is the most difficult game, because it is one-on-one, and Roger is the greatest player and gentleman.”

As the practice session wore on, seemingly no one in the crowd left—not until Roger was finished.

For Club Fed, the fervent hope is that he’ll be the last man standing at this BNP Paribas Open.

Scroll down to see a photo gallery.

Published in Snapshot

I first met Serena Williams in 1997. She was playing doubles with her sister Venus, here at the Hyatt Grand Champions. The crowd loved them. In a sense, the Indian Wells tennis tournament helped make them: It was their first big tournament together, when they started to show the sports world the power of the Williams tennis family.

Later, I had lunch with their father and trainer, Richard Williams, and he told me that Venus and Serena would be playing in many Grand Slam finals—as rivals. Personally, I thought he was crazy, but as a journalist, I liked his quotes. I grew to like Richard Williams even more after I learned that he taught himself how to play tennis by watching video-tape lessons!

Flash forward to 2001, when the Williams sisters were set to play each other in the semifinals of what is today the BNP Paribas Open. Despite a live TV broadcast, fans filled the Tennis Garden. You could feel the excitement in the air.

I believe that I was the only reporter who watched as the Williams sisters, both looking fine, warmed up on a side court. (Everyone else was entering the stadium for their match.) Both sisters knew me from various press conferences—and the moment Venus spotted me, she mysteriously stopped hitting the ball. She then did two knee bends and then walked off the practice court.

Based on the way they were acting, I had a feeling that there would be no semifinal.

I went to the media room, looking for Bud Collins, the legendary tennis broadcaster. (We shared the same media spot at the top of the stadium.) He wasn’t around, so I walked over to the Los Angeles Times’ Lisa Dillman, and told her what had happened. At first, she doubted my suspicions; after all, the match was about to start.

Then we looked down and saw that the singles net was being exchanged for a doubles net.

As Dillman and I walked into the players’ lounge to speak to the Williams’ sisters, all hell broke loose in the main stadium: As the announcer announced that the semifinal match was cancelled, the crowd erupted! They booed loud and long, just like at wild soccer matches I used to cover in Europe. These people had paid good money to watch the Williams sisters’ match. Instead, they watched a doubles match that was moved into the slot from another court.

Back in the interview room, I opened with questions, asking the Williams sisters to confirm what I saw down on the practice court. They confirmed my account. (I still have press clips from back then, as I was quoted about it.)

The official explanation was that Venus Williams pulled out due to a knee injury. The unofficial explanation, believed by many in the media room, was that Richard Williams ordered Venus to drop out of the semifinal match, so that Serena could go into the finals. (At the time, Venus was way ahead of Serena in winnings, money and fame.) Some sources also said that it was too emotional for the sisters to play against each other back then, so a family decision was made to avoid a head-to-head match in Indian Wells.

Many others had a different opinion and believed that Venus Williams was indeed injured. For example, I asked Bud Collins, and he flatly refused to believe that any such deal was made. (For the record, I adore the Williams sisters and have written about them many times for European publications.)

When Serena later faced off against Kim Clijsters in the final, thousands of fans were still pissed about what happened at the semifinals. They booed Serena (and Venus, as she watched) from the start to the finish of the match, which Serena won. In my 18 years covering this tournament, I’ve never seen such a fiasco! After the match, Richard Williams claimed that a fan insulted him by using a racial slur. Ever since, Venus and Serena Williams have boycotted the Indian Wells tourney.

To this day, some media outlets claim that the whole affair was based on racial discrimination. I believe that most of the crowd anger came not from racism, but from Venus’ suspicious last-minute decision—mere minutes before the match’s scheduled start—to forfeit. The fans felt betrayed! These same fans had embraced the Williams sisters in the previous years; after all, they were the big American tennis hopes for years to come!

Well, 13 years have passed since the scandal. In the months leading up to this year’s BNP Paribas Open, Serena hinted that she might be coming back to the desert this year. Alas, it didn’t work out this season.

She’s still the biggest and richest female tennis star on the planet—and such a grand tourney needs the greatest champions, especially the greatest American tennis champions. Let’s all hope for Serena Williams’ return to Indian Wells in March 2015.

Published in Features

There was no Indian Wells Tennis Garden back in 1996. That’s when I started covering what’s now known as the BNP Paribas Open. Back then, the tourney was held at the Hyatt Grand Champions.

The tournament’s champions come and go, but some of the folks responsible for what the tournament has become are here to stay. In this case, a hippie tennis star from South Africa, and a girl from Boston who taught herself tennis by hitting a ball against a backboard, were instrumental in bringing what is now the BNP Paribas Open to its current glory.

The hippie is Ray Moore, the Tennis Garden and tournament CEO, and the girl is Dee Dee Felich, assistant tournament director and the former senior VP.

In 1981, Felich, then 23, arrived in Palm Springs to meet her new boss, Charlie Pasarell. He was working on a new tennis tournament at Mission Hills. The tourney was called the Xerox Grand Champions.

“Everyone was on their hands and knees sorting out numbers and letters for the scoreboards, so I joined the group and did whatever needed to be done,” remembers Felich.

When the tourney moved to the La Quinta Resort, Pasarell and Felich had a miniature office. She’d have to go under the table to pick up a call when they were both working the telephones—and they’d back into each other every time they had a visitor!

When the tourney moved to the Hyatt Grand Champions, Felich used her lunch break to breast-feed her newborn son in a hotel room. There was no time to go home.

Once, she recalls, the desert wind was so strong that it was knocking the advertisement plaques off of the courts.

She asked: “What now?!” Pasarell told her: “Hold on!”

She’s still holding on, decades later.

“I may not be doing as much facility ops, as we have a whole team for that, and they’re the best in the business, but we still pitch in whenever we are called upon,” says Felich.

In the mid ’80s, Ray Moore became Pasarell’s partner in what would become the fifth-largest tennis tourney in the world. Over the years, the Indian Wells event climbed up right behind the Grand Slam tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

In 2009, Pasarell sold his dream tournament to billionaire Larry Ellison. The package included the Tennis Garden as well. The rumored price, never confirmed, was $100 million.

Today, Moore is the man in charge, reporting only to Ellison. Moore is an impressive businessman—with a surprising other side.

The first time I walked into his Tennis Garden office, some 10 years ago, there was a sign at the door that read: The Hippie. Hanging on the wall was—and still is—a John Lennon self-portrait!

“Lennon signed it,” Moore proudly grins while gesturing toward the framed drawing. “I bought four autographed pieces; the other three are up in my house.”

During his career as a tennis player, Moore was heavily into music, as well as Zen and other spiritual stuff. He was introduced to meditation by his tennis pal Torben Ulrich.

Years ago, Moore took Torben’s son Lars to a Deep Purple concert. It left a lasting impression on the kid. Years later, that kid, Lars Ulrich, co-founded a band called Metallica.

There is a framed picture of Metallica in Moore’s office, too. Lars Ulrich dedicated it to Amanda, Moore’s daughter. He wrote: “You know, your dad is indirectly responsible for all this!”

There is one thing Moore hasn’t yet accomplished, he told me: He has not yet played tennis with Larry Ellison. The flamboyant owner of BNP Paribas Open is an avid tennis player.

For time being, Moore is a happy CEO, because Ellison has poured tons of money into the tourney’s infrastructure. As a result, according to Moore, the BNP Paribas Open may soon surpass the French Open and Wimbledon in attendance.

“My goal is to get a half-million people to attend our tournament during its two weeks in March,” Moore says.

If the Indian Wells tennis tournament were to eventually surpass all four Grand Slams in size and attendance, what would happen then? Only time will tell.

The BNP Paribas Open takes place Monday, March 3, through Sunday, March 16. For more information, visit www.bnpparibasopen.com.

Published in Features

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