CVIndependent

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Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Kevin Fitzgerald

On Wednesday evening, March 18, halfway through the final week of play at the 2015 BNP Paribas Open, storm clouds and gusty desert winds swept across the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

They came and went with minimal impact—much like the highly publicized return of No. 1-ranked Serena Williams to Indian Wells for the first time since 2001.

After winning four matches, Williams withdrew from the tournament on Friday, March 20, shortly before her scheduled semifinal meeting with No. 3-ranked Simona Halep, due to a knee injury.

When asked how emotional it was for her to withdraw, Williams said, “I was really, really disappointed. I was really down. I was really sad.”

Her mood brightening, she continued: “But then I thought, ‘You know what, Serena? This is just an opportunity to be able to come back … and do better next year.’”

So she’s already planning to return in 2016? “I think it’s going to be a must,” she said, smiling.

Halep was the happy recipient of a “walkover” win in her semifinal, which gave her extra rest heading into Sunday’s final. Her rest looked more like rust during a lackluster first set, which her opponent, No. 18 Jelena Jankovic, won 6-2. But Halep then turned on the jets, capturing a tight 7-5 second set and crusing home with a 6-4 final set.

The competitive women’s final set the stage for the return of last year’s men’s singles finalists: No. 2-ranked Roger Federer, and No. 1 Novak Djokovic. And for the second year in a row, Djokovic showed that his game shines in the desert sun, claiming a three-set victory. The first set and the last sets (6-3 and 6-2 wins by Djokovic, respectively) were one-sided displays of Djokovic’s spectacular shot-making. The middle set, won in a tiebreaker by Federer, 7-6 (5), was tense, dramatic and filled with brilliant play on both sides of the net.

Some miscellaneous observations:

• Is it a coincidence that two players who benefited from “walkover” wins in the second week of this marathon championship wound up winning the whole thing?

• Isn’t it unseemly for the impresario of this stellar event, Larry Ellison, to choose not to attend the women’s singles final? Not even the awards ceremony?

• Could there be a better example of irony than Serena Williams being forced to withdraw from her semifinal match due to injury—just as her sister Venus did in 2001?

Until next year! Scroll down to enjoy some images from the second week of the 2015 BNP Paribas Open.

The first week of the 2015 BNP Paribas Open delivered no major surprises on the courts—but it did deliver sweltering temperatures for fans and players alike, as well as record attendance figures, thanks to the return of Serena Williams to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden for the first time since 2001.

Almost all of the top-seeded players in both the men’s and women’s singles draws are still competing, while four American players made it into the second week of both draws—exciting news for local fans: On the women’s side, Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens, Coco Vandeweghe and Madison Keys are still alive, while on the men’s side, survivors include John Isner, Donald Young, Steve Johnson and Jack Sock.

The competition will heat up as the tournament moves into its late rounds this week—and the weather forecast calls for continued high temperatures, which makes staying cool and hydrated a challenge for everyone. The longest lines found on the grounds were often for the spectator water-filling stations.

Saturday brought also brought traffic gridlock, as attendees tried to squeeze into overflowing parking lots. Tournament officials reported that Week 1 set a new record, with 241,884 spectators attending the matches.

Scroll down to enjoy a photo retrospective of last week’s BNP Paribas Open experience.

The last time current world No. 1-ranked Serena Williams, winner of 19 Grand Slam tennis titles, stepped onto the Stadium 1 court at the BNP Paribas Open was in 2001. She was 19 and about to play for the women’s singles championship.

“I was looking to take another title. I was ready,” Williams wrote last month in TIME when she announced her decision to return to the BNP Paribas Open after a 14-year self-imposed exile. “As I walked out onto the court, the crowd immediately started jeering and booing. In my last match, the semifinals, I was set to play my sister, but Venus had tendinitis and had to pull out. Apparently, that angered many fans.”

After 14 years of healing after that unfortunate, racially tinged incident in 2001, Williams walked back onto that court at 7 p.m., Friday, March 13, with determination and trepidation. Those in the traditionally late-arriving desert crowd rose as one and cheered wildly to welcome her back. Williams, clearly overwhelmed by emotion, seemed strangely reserved. There were no smiles, really, and she offered just one brief wave to the fans. In fact, we learned later, she was struggling not to cry.

“It was an emotional time,” Williams shared in her Tennis Channel post-match interview. “I didn’t expect to start tearing up. The crowd was just so amazing and so nice. I just didn’t know what to expect.”

She and most of the tennis pundits running around the Indian Wells Tennis Garden certainly didn’t expect the highly competitive match that followed, against No. 68-ranked Monica Niculescu of Romania. Relying on an unorthodox style of play, Niculescu pushed Williams into a sometimes awkward but always resourceful game, which ended in a 7-5, 7-5 victory by Williams.

Thus ended a week of heightened anxiety—and somewhat unnecessary mystery for everyone involved with the tournament, as the return of Serena Williams had everyone on edge. Serena was invisible to most as the week progressed. Her first onsite practice session was held behind locked doors on Stadium 1. While names like Sharapova, Federer, Djokovic, Murray and Nadal practiced publicly and interacted with fans—keeping with the routines that make this tournament renowned as one of the most laid-back in the world—no announcement of Williams’ presence was made to fans or members of the media, who were kept at bay by posted security guards. She surfaced briefly for a pre-match interview session, and then went back into hiding.

Meanwhile, the aniticipation built. “The kids are so excited to finally get a chance to ball-kid for Serena,” said Rick Mozzillo, lead chair person of the tourney’s Ball Kids Committee. “The kids had to sign up for that shift a month ago, and we didn’t know that Serena would be playing that day at that time. So the lucky ones who get to work it kind of won a blind lottery.”

Meanwhile, the PR department laid out restrictions for coverage and access to the big match, the type of which are usually only instituted for the championship match—if at all.

“We were outsiders,” Williams wrote in the opener to her TIME about returning to Indian Wells. That’s how she characterized the status she shared with her sister Venus and the whole Williams family back in 2001.

Hopefully, the healing continues, and she and her family can enjoy what today makes the BNP Paribas Open one of the best stops on the pro tennis circuit each year.

Scroll down to see images from Serena Williams’ return to the BNP Paribas Open.

The 11th Annual Desert Smash delivered a day full of expected humor and generosity—as well as some unexpected last-minute program changes—on Tuesday, March 10.

World No. 1 ATP pro Novak Djokovic, who has contributed to the hilarity and star power in previous years, was a no-show. Instead, No. 20-ranked John Isner stepped into the program, joining No. 31-ranked Fernando Verdasco in the final match of the day. Earlier No. 43-ranked Sam Querrey, a repeat volunteer himself, partnered with pro Mardy Fish to deliver the most entertaining real tennis of the day, as they took on the No. 1-ranked doubles team of Mike and Bob Bryan.

On the women’s side, WTA No. 7 Genie Bouchard was unexpectedly joined by No. 47-ranked Daniela Hantuchova in the opening singles match, which offered the most purely competitive tennis display.

In the middle two matches, comedy moved to center court at the La Quinta Resort as host Will Ferrell (who suffered a muscle strain in the morning’s VIP Pro-Am competition—the tape job for which he proudly displayed) moved into the role of chair umpire to supervise a surprise treat of a match featuring Justin Bieber, actor/comedian Kevin Hart and talk-show host Billy Bush.

Throughout the afternoon, spectators enjoyed themselves as cocktails and champagne contributed to high spirits and generous support of multiple impromptu donation challenges directed toward Cancer for College’s fundraising for the college educations of cancer survivors.

See pictures from the event, at the La Quinta Resort, below.

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.

In 2000, Riverside County agreed to a settle a dispute with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development which was triggered after 24 Coachella Valley families filed complaints. According to HUD archives, the complaints stated “that Riverside County had targeted Hispanic-owned and -occupied mobile home parks for selective and discriminatory enforcement of its health and safety code and regulations.”

"The enforcement agreement is a major victory for a largely disenfranchised population, compensating victims of housing discrimination and resulting in a multi-million-dollar cooperative effort to build housing and provide needed services to farmworkers throughout the area for years to come," said Ilene Jacobs, then the director of litigation for California Rural Legal Assistance, which represented the farmworkers in the case. (The statement came from a HUD news release.)

Today—a decade and a half later—the county is still working on upholding its end of the settlement.

In December, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, by a vote of 4-0, approved an agreement with the Galilee Center—an organization that works to fill the needs of the underprivileged and disadvantaged—to construct and operate a facility in downtown Mecca that will provide permanent shower, restroom and laundry services for migrant farmworkers in the eastern Coachella Valley.

Such a facility was one of numerous mandated remedies to be undertaken by Riverside County as part of that 2000 HUD settlement.

“We call it Plaza Esperanza,” Galilee Center president and founder Gloria Gomez said recently. “It’s for the farmworkers, but anybody will able to use it, especially the people who are in the streets. … ‘Esperanza’ means ‘hope’ in English, because the people have been waiting so many years for these showers and laundry facilities.”

Riverside County District 4 Supervisor John Benoit said he has worked for years to find the right strategy to bring this facility to fruition.

“For some years, we have had a horrible facility that offered some of these comfort services, but it was quite a way outside of downtown Mecca,” Benoit said. “Then a few years ago, some people I know who have been involved in great nonprofit human health and services experiences in the valley decided to open up the Galilee Center in Mecca. … So I went to them and said, ‘This potentially could be a great cooperative effort where instead of spending the money to build a completely new facility and figure out how to manage it, we could work together.’

“I’m very pleased that notion has come to fruition and is nearly operational. They’re going to offer a lot of amenities that we could never have offered at just a simple shower and cleanliness facility. Certainly, it will be an asset to the community.”

Gomez elaborated on the Galilee Center’s plans.

“We’re going to have 12 showers for men and 12 showers for women,” she said. “The shower and laundry areas are being paid for by the Riverside County funds. We’re fundraising to build a large family community room where we’ll have televisions for the people and computer stations to help them search for jobs on the Internet. Also, we want to have classes to help give instruction to people who don’t know how to write their names.”

A December press release from Benoit’s office mentioned that $1.2 million in funds were designated for the comfort-station construction. Gomez said that won’t quite cover all costs.

“We’re bringing in extensions for the gas, water and sewer lines from Second Street,” Gomez said. “That’s pretty far away, so it’s expensive to bring those utilities to our site.”

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors has also agreed to provide $75,000 per year in operational funding for the new facility, which is slated to open May 18. Will that prove sufficient?

“We will be open November through March and again May through July,” said Gomez. “And during those months, our daily hours will be Monday through Friday from 1 to 7 p.m., while Saturdays and Sundays will be from noon to 6 p.m.

“During the other months, we will have the community room open and available. This first year of operations, we will find out exactly what the costs will be—especially during the hottest summer months, since the facility is going to be air-conditioned.”

Benoit praised all the work the Galilee Center has done and continues to do. “I think it’s great when you see the government able to work with these walking saints like Gloria Gomez and (Galilee Center CFO and co-founder) Claudia Castorena, because they’re trying to do the right thing for their community.”

Even after the HUD settlement and other initiatives over the past 15 years, the quality of life for our valley’s migrant-worker community needs improvement.

“There is an ongoing need for food. Right now, every Thursday, we have between 300 and 500 families who come to get food staples for the week,” Gomez said. “An even bigger need is health issues. Mental health is a big issue on this side of the valley. Our people need rental assistance and utility assistance. Some of the farmworkers work hard their entire lives to put food on our tables, but now they’re retired and receive no government assistance, because they’ve been undocumented. We encounter so many different problems and situations with this population. We can only do so much.”

If you’d like to contribute to the success of Plaza Esperanza—the Galilee Center is in special need of shampoo, soaps and towels (white towels are preferred because they’re easier to wash), as well as toothbrushes, toothpaste and small bottles of mouthwash—call the Galilee Center at 760-396-9100, or visit galileecenter.org.

It’s been a long road home for Coachella boxer Randy Caballero.

The International Boxing Federation’s world bantamweight champion has been fighting in faraway places for more than a year now. The twisting road led him first to Sunrise, Fla., then to Kobe, Japan, and then finally to Monte Carlo, Monaco, where he seized the world title he’s wanted since he was 8 years old, when he first began boxing under the tutelage of Lee Espinoza, director of the Coachella Valley Boxing Club (pictured to the right).

But Caballero is now home, and the first defense of his title will happen in the friendly confines of the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino’s Events Center, on Friday, Feb. 27.

The Independent spent time with him at the Coachella Valley Boxing Club gym, on Douma Street in Coachella. We asked him how it feels to be a world champion.

“It feels good, but it feels the same,” replied Caballero, 24. “The title hasn’t changed me. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, the belt changed you.’ I’m the same person. I’ve still got to wake up in the morning and go run, and come to the gym and train hard every single day. You’ve got to train extra-hard to make sure you keep that title and not let it go anywhere.

“But other than that, I’m the same. My family’s the same. We all hang out still and have barbecues. We’re all the same people. We’re never going to change.”

Caballero’s nuclear family and support group includes his wife, Yaniva; their three children; father, Marcos Caballero (also his trainer and manager); and mom, Stephanie. And unquestionably, one of the strongest presences in Caballero’s life is Lee Espinoza.

Commonly referred to as the “godfather of local boxing” in the valley, Espinoza comes across as a guardian angel, of sorts, for the local kids who enter his club’s doors in search of a lifestyle that keeps them off tough neighborhood streets. For more than three decades, he’s been teaching valuable life skills and, on several occasions, grooming world champions.

“Lee has been a big part of my career and my life—my dad’s life, too,” Randy Caballero said. “My dad, when he came from Nicaragua at a very young age, he ended up walking into a boxing gym, which I believe was on Sixth Street in Coachella, in the old fire station. I got to visit it when I was little, but I never fought there, since I was too little. Lee trained my dad; he’s always been with us, and we’ve always had him in my corner. … It’s a learning sport, and Lee’s been around it for so long that he can tell us what to do or not to do.”

The traveling that Randy Caballero has done has not always included Espinoza: The coach hates to fly, so he skipped the trips to Japan and Monte Carlo.

“I got to witness that when we went to Miami; he was really bad on that plane,” Randy Caballero said. “But it’s nice to know we have him when we’re here. He’s opened the doors and his arms to us here at the Coachella Valley Boxing Club gym since we were little. It’s my second home here.”

For Espinoza, there’s no place he’d rather be, either. “It’s like something you get hooked on,” Espinoza said with a big smile. “It’s something almost like drugs. I can’t be at the house no more. I don’t know what I’m going to do there. So I come here and do this, because what we’ve done is, like, amazing. Everywhere in the world we go, they recognize us and me.

“Six kids from this little gym have fought for world titles, and four won. Pancho Segura won twice. Julio Diaz won twice. Sandra Yard got a title, and now Randy Caballero. So that’s it—I’m hooked. They ask me, ‘When are you going to retire?’ And I say when I die. I’m not leaving here.”

Meanwhile, Caballero is happy to be back home.

“It’s been over a year since I fought here,” Caballero said. “So it feels good to be back in my hometown, and I finally get to fight in front of my fans, family and friends. It will be good to walk into the arena and hear people cheering for me instead of the other guy.”

Is there added pressure to do well in front of that hometown crowd?

“Having to go to Miami, to Japan and to Monte Carlo—being in different arenas and in some one else’s hometown—kind of taught me that no matter where you’re at around the world, once you’re in that ring, it’s just you and that guy, and nobody else,” Caballero said. “… Once that bell rings, it’s like everything just goes ‘swoosh’ and closes in. I just can hear me and the guy breathing, and then I just hear my dad, and my brothers and my wife and my mom. That’s just about it.”

What kind of fight does he expect in his first title defense, against Mexico’s Alberto Guevara?

“I’m expecting a really tough fight,” Caballero said. “This guy’s brother just won a world boxing title, so in this guy’s mind, he’s thinking, ‘OK, this is my chance to win a world title, too.’ So I know he’s going to come in and give it a hard fight. This might be his last opportunity to win a world title.

“Like I’ve said, I’ve trained hard. I train hard every single day, and whenever they put a fighter in front of me, I train 100 percent. Whether it’s someone with a bunch of losses, or someone who has the best record in the sport of boxing, you never take anyone lightly. I’m going to make sure that I dictate the fight from Round 1 on. I’m ready to put on a good show for my fans out here at Fantasy Springs, and it should be a great fight.”

For more information, or to purchase tickets ($35 to $105), visit www.fantasyspringsresort.com.

The 2015 Humana Challenge Championship was still up for grabs as the last group, containing the sole leader, Bill Haas, came down the 18th fairway on the Arnold Palmer Private Course at PGA West in La Quinta.

Waiting, watching and keeping loose on the driving range were five players, including Idyllwild’s Brendan Steele, who had finished their rounds tied at 21 under par—one shot behind Haas.

“The tournament’s definitely not over from my perspective,” Steele said as he waited for more than an hour to see if his 21-under total would get him into a playoff. “With the water on the last couple holes, anybody can make a bad swing at any time, so you just kind of hang out and see what’s happening. I can’t act like, ‘Hey, I did a good job, but it’s not enough, and I’m going to go home.’ I’ve got to be ready, just in case anything does happen.”

However, the jailbreak playoff was not to be, as Haas battled to a final-hole par and took home the $1 million-plus paycheck.

Meanwhile, fan favorite Phil Mickelson finished in a tie for 24th place, 7 shots off the lead—and it seemed the weekend was just what he needed. As he wound his way around the three courses, he seemed relaxed and unconcerned. For the first three days, he played a convivial and charming host to the amateur players in his group. Whether regaling them with amusing anecdotes or generously offering helpful tips, Mickelson seemed to be at ease.

“I’ve got some things to improve on, but it was a good week to kind of build a foundation (and) work on my game,” Mickelson told the media after his last round. “We had great weather. That allows you to work on the fundamentals and get the swing basics down without having to fight the elements, without getting into bad habits.”

How does the 2015 season ahead look to these two players?

“I’ve been feeling really, really good, shooting good scores at home,” Steele shared. “I know that doesn’t always translate, but I’m just seeing a big difference in my game.”

Meanwhile, Mickelson said he was excited for the upcoming year.

“I feel I’m ready to go, ready to get started,” he said. “It was a good week to get the year started. Now we’ll see the next two weeks if I can get that fine-tuning done and shoot the low scores I need.”

Scroll down to see several photos from the Humana Challenge.

On Thursday and Friday, Jan. 22 and 23, the crowds grew in size and fervor at the 56th Annual Humana Challenge—and for local fans, there was an unusual bonus, as several local PGA Tour pros were in pursuit of the winner’s payday of $1,026,000.

La Quinta resident Scott McCarron and Palm Desert’s Byron Smith were hovering near par after two days, well behind the leaders. However, Brendan Steele of Idyllwild finished Friday’s round at 9 under par, six shots behind leader Matt Kuchar.

“I’m happy with how I’ve been playing,” Steele told the Independent after Friday’s solid round. “I was a little disappointed with the last six holes today, but overall, I’m really happy with every part of my game.”

Although he and his wife are staying in a condo near the courses this week to cut down the commuting time, he recognized a lot of familiar faces behind the ropes. “The whole town of Idyllwild is showing up, and that’s always fun,” he said with a smile. “It’s a nice way to start the year.”

Each day, as the sun begins to set, many in the early-arriving crowd begin to move away from the fairways of PGA West’s Palmer Private Course and Nicklaus Private Course toward the watering holes and food-truck bonanza at the centrally located Bob Hope Square. There, they find refreshment of all sorts, and can watch the remaining action on multiple big screens. Also, for the first time this year, they can take a stroll down Charity Row to get a close-up look at the many Coachella Valley organizations that benefit directly from the dollars raised through ticket sales and concessions at the tournament.

“More than 80,000 fans enter the grounds through this walkway over the weekend,” said Chrissy Ormond, the client services manager at the Humana Challenge, who works for Desert Classic Charities, “and we just thought this would be a great way to promote many of the 40 recipient charities in the desert and let people get to know who they are.”

While the basic daily grounds pass costs $40 this year, fans might feel better about paying that sum if they understand that much of that money goes to directly to local charities.

“The biggest thing for me is to help the fans understand that while we are a professional golf tournament, we are really positively impacting lives in the Coachella Valley as well,” she said.

Scroll down to see some pictures from the first two days of the Humana Challenge.

As the Hollywood A-listers began arriving at Palm Springs Convention Center for the 26th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival's Awards Gala on Saturday, Jan. 3, hopes ran high among the fans gathered along the sidewalks across from the red-carpeted entryway.

Whether the fans were locals or visitors to the Coachella Valley, they all had favorites they were hoping to see.

Palm Springs resident Diana Doyle has joined the crowd for three years running. “I’m one of those people now,” she said. “I’m hooked!”

Has she had luck meeting celebrities in the past?

“Last year, I had a great picture taken with Bradley Cooper, and it went into the Los Angeles Times, and now it’s my screensaver,” she laughed. This year, her good luck continued as she got a chance to grab “selfies” with Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell.

For Connie Hale of Palm Desert, this was her eighth year of braving the crowd.

“We got her about 12 noon today,” she said. “I’ve met lots of celebrities over the years, and this is the spot to do it. I’ve met Brad Pitt and Robert Downey Jr. already, but this year, I’d like to meet any of the stars coming.”

At one point, Hale found herself face-to-face with Michael Keaton—but the moment passed without her getting the autograph she wanted.

KESQ/CBS Local 2 meteorologist Rob Bradley and fiancée Kristina Guckenberger were among the fortunate fans who obtained access to the grandstand seating area next to the red-carpet entrance.

“I’ve had to work in the studio the last two years doing weather updates during down time in our Awards Gala red-carpet live special coverage, so this is my first time being here at the event,” Bradley said.

Did they have any favorites they wanted to see up close this evening? “My mom said I should meet Robert Downey Jr. and Brad Pitt. And for my dad, Reese Witherspoon,” Guckenberger said. Unfortunately, neither Downey nor Pitt appeared out front to greet fans.

Still, the crowd’s mood remained festive as the almost-full moon rose and the temperature dropped, before the fans dispersed as the awards dinner got under way inside.

Scroll down to see some pictures from the red carpet.