CVIndependent

Wed06192019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

As the 2019 edition of the BNP Paribas Open shifted into high gear, the world’s best tennis players battled the weather, injuries, illness and each other for the trophies and the $1.3 million men’s and women’s singles championship checks that were handed out in Stadium 1 on St. Patrick’s Day.

The feel-good story of the tournament—and perhaps of the year in tennis—was Bianca Andreescu. The 18-year-old Canadian, a wild-card entrant into the BNP Paribas Open, defeated four opponents ranked in the Top 20 as she made her improbable march toward the championship, delivering a masterful show of grit and talent.

Andreescu was the talk of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden as she made her improbable run toward the title of the tennis world’s “fifth major.” Last year, Naomi Osaka flew under the radar to win her first big tournament, starting down a road that led to last year’s U.S. Open singles title win over Serena Williams; the Australian Open women’s title; and a return to the Coachella Valley as the No. 1 player in the world. (Osaka lost her bid to repeat as champ in the round of 16 to Belinda Bencic.) Only time will tell us if Andreescu can emulate such a meteoric climb, after winning the hearts of the 16,000-plus spectators as she struggled against the sudden return of warm weather and the (mostly) solid strokes of three-time Grand Slam winner and eighth-ranked Angelique Kerber, before winning in three sets.

On the men’s side, the ATP’s fourth-ranked player, perennial fan favorite Roger Federer, walked onto the Stadium 1 court late on Sunday afternoon as the odds-on favorite against seventh-seeded Dominic Thiem of Austria. Federer had not lost a set on his way to the final, and had just come off an unexpected day of rest when longtime nemesis/friend Rafael Nadal had to withdraw from their highly anticipated semifinal due to a recurring knee injury. (Thiem gained an extra day of rest earlier in the week as well, when the ever-entertaining French shot-making maestro Gael Monfils had to withdraw.) While Federer jumped out to an early lead and appeared to be back in control late in the third and final set, it was Thiem who rose to the occasion, taking the title 3-6, 6-3, 7-5.

One other highlight of came courtesy of tournament director and former ATP pro Tommy Haas, who skillfully filled the open spot in Saturday’s schedule (due to Nadal’s withdrawal) by luring No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic—who had been upset in the third round—and tennis legends Pete Sampras and John McEnroe onto the court for a lively and fun-filled one-set doubles exhibition that was refereed by comedian John Lovitz.

Scroll down to see photos from the final days of the BNP Paribas Open.

Published in Snapshot

As play ended late Sunday night, March 11, it was fair to say that the first week of this year’s BNP Paribas Open delivered more than its share of upsets and surprises at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

More than half of the Top 30 seeded Women’s Tennis Association players went down to defeat, including Johanna Konta (No. 11), Garbine Muguruza (No. 3), Petra Kvitova (No. 9), Jelena Ostapenko (No. 6) and the ever-popular Americans Madison Keys (No. 15) and CoCo Vandeweghe (No. 17). Also, unranked but perennial fan favorites Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenko fell victim to a group of young and talented players determined to make their presence felt at this year’s tennis carnival.

On the men’s Association of Tennis Professionals side, the carnage was less widespread, but a number of highly seeded victims, including Grigor Dimitrov (No. 3), Alexander Zverev (No. 4), Lucas Pouille (No. 9), Novak Djokovic (No. 10) and American John Isner (No. 15), will not move on to the round of 32, which began Monday, March 12.

In the midst of this statistical turmoil, some intriguing personal moments unfolded on the Stadium Court 1. On Saturday night, the seemingly immortal men’s No. 1 player, Roger Federer, was getting into tournament shape. Playing his first singles match of this tournament against Argentinian Federico Delbonis, Federer took the first set 6-3 and was tied early in the second set—when the skies gave way to a rainy downpour, the likes of which Indian Wells rarely sees. The match was delayed for several hours before finally being postponed to Sunday for its completion.

“It's been a long time since I have been interrupted at night and have to come back the next day,” Federer said to reporters after he claimed his initial victory with a 7-6 second-set victory, sparing him a lengthy contest on the second of what became three consecutive days of play.

The inconvenience did not color his continuing attraction to our valley tour stop. “They are very knowledgeable about tennis,” he said about the tens of thousands of fans who come out each year. “It's nice that the tournament has invested a lot so they can have an even better experience here at the tennis.”

Just prior to Federer’s eventual Sunday win, five-time BNP Paribas Open champion Novak Djokovic took on his first match challenge against the 109th-ranked Taro Daniel of Japan. While walking onstage during his introduction to the packed stadium, Djokovic exhibited an air of detachment as he smiled slightly, waved his hand and lifted his chin, looking to the sky and soaking up the gladiatorial atmosphere he’s been missing due to various recent injuries and illnesses. “I was grateful to be out on the court after surgery that quickly,” he said in his post match interview, “but at the same time, (I) just didn't feel good at all.” His spotty, overall lackluster play highlighted that reality. After losing a tight first set in a surprisingly one-sided tiebreaker (7-3 for Daniel), he seemed to find his passion and stormed through the later part of the second set, taking it 6-4 to square the match. Then came a complete collapse in the third set as the upstart Daniel capitalized for a 6-1 runaway win.

“Well, it’s life, you know,” Djokovic philosophized later. “God always challenges you when you expect it least. I have experienced many times similar situations, so I know that there is always something good in it. You just need to try to set your mind at that frequency.”

The true “feel good” story of the week belonged to 16-year-old American player Amanda Anisimova, who got into the tournament via a sponsor wild-card exemption. On Sunday, in she faced ninth-seeded Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic. The young New Jersey native was absolutely on fire as she overwhelmed her more accomplished opponent, 6-2, 6-4.

“Yeah, it feels crazy. I mean, I’m still in shock,” Anisimova gushed in the post-match press conference. “She (Kvitova) is the best player I have ever played, and it was the biggest court I have ever played on. So it was definitely nerve-wracking, kind of, but I was enjoying it so much out there and I was playing my best. It was a good day.”

As Week 2 play gets underway, a huge highlight comes Monday night—in fact, it’s happening as of this posting. The No. 8 seed Venus Williams is facing her uncharacteristically unseeded younger sister, Serena in the third round. Serena, coming back to competition after the birth of her first child, was asked how she feels about playing her sister at such and early point in the tournament.

“She’s had such a good year last year and (is) playing fantastic tennis,” Serena observed. “But I have to play a seed regardless, sooner than later most times for the next couple of tournaments. So I have to be ready. Obviously I wish it was anybody else in the draw, literally anybody, but that’s OK. Just have to go out there and see how I am and do my best.”

Here are two predictions for Week 2: Rain will return to play havoc with the later rounds this year … and only one Williams sister will move on past tonight. (Update: Venus defeated Serena, 6-3, 6-4.)

Published in Snapshot

The second and final week of Coachella Valley’s prestigious BNP Paribas Open typically delivers sharp tennis play and competitive drama as sports media and fans around the world focus on the on-court action.

This year, that unfortunately was not the case.

As Sunday’s first match began, hopes ran high that top-ranked Serena Williams would reclaim the championship she last captured in 2001. But a curiously subdued and somber Williams offered little resistance to No. 8 Victoria Azarenka’s determined if less-than-dominating performance. With 33 unforced errors, Williams squandered a multitude of break-point opportunities throughout both sets. Even so, she did manage a short-lived comeback in the second set before succumbing to now second-time BNP Paribas champion Azarenka in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4.

That set the scene for heavily favored and top-ranked Novak Djokovic to take on No. 12 Milos Raonic of Canada. Despite plenty of Canadians in the stands to offer support, Raonic could never gain an advantage in the match. He underperformed throughout, committing 27 unforced errors while managing a mere four aces with his vaunted serving game. As the second set began, he left the court for an elongated injury play stoppage, and when he returned, he lost every game in a convincing 6-2, 6-0 Djokovic win.

But by far, the biggest unforced error of the strange day went to none other than Raymond Moore, the BNP Paribas Open tournament director and CEO. At a morning news conference, Moore was asked about prospects of elevating his tournament to the status of a fifth major title for the pros. Saying that the men’s tour was on board for that opportunity, he then offered this evaluation of the WTA and the women’s tour players: “In my next life, when I come back, I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions, and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky,” he said.

Moore continued: “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport.”

Both Azarenka and Williams expressed their displeasure with Moore’s remarks during post-match interviews. “Why do you have to make the comment? Who cares?” Azarenka asked rhetorically. “I mean, if that makes that person feel better or bigger or whatever, it’s a pretty sad person.”

Williams said, “Obviously I don’t think any woman should be down on her knees thanking anybody like that. If I could tell you every day how many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister … you know, I couldn’t even bring up that number.”

When asked if she thought there might be a misunderstanding regarding how people were interpreting Moore’s comments, Williams replied, “Well, if you read the transcript, you can only interpret it one way. I speak very good English. I’m sure he does, too.”

Later in the day, Moore had the BNP Paribas public relations staff issue a statement on his behalf which stated, “At my morning breakfast with the media, I made comments about the WTA that were in extremely poor taste and erroneous. I am truly sorry for those remarks, and apologize to all the players and WTA as a whole. We had a women’s final today that reflects the strength of the players, especially Serena and Victoria, and the entire WTA. Again, I am truly sorry for my remarks."

(Update: Moore resigned on Monday, March 21.)

With all of Sunday’s controversy and uncharacteristically tepid competition, it would be easy to overlook some of the sparkling play that took place earlier in Week 2. Arguably the best tennis of the entire tournament was played on Wednesday, in the round of 16 match between No. 5 Rafael Nadal and No. 52 Alexander Zverev. Perennial fan favorite Nadal defeated the 18-year-old German phenom, who had thrilled crowds with upset wins over Grigor Dimitrov and Gilles Simon, both Top 25 players. Stadium 1 was packed for their battle, and the crowd roared throughout in appreciation of the competitive fire displayed by both players in the 6-7, 6-0, 7-5 Nadal comeback victory.

Published in Snapshot

As the 2016 edition of the BNP Paribas Open got under way last week at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, two topics dominated the conversations of players, the media and fans alike: Maria Sharapova’s recent alleged doping infraction (leading to her absence) and the return of Venus Williams after a 15 year boycott of the tournament where she enjoyed some of her earliest career triumphs.

Two-time defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic told the media he was sympathetic regarding Sharapova’s situation. “I know that she has always been very responsible and aware toward herself, toward the sport—very disciplined, very … hard working, hard-working ethics, and (she) loves what she does.

“I thought she was very courageous, and it was very human, brave of her, to go out and take the responsibility and say what has happened. She did admit that she made a mistake with her team. But certainly if there was a mistake, and if she was caught to be positive on doping for a certain substance, then there should be certain kind of consequences for that.”

Consequences seemed to be on Venus Williams’ mind as she stepped back into the Tennis Garden surroundings.

“I think when (Serena) came back, it wasn't an easy decision. You never know what was going to happen,” Venus said regarding her sister’s return to Indian Wells last year. “But she had so much courage to do so. It made it so easy for me. I felt like when I came out here, I was able to focus on the tennis and not on, ‘Oh, my gosh, what’s gonna happen?’”

What did happen when she finally set foot on the Stadium 1 show court for her Friday, March 11, match? A standing ovation that lasted several minutes.

“Yeah, I did get emotional,” Venus Williams said. “When we were doing the coin toss, I got a little watery eyed. Your opponent—you don't want to give them any more encouragement. It was wonderful. I think I smiled the whole warm-up. I had to get my game face on. It was tough to do.”

Shortly after the start of her first match, against 89th-ranked Kurumi Nara of Japan, the wind kicked up, and a burst of rain rolled across the Tennis Gardens grounds, blowing objects around. The storm chased players off all the courts—and it’s possible the disruption contributed to Venus’ early exit from this year’s tournament: She would go on to be upset, 6-4, 6-3.

“The crowd rooted me on because it was a tough day and tough conditions and brutal out there,” a positive Venus Williams remarked in her post-match media conference. “It was wonderful to feel the love. You know, I would love to come on back.”

As the winds dissipate and the second week of play gets under way, all five of the top-seeded men are still alive (including No. 1 Djokovic, No. 2 Andy Murray, No. 3 Stan Wawrinka, No. 4 Rafael Nadal and No. 5 Kei Nishikori), while just three of the top 5 women (No. 1 Serena Williams, No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 5/defending champ Simona Halep) are moving ahead. 

Published in Snapshot

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.

Published in Snapshot

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.

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

A good time for a good cause was the goal at the Will Powered Golf Classic, held Monday, March 3, at Palm Desert’s Bighorn Golf Club, and the Desert Smash tennis tournament, held Tuesday, March 4, at the La Quinta Resort.

The events were hosted by actor/comedian Will Ferrell and cancer survivor Craig Pollard, the founder of Cancer for College.

Players competed in a “shamble” format in the annual golfing fundraiser, which has been funding scholarships for cancer survivors since 1994. The golf tournament kicked off Cancer for College’s 2014 Desert Showdown, which continued on Tuesday, March 4, with the Desert Smash tennis tournament, as well as a concert featuring Nelly and Boyz II Men at The Show at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa.

Ferrell and Pollard were joined this year by Kevin Spacey, the two-time Academy Award-winning actor and star of the hit Netflix series House of Cards. Since 1994, Cancer for College has granted more than $2 million in college scholarships to more than 1,000 cancer survivors.

At an impromptu press conference on his way to tee-off on Monday, Ferrell touted all of the charity-centric activities included in this year’s expanded Desert Showdown. In particular, he expressed excitement about the concert at The Show, modestly called Will Ferrell’s Epically Awesome Desert Showdown Concert Extravaganza.

“I don’t think that Coachella music fest will be able to compare! And that’s a scoop, by the way,” he said.

Regarding the serious cause underlying the fun and games, Ferrell explained the perspective he and Pollard share.

“We use humor to kind of talk about cancer,” said Ferrell. “You know, it’s such a taboo subject, because people don’t want to talk about having gone through the disease, but we kind of mix it up. One of the best parts is hearing the recent scholarship recipients’ speeches, where they talk about everything they’ve gone through, and how motivated they are to make a difference.”

Moments later, just after the celebrity groupings were announced on the first tee, the crowd was told that Will Ferrell would face the No. 2-ranked tennis player in the world, Novak Djokovic, at the Desert Smash tourney on the next day.

“I’m going to be playing with my driver,” deadpanned Ferrell as he waved his golf club in the air.

On Tuesday, March 4, however, that driver was nowhere to be seen, as fans of tennis and celebrity star-gazing flocked to the La Quinta Resort’s tennis club. Desert Showdown Day 2 got under way with celebs and amateurs filling many of the back courts for short doubles matches. Comedian/actor Jon Lovitz, singer Redfoo, actor Joel McHale of Community and actor Timothy Olyphant of Justified were among the stars who participated.

In the afternoon, fans ringed the stadium to watch the featured matches. Ferrell decided serenade the crowd during his opening remarks with a flawed rendition of the Canadian national anthem. No. 2-ranked tennis pro Novak Djokovic, who was teamed with Ferrell in one of the most entertaining doubles matches, played while wearing a wig as an homage to Will Ferrell’s character Jackie Moon from the film Semi-Pro.

Also competing were Bridesmaids actress Rebel Wilson, two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey, 2014 Australian Open winner Stan Wawrinka, the top-ranked doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan, and former BNP Paribas Open winners Ana Ivanovic and Daniela Hantuchova, among others.

As play was about to begin, Will Ferrell told the crowd, “I’ve been practicing for this moment my entire life! Make sure you hydrate. I’m doing that by drinking a lot of tequila and vodka.”

The contests were frequently interrupted by impromptu fundraising auction events, the proceeds of which all went to Cancer for College. One highly successful auction was inspired by valley resident and WBO world welterweight boxing champion Timothy Bradley, who provided two ringside tickets to his upcoming bout with Manny Pacquiao. As bidding escalated rapidly, Kevin Spacey taunted his doubles opponent Ferrell to bid higher, saying, “Come on, Will! Anchorman did better than that.”

Ferrell responded by urging Spacey to pony up some of his earnings from his Netflix series House of Cards.

“Netflix only pays us in DVDs,” quipped Spacey.

It’s fair to say that a good time was had by all.

Scroll down to view a photo gallery.

Original version published at 10:45 a.m., Tuesday, March 4; updated version published at 10:15 a.m., Wednesday, March 5.

Published in Snapshot