23 March 2015

Tips for enjoying (and surviving) the BNP Paribas Open

View of a practice court with beautiful backdrop
Indian Wells was always on my list of must-do tennis tournaments, and circumstances allowed me to make a slightly late decision to head to the desert for the 2015 BNP Paribas Open. I was toying with the idea anyway, but Serena Williams' announcement that she was going to play this huge joint event for the first time since 2001 made it a no-brainer for me. I had to be there.

I go to a lot of tennis tournaments and have for a number of years, but this was my first trip to Indian Wells. I have to say it will debut pretty high on my list of fave tennis tourneys in terms of delivering what I need to enjoy live tennis. Here's why:

Getting there:
It's no big deal to have a bit of traffic to get in and out of any sporting event, or to walk amongst big crowds heading into a tournament site. But Indian Wells has so many parking areas and roads in and out that only once did I get stuck in a parking queue of any size (and that was leaving the site toward the end of the night after the Bryan Brothers had won).
Rafa Nadal practicing on Practice Court 1

In my 10 days at the tournament, I drove/rode in by noon each day (usually I got there by 10am when the gates opened) and the roads in and out were always manageable. This is so key - last year when I attended Miami it was such a struggle due to the lone road going into and out of Key Biscayne so everyone - players, fans, etc - has to sit in the same long queue of cars to get anywhere which can be frustrating. So there's a big point for IW.

Unless you're staying at one of the hotels on the shuttle route, you'll need a car to get to and from the site. I did read about some public transportation on local buses but never investigated. A friend and I rented a car for a few days, but that proved problematic in that she had media credentials so we couldn't enter the same gate (SIGH).  We tried to avoid her dropping me off at one gate and driving to hers by taking the hotel shuttle but that was a bust too. We saw many people walking to the bus at the Holiday Inn Express, so we parked there and jumped on. All good. But on the way back, the bus driver asked us for our room key so we had to get a ride back with a friend instead. I would have gladly paid for a shuttle but that is not an option here (in Miami you can use the hotel shuttles even if you aren't staying there, and everyone pays regardless). Car parking is $20 a day onsite unless you have a parking pass. I heard there are places to park for free then walk but I didn't have to do that this year.

A welcome sign for Serena Williams on the day of her comeback match

In a word, the Indian Wells Tennis Garden = class. It's clear a serious wad of cash has been spent developing the site and everything is just beautiful here, from the two big stadiums to the ample green spaces. The stunning desert backdrop and palm trees all over the grounds certainly add to the beauty of the site.

One of the big screen areas by the RumChata bar near the North Gate

The big screen area with lots of chairs and tables. There are 3 screens here
Other than the opening weekend when close to 50,000 people were on the grounds each day, there's so much space here it never felt uncomfortably crowded. It helps that there are two large, grassy areas with tables, a huge big screen space with 100-200 chairs as well as a few large seating areas with shade and TVs. Given the baking sun here it's essential to take breaks in some shade so I really appreciated all the options available. Tables in the shade by the bars were a hot commodity but during the week it was easy to grab a seat for a meal or a break from the sun.

Overall, the Indian Wells crowds were amongst the friendliest I've encountered. For the most part, they were engaged, friendly and present. I had seats up high, down low and everything in between and you always have people talking loudly, answering their phones, etc so that's just part of watching live matches.

Admittedly one of the reasons I never made it a priority to attend Indian Wells was due to the crowd's treatment of Serena and the Williams family in 2001 (not living in the US for 12 years also played a big part). I had always planned to go there after Venus and Serena retired, as I couldn't see the point of attending a joint event knowing they wouldn't be there.

I'll write about this in more detail later, but the crowd's welcome of Serena during her first match brought tears to my eyes. To be part of a standing ovation for one of my most favorite athletes ever was unlike any other experience. I've witnessed many crowds boo when withdrawals are announced, or during retirements (see Venus Williams vs Andrea Petkovic, Australian Open 2011). I also was in Stadium 1 earlier in the day of Serena's return, when boos were clearly heard near me when the MC made a reference to her comeback match that night. It was a tense wait as I sat in my seat waiting for the players, but they celebrated her return loudly and enthusiastically. I was proud.

On the negative side, I wasn't impressed that the stand control volunteers let people into their seats in the lower loge section during play. This was annoying whether you were in that section or up above (constant bodies in the way blocking the view). I understand movement in the upper loge and grandstand sections are not going to bother players, but they bother fans! It's not unlike this in other tournaments so I can deal with that. However, unlike any tourney I've been to, Indian Wells repeatedly let in night session ticket holders while the day session was still on (it ran late several times). This caused some disturbances as many stood around in the level between loge and upper loge/grandstand. Volunteers tried to get people to take any seat, but often they were not to be seen while people clogged up the lower areas and blocked the views of those of us sitting up high.

Indian Wells allows one to bring in food which is great. Every day I brought in enough food for the day and only twice had to get dinner onsite due to staying later. Trader Joe's was my go-to with lots of yummy salads, wraps and sushi to keep me going for 12 hours of tennis! There are plenty of food options onsite but none really impressed me much for the price. Stadium 2 has a Nobu but I don't like spending too much money to eat out in general and plus there was way too much tennis to watch so I wasn't going to eat in a restaurant anyway.

One of my favorite moments of the daily routine of getting into the site was a woman who checked bags upon our entry into the North Gate. She'd offer commentary about one's food - apples good, chips bad! She was funny. But do bring in what you can if you're money conscious or not willing to wait in line to buy a $12 salad.

Ice water and the OOP to start each day
A word on drinks and what you can/can't bring in. This was really inconsistent which is one of my biggest complaints about attending sporting events. I'm fine with rules but be consistent. The first day I attended was the second day of qualies so we were able to bring in water, coffee and fountain drinks from offsite. Then gradually we couldn't bring in any liquids from a non-sealed container. That meant my two bottles had to be empty (ice was okay tho), and if I had a soft drink it had to be unopened. This was kind of a pain, as it meant people had to dump out their water bottles (hello CA is in a drought!) or buy bottled water (pains me to see that). There were a few places to fill water onsite, and I get the concerns about people bringing alcohol on site but if people really want to bring it in they will find a way. Glass containers was always a no-no, but basically I came in each day with 1 aluminum bottle and 1 CamelBak bottle which I'd filled with ice at the motel. Bring in as much ice as you can - it's so hot you will need it!

Unlike Jelena Jankovic, I am NOT a California girl. Born and bred in Iowa, I don't hate the sun but I prefer my temperatures to be a bit milder. I've always been sun sensitive so throw me into the desert and it was a bit of a struggle.

When I planned to attend 10 days of the BNP Paribas Open, I was worried about the heat. And it did bite me a few times despite all my efforts to stay cool. Here are some survival tips for trying to watch lots of live tennis while baking in the desert sun:
  • ICE. Freeze some water bottles or fill up your bottles in a motel, convenience store, etc. The more the better. If you're really hot during the match, put the icy bottle on the back of your neck, your feet and wrists to help cool down.
  • Umbrella. I actually used my brolly once for some light rain we had one afternoon, but I used it plenty to help block the sun. You will be popular with your neighbors if you put your umbrella up (don't block anyone's view of course) and help provide others with a little shade.
  • Sit on a towel - what a difference this makes! I didn't bring mine the first week and what a mistake that was. The seats/benches get HOT so this helps so much. It's also more comfortable (just don't leave it behind - I did once and was lucky it was still on my seat when I returned).
  • Soak a towel in water and place on your neck, feet etc. I know a lot of people borrow towels from their motels and do this. I had a small handkerchief that I drenched in water on and put it on my burning feet and arms a few times. If you want something longer-lasting, but a cooling towel in the tourney shop (they were sold out when I tried) for about $15. Or get your own (I clearly need to buy this one).
  • Sunscreen - apply often. I am rocking a California glow but I put sunscreen on 3-4 times a day. But please be sunsmart.
  • Hat - don't wear a sombrero (I have actually seen tennis fans wearing them in the stands!) but you will want a hat that covers your head and ears. Have you ever burnt the tops of your ears? Well, it hurts.
  • Water mister - I used to have a small Evian face spray that was handy in the heat, but thankfully there are two sets of three fans onsite blowing out water mists so these were very popular. These were amazing and the queue was never too long so hop in and out as much as you need to. 
  • Pain reliever - if you're starting to feel off, take a few Tylonel, etc to help with the headaches.
The misting water was a cool treat for fans
Despite all my due diligence, I still had some sunstroke symptoms. If you feel woozy, get out of the heat immediately. There are a few First Aid stations onsite and they are full of great, helpful people who want you to feel better. On the second Monday, I watched Serena beat Sloane then Rafa beat Donald Young. I was in the upper section of Stadium 1 and I was just baking during the 3-4 hours I was in my seat. I decided I needed a bit of relief after Rafa won so I went to the First Aid station, and was immediately given a cold towel for my neck, a bag of ice (which I put on my feet), Tylonel, cold water and Gatorade. Don't take a chance - I had sunstroke once at the Australian Open and felt like I might fall over. I went to First Aid and they made me sit for an hour as my pulse had been racing. It's not worth the risk so be safe. 

Watching Ana Ivanovic on Stadium 4
Having been to all the slams and several other big tourneys, I truly feel like there is no bad seat in any tennis stadium once you've sat in the Promenade area of Arthur Ashe Stadium. So one of my day session tickets at IW was in the highest row on Stadium 1 and it was just fine. In fact it's great up there as you can enjoy the views of the entire tourney and keep an umbrella up without disturbing anyone.

In past years, there was a General Admission section in Stadium 1 but that has been changed now unfortunately. I never tried to sit there as I always had a stadium ticket, but that was quite unusual to have a GA section and unsurprisingly it filled up fast!

Stadiums 2-10
I admit Indian Wells was a bit confusing in terms of the other stadiums and reserved seats vs general admission. It wasn't just me - I heard a lot of people asking volunteers where they could sit, especially Stadium 2 (signs will help!) Stadiums 2 and 3 both feature some reserved seats so you can't sit in those even late at night when hardly anyone else is in the stadium. Stadiums 4-10 though are completely open and are great smaller courts which give you such close accessibility to all the action during matches. One of my favorite moments during my 10 days was the Anastasia Rodionova vs Yulia Putintseva final qualifying match on Stadium 8. I tweeted a lot of about this match and the lovely people over at The Tennis Island did a great recap. I always choose to sit behind the umpire and player chairs because you can really see what goes on. I love seeing top players, but my best memories (outside Serena's first match) featured players on the smaller stadiums. I love the more intimate crowds and being able to see the emotions and reactions of the players (both good and bad!)

Practice courts: 
If you attend Indian Wells, download the app which features a practice court schedule so you can help plan your day if you want to catch a specific player (tho like anywhere the schedule can change and does often). The courts here are great for watching practices and they even stream practice courts 1 and 2. The only issue with the courts is they block off access so there's limited walking areas but I think this helps with crowd flow. Two practice courts are fully inaccessible - 9 and 10 - and that's where Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova exclusively practiced. Other big stars practiced there too for some privacy. I know fans were bummed to not see Serena and Maria close up, but c'est la vie!

Player autographs/The Field:
Indian Wells is loved by players for its open spaces, and the large grassy area near the practice courts is one reason why. I'd long heard of this area and seen photos of players kicking the soccer ball around, etc.  The field is a great area to spot players warming up, relaxing and hiding from the sun and the gated area near it is the place to get photos of players and autographs. As a rule, I do not do autographs - it's fine it's just not my thing because tennis fans can lose all sense of manners as they push and jump trying to get selfies and autographs. But I did brave the nuttiness to get a Rafa hat signed for my tennis-loving mom (tho I did have to get a sweet young girl to assist me because people pushed in so much. Honestly). But if you really want to try for a selfie or get something signed, it's not always chaos by the fence. I saw many tame moments with players like Madison Keys, Grigor Dimitrov, Kevin Anderson, Jack Sock and more. But for the top players be prepared to wait, be stepped on etc by fans.

Thinking of attending Indian Wells next year? Tweet me or comment here with any thoughts or questions! But I wholeheartedly recommend the BNP Paribas Open as a must-do tennis tournament. Hope to go back someday!

13 March 2015

Serena's emotional return to Indian Wells

I took this photo on Friday, March 13, 2015, mere hours before Serena Williams would step back into a stadium that had led to such pain that she refused to step back in it for 14 years.

I've been on the Serena Williams fan train since the very beginning. Back in the mid-1990s, I heard about two sisters from Compton who were expected to change the tennis world, at least according to their infamous father, Richard. And boy was he right.

Throughout the past 20 years, following Serena's career has been a roller coaster ride. There have been extreme high and scary lows, moments of awe and wonder and others of sadness and disappointment.

When Serena announced on February 4, 2015 that she would return to the Indian Wells tournament, I was shocked, then excited, then proud as I watched her announce her comeback and partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative. I questioned why she would want to go back, and how it happened. I wondered in Venus would return as well, and how the crowd would welcome and support her.

Nike ad that came out the week of IW
Since 2001 I had grown used to Serena's absence from the tournament which had been the place where boos rained down on her in the final by an angry, hostile crowd. I honestly tired of hearing about Serena and Venus' absence from Indian Wells every year, but not because I didn't find their stance warranted. Like most painful memories, reliving 2001 IW meant remembering the criticism of the Williams family back in those days and around the incident.The unproven rumors that Richard 'decided' who won their matches. That race wasn't a factor in the crowd's despicable behavior that day. That Venus withdrew seconds before the scheduled semifinal.

It appeared that until Serena and Venus retired we would hear the same narratives again each year. I'm sure the tournament wished it would all just disappear so that they weren't weighed down by the past. But you can't escape your past and I think that drove Serena to once again step foot on the court that had caused her such pain. As she would later say, it was time to create new memories.

Serena Williams is a legend, not just in tennis but in sports worldwide. Love her or not, you can't argue with her legacy and impact on the game. So to have this amazing player absent from one of the biggest tournaments in the world was a glaring one each year.

When Serena made her announcement that she was going back, I decided I would also go to this tournament which in my mind has had a major black mark on it since 2001. I bought the night session tickets for both Friday and Saturday of the opening weekend, fully expecting Serena's match to be held at night.

In the days leading up to the tournament, the little things made me a bit emotional about Serena's return. On my way to Palm Springs, the draw came out with Serena at the top as the #1 seed.  Then it was announced that Serena would play the first night match on Friday, March 13. I checked several times that I did indeed have that ticket (I did) so that I would be in the stadium for her opening match.

Stadium 1 crowd as we waited for Serena to arrive.
I've watched Serena play in 10 different tournaments around the world in the past 7 years: Australian Open, Miami, Charleston, Eastbourne, Wimbledon, Montreal, Cincinnati, US Open, WTA Finals and the Olympics. I've seen her win grand slam finals (US Open 2013, US Open 2014), lose in a grand slam after winning the previous one (Australian Open 2008). I've seen her both defeat and lose to her big sister (Charleston 2013, Montreal 2015). I've seen her come back from 10-months out of the game after major, scary health problems (Eastbourne 2011).

I've heard crowds cheer in awe of her, I've heard them be ambivalent, I've heard them roar.

This time, I was really nervous. How would this Indian Wells crowd show themselves to the WTA #1, holder of 19 grand slams? Had they built up resentment of her since 2001 due to the dark cloud that hung above Indian Wells? Did they respect her career and desperately want her back in their tournament? I had no idea.

She's back.
On my first day at Indian Wells, I was watching Victoria Azarenka practice onsite with Serena's former hitting partner Sascha Bajin when I started chatting to gentleman sitting next to me. Without prompting, he said "Well Serena is gracing us with her presence this year."

I pursed my lips and did not respond, instead I focused on watching Vika practice with Sascha (which was pretty surreal). Was this a common view in Indian Wells? Was I right to feel scared about their response?

Friday, March 13 arrived and I was in Stadium 1 for the day session when this happened:

Surely not. But there were clear boos near me so this didn't help my anxiety for her comeback match that night.

Hours later, I made my way back into Stadium 1 and prepared myself for the return.  The crowd filled in pretty well before the 7pm start. When Serena was announced, all I heard were applause and cheers. She stepped on the court and waved. The crowd was on its feet - no boos, no jeers. Just appreciation for a tennis legend and an enthusiastic welcome back. My eyes welled as the standing ovation kept going, and I could see on the screen that Serena had tears in her eyes too. Later I watched the video of Serena and her box. Seeing the emotion on her face, and her sister Isha, hit home what a huge step this was for the family.

Serena entering the stadium for her first match

The cheers continued as Serena's long, long list of tennis achievements was announced.

The support kept going throughout the match as Serena struggled to get a game on the board and nearly went down 4-0. They cheered loudly when she got back on serve and eventually won the first set. She was definitely not relaxed on the court, and despite the will of the crowd the second set was just as difficult. Props to her tricky opponent, Monica Niculescu, who rose to the big occasion and played her unconventional game well. In the end tho, it was Serena who made a successful return and the crowd roared.

For Serena, this wasn't about coming to a tournament and winning matches and a trophy. This was about moving on from the past and trying to move on from past wrongs. She said on the Tennis Channel afterward that returning to IW may have been the biggest win of her career. In the context of everything she's achieved in the sport, that was some statement.

No one can understand what damage the treatment of Serena, the 19-year old, caused her and her family. But I don't feel there has ever been due diligence by the tournament to clear up what happened the day of that 2001 semifinal. Venus, Serena and the Williams family have said repeatedly that Venus notified the tournament about her need to withdraw hours before the scheduled match. In her book, Serena said they wondered why the announcement wasn't being made.

I have always thought it would have been very simple for the WTA and IW to clarify the timeline of communication that day and take some responsibility for the mess that followed. Why wasn't this ever cleared up? I guess we will never know.

Serena is moving on from the past and I'll do the same. I'm so proud of her decision and proud of the way the crowd embraced her. After her initial match, I saw Serena in her matches against Sloane Stephens and Timea Bacsinsky. The crowd support was unwavering. Serena intends to return in 2016, and we'll see if Venus follows suit.