INDIAN WELLS -- After two days, I've already experienced a lot of highs and lows on this trip.
On Tuesday, I drove nine hours from Sacramento to the Palm Springs area for the BNP Paribas Open. Approximately six of those hours were spent waiting for a traffic light to turn green in Kettleman City, of all places, so I could get back on the freeway.
Kettleman City is a godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere (actually California) where I made my mandatory stop at In-N-Out Burger for dinner. For those of you unfamiliar with In-N-Out, my condolences. It's the best fast-food hamburger joint in the West.
"In-N-Out" is a misnomer, though. The place is usually busier than a Texas gun show. I was hungry and thought I'd beat the crowd by eating at 5 p.m. Indeed, I had never seen In-N-Out less crowded, and it still took forever to get my order.
Anyway, I can save NASA billions of dollars. Forget about Mars. Just go to Kettleman City.
After slight delays for two car accidents in the Los Angeles area (Memo to fellow drivers: Slow down in traffic and the rain), I arrived at the Super 8 Indio late Tuesday night. Based on my experience, if the name of your hotel has a digit in it -- Super 8, Motel 6, etc. -- hightail it in the other direction. Better yet, commit a non-violent crime and get thrown in prison. Your accommodations will be more comfortable.
A better name for the motel would be Not-So-Super 8. What a dump. The thermostat and one lamp don't work. The furniture is junk -- Goodwill would reject this stuff -- and apparently hasn't been dusted since 1975. The plumbing is bad. The towels are paper-thin and about as absorbent. The TV reception from the Neptune probe is better. What do you want for 72 bucks a night? The Ritz? On the bright side, the refrigerator works, there's hot water in the shower, and wireless is free.
As you might have guessed, I'm making this trip on the cheap, the price of gas notwithstanding. This is a major letdown after going on a luxurious two-week group tour to Australia and New Zealand in January. We spent an afternoon on a yacht previously rented by Al Pacino and then Kevin Spacey, for crying out loud. This is like going from steak and lobster to franks and beans.
Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, it did. I went to bed at 2 a.m. and asked for a wake-up call at 9 a.m. As another indication of how Spartan this place is, not only is there no alarm clock in the room, there's no pad of paper and pen. Wouldn't want to splurge, after all.
So I asked for the wake-up call. Pretty hard to screw that up, right? Not for these Einsteins. The phone jarred me awake at 6 a.m. What, did I need to tell the guy I was in the same building and not in New York? To top it off, the motors on the two tractor-trailers -- which, since we seem to be on an outer-space theme here, looked big enough to haul the Space Shuttle -- outside my door idled for God knows how long. Finally, I went back to sleep until wake-up call No. 2.
After showering, I drove 10 minutes to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the site of the BNP Paribas Open, and picked up my media credential. The tournament draws fans not only from Southern California but throughout the Western United States and even Canada. It's easy to see why. Great tennis, great facility, great weather and great scenery. What's not to like?
The BNP Paribas Open, which began Monday with qualifying and continues through March 18, is at the highest level of tournaments in the world outside of the four Grand Slams. The top male and female players are required to play, health permitting. However, Venus and Serena Williams have boycotted the event since 2001 because of alleged racist remarks by some fans.
No. 1 Novak Djokovic and recently deposed No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki are back to defend their titles (Djokovic also won in 2008). Joining them are 2009 champion Rafael Nadal, 2004-06 winner Roger Federer, new No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, 2006 champion Maria Sharapova and reigning Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova.
Total prize money exceeds $5.5 million, with the men's and women's singles champions each pocketing $1 million. BNP Paribas, a global banking group based in Paris, is in its fourth year as the primary sponsor of the tournament.
The site, situated in the Coachella (pronounced CO-chella) Valley, opened in 2000. It features a 16,100-seat stadium -- the second-largest in the world for tennis behind 22,547-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York -- with 44 suites, 23 courts and 55 acres of outdoor parking. To the west lie the spectacular San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains. Fans usually bask in the sun, although Wednesday was cool and breezy.
As I walked around the outside of the stadium toward the media entrance on an otherwise quiet Wednesday morning, I noticed fans packed around a small, outside court. This can mean only one thing: A star was practicing there. Sure enough, Djokovic was hitting. Also, Azarenka was slugging balls on the adjacent court. My luck was beginning to change.
I snapped a few photos and rushed to the media interview room for the WTA all-access media hour with the top eight women's seeds. They appeared one-by-one throughout the hour and sat at round tables, with the name of each star on them, to answer questions. All were pleasant, with Wozniacki perhaps the most cheerful despite her fall from No. 1. Maybe it has something to do with her relationship with Rory McIlroy, who last weekend became the top-ranked golfer in the world.
The last to appear, appropriately, was Queen Victoria. She apologized for keeping the media waiting, which might be a first in sports history, explaining that her coach had delayed her.
Federer, who like all seeds received a first-round bye and will open play later this week, then held an individual news conference. The men's record holder with 16 Grand Slam singles titles bristled when asked why he hasn't won one in "a long time."
"I don't know what 'long' means," said Federer, 30. " ... I lost some tough matches, but a lot of it had to do with (Andy) Murray, Djokovic and Nadal."
Federer's last Grand Slam title came in the 2010 Australian Open. He held two match points against Djokovic in the semifinals of each of the past two U.S. Opens.
Separate news conferences are scheduled today with Nadal and Murray and Friday with Djokovic and Mardy Fish, the top American and 2008 runner-up after beating Federer. In the official program's list of past tournament finalists, Fish's first name appears as "Mary." Not even "Marty." Ouch. Presumably, the Sacramento Capitals of World TeamTennis will get it right when he plays home matches on July 12 and 13.
There are basically two kinds of reporters at interview sessions, both annoying as hell. You have the self-proclaimed experts who monopolize the time so it's difficult for others to wedge in a question. And you have the nimrods who begin by saying, "Could you talk about ... " Whenever you hear this, you know it's amateur hour. Ask a specific question, for Christ's sake.
Meanwhile, Vania King, a Long Beach product playing for the first time since hurting her right gluteus three weeks ago, beat red-hot Sara Errani of Italy 7-6 (3), 6-4 on the stadium court in the first round. Errani, who won the Acapulco singles and doubles titles last week on clay and reached her first Grand Slam singles quarterfinal in the Australian Open in January, led 5-2 in the first set and 3-1 in the second set.
Afterward, King was testy as always in an interview. You could ask her about the weather, and she'd give you her patented icy stare and curt answer.
King, 23, said she's unsure if she'll return for her third season with the Capitals because she hopes to play in the Olympics in London. That's interesting, because the tennis event begins July 28, the last day of the three-week WTT regular season. If she skips team tennis, I'll try not to shed too many tears.
Next on the stadium court at Indian Wells, Californians Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears lost to hard-serving Germans Julia Goerges and Sabine Lisicki 6-2, 6-7 (2), 10-7 tiebreak in the opening round of doubles. Kops-Jones, who won the 2003 NCAA doubles title with Cal teammate and Sacramento native Christina Fusano, drilled a forehand putaway volley into the net on match point.
Goerges is 5-foot-11, and Lisicki, a singles semifinalist last year at Wimbledon and Stanford, is 5-10.
Following the match, Kops-Jones and Spears "politely declined" an interview request through a spokesman. Singles players are required to conduct postmatch interviews if asked, but doubles competitors aren't, tournament official J. Fred Sidhu said.
Granted, Kops-Jones and Spears had just lost a heartbreaker. But they're professionals, and doubles specialists each ranked No. 28 in the world aren't exactly mobbed by reporters. Who do they think they are? Madonna?
After dinner in the cafeteria for players and media -- Donald Young was in front of me and Jelena Jankovic, the 2010 women's champion here, behind me in the check-out line -- I returned to the Not-So-Super 8.