There are few greater pleasures than watching world-class tennis while basking in the sun at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden with the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains looming in the distance.
Unfortunately, I did very little of that during a three-day visit to the recent BNP Paribas Open. I spent the vast majority of my time attending post-match news conferences, of which there's one approximately every 30 seconds, and taking photos of players during media sessions and matches. Those photos, as well as others from the Australian Open in January, should start appearing with stories on NorCal Tennis Czar soon.
Still, the news conferences can be worthwhile once you get past the cliches about "playing my game" and "taking one match at a time." You get a glimpse of the players' personalities and every once in a while actually learn something.
Here are some awards from the briefings I attended:
Mr. Excitement Award (Most Unemotional Player) -- Andy Murray might want to hold off on that stand-up comedy career. Although cooperative enough, he's about as lively as a postal worker -- win, lose or draw.
However, tennis guru Vic Braden did get a rise out of Murray, previously thought impossible. Braden told Murray, the former world No. 2 who's 0-3 in Grand Slam singles finals: "Everybody criticizes you for what you haven't done. I applaud you for what you have done."
"Thank you ... a first," said Murray, smiling widely and clapping his hands.
Dick Enberg Award (Worst Preface to a Question) -- A reporter said to top-ranked Victoria Azarenka, who went on to win her first Indian Wells singles title: "You've probably been asked this a billion times ... " Nothing like antagonizing a player from the get-go.
Take That! Award (Best Comeback Line) -- Replied Azarenka, rolling her eyes: "So you just want to ask me again, right? OK, let's do it ... billion and one.
Outside the Lines Award (Best Perspective) -- The reporter above asked Azarenka, who almost quit tennis last year, to discuss the pep talk that her grandmother gave her.
Azarenka responded: "She really changed my perspective of life. There's no time to complain when you're so lucky to be able to do something that you love and you're actually good at. You just have to work hard and enjoy being here."
Albert Einstein Award (Smartest Player) -- Marion Bartoli, last year's runner-up at Indian Wells, said then that she has an IQ of 175.
Honorable mention: Andy Roddick and Mona Barthel. Roddick answers questions insightfully and does not suffer fools gladly. Barthel, a 21-year-old German who came within two points of beating Azarenka in the second round, finished high school one year ahead of schedule. "I love to go to school," she said.
Honest Abe Award (Most Candid Player) -- When Bartoli was asked if she regretted revealing her lofty IQ, the 2007 Wimbledon runner-up from France said: "Do I regret saying the truth? No. I don't say every day, I'm so smart. I was 9 years old (when tested). I'm 27 now. It doesn't mean I'm smarter or better than anyone else."
Say What? Award (Biggest Revelation) -- Top-ranked Novak Djokovic's best memory of the French Open was a loss -- 7-6 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) to Roger Federer in last year's semifinals.
"One of the most exciting matches was definitely the one against Roger last year, even though I lost," said Djokovic, who will continue his quest for the Grand Slam in just over two months at Roland Garros. "I still think it was a pretty special one because we went the distance. We went up to, what, 9 or 9:15 in the evening with no lights and with a full stadium."
So a loss is Djokovic's best memory of the French Open, the only Grand Slam tournament he hasn't won?
"Yeah. Losses are a part of the sport," he noted.
Honorable mention: Sam Querrey. The 6-foot-6 San Francisco native said his new coach, Brad Gilbert of San Rafael, wants him "to play a big man's game -- big serves, big forehands. 'If the ball's ever in your zone, pop it -- no questions asked.' "
Hadn't anyone told Querrey that? "No," he responded.
Honorable mention: Jamie Hampton. The 22-year-old Auburn, Ala., product said she has never been to a football game -- pro, college or high school.
"Tennis takes over," explained Hampton, who upset 2010 Indian Wells champion Jelena Jankovic en route to the fourth round.
Patrick Rafter Award (Nicest Guy) -- Querrey, who turned pro out of high school six years ago, is old enough to be jaded (see John Isner) but remains cheerful and down to earth. This has a lot to do with his normal upbringing. Rather than attend a tennis academy or be home-schooled, he graduated from a public high school in the Los Angeles area and went to his class' all-night graduation party at Disneyland. At the Tiburon Challenger last October, Querrey hit with ballboys and ballgirls after at least one match. When was the last time you saw a pro do that?
Federal Express Award (Most Prompt Player) -- It often takes players, apparently oblivious to reporters' deadlines, 30 to 60 minutes after their matches to appear in the interview room. Roddick, however, showed up promptly. Thank you, Andy. Roddick does everything fast: play, go to interviews and talk.
We Won't Bite Award (Quietest Player) -- I interviewed Christina McHale three years ago after she won the USTA girls 18 national singles and doubles titles in Berkeley, and she didn't have a lot to say. I figured it was because she was only 17 years old.
Well, guess what? McHale still doesn't have a lot to say. Her answers were never more than two or three sentences long. Her game speaks volumes, though. McHale, from New Jersey outside of New York City, stunned reigning Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova en route to the fourth round at Indian Wells. Granted, Kvitova was weak from a virus she had picked up in the Middle East. But McHale, now 19 years old (20 on May 11), ranks second among Americans at No. 32 in the world.
Statue of Liberty Award (best English by a non-native speaker) -- Most international players speak English remarkably well, but Maria Sharapova takes it to another level. Sharapova, who moved from her native Russia to the United States at 7, has no trace of an accent. She will turn 25 on April 19.