Portlanders, others flock to desert for crown jewel event

TRIBUNE PHOTO: MICHAELA BANCUD - Portland-area tennis fans (from left) Judy Cathcart, Peggy Jaques, Wayne and Terri Pickard get ready to catch some of the action at the BNP Paribas Open. PALM DESERT, Calif. — On a cloudy March day in Portland, Portland International Airport was abuzz with tennis fans flying to the gates of tennis heaven: Palm Desert, Calif., for the 2015 BNP Paribas Open, an outdoor, hardcourt event.

It was a mortal’s chance to see their tennis idols up close, playing in the best facility in the world.

In the security line, oversize backpacks signaled either a serious player or a poser. I carried just one racquet — a black Wilson Blade with no cover. One person in line behind me called out, “What, just one racquet?”

A young fan on the flight to Palm Springs asked if he’ll be able to collect autographs. “Definitely,” I told him. “Go to the outer practice courts; stay away from the big stadiums.”

Fans rate the BNP high for its relaxed environment, beautiful grounds and opportunities to get close to the players. Both the men’s and women’s single draws have 32 seeds. Total prize money this year was more than $5 million.

Sallie Cheatham Cutler is a Portlander who has watched the BNP action the past 12 years. She also attended the recent Desert Smash, a fundraiser where “professional tennis and Hollywood collide,” hosted by comedian Will Ferrell and held at La Quinta Resort, where she owns a Palm Desert condo.

Cutler saw Rafael Nadal’s night match March 18, then returned to La Quinta, where many of the top players stay during the tournament.

“You can watch a lot of the pros practice here in the mornings,” she said. “They really rip the felt off.”

Cutler recently spotted Maria Sharapova in the gym, as well as Novak Djokovic; Mardy Fish, Andy Murray and the Bryan brothers — doubles stars Bob and Mike — on the grounds at La Quinta.

A former event planner for the Country Classic in Wilsonville, Cutler noticed the details at BNP.

“The facility is super-nice,” she said. “It’s easy to get around. There’s a lot of community grass, so people can lounge and watch matches on giant screens. There are geraniums planted in the stadiums.”

Oracle founder Larry Ellison has spared no expense since taking over the tournament in 2009. Indian Wells first introduced the Hawk-Eye technology that allows players to challenge calls, up to three a set. Challenges are replayed on courtside screens, upping the drama. Every court at BNP has Hawk-Eye; even some of the major tournaments don’t.

Tom Turnbull, a Portland software executive, attends every year he can, along with a group of Portland tennis fanatics.

“It’s like the tennis version of the Coachella Music Festival,” Turnbull said, referencing an annual music and arts fest in nearby Indio, Calif.

Turnbull bumped into many other Portland tennis fans this year, including realtor and ex-NBA player Mark Radford and Rodrigo Aguilar, publisher of El Latino de Hoy newspaper.

Turnbull also was on hand for Serena Williams’ triumphant return to Indian Wells after an absence of 14 years, and he picked up an usher’s “Quiet Please” sign on the way in.

“It’s just so fun,” he said. “It’s amazing to see big matches, but I prefer watching players I’ve never heard of and sitting in the front row of smaller stadiums.”

Lines move fast through security at the BNP Paribas Open. Bag checks were new this year, but fans still could bring in unopened drinks as well as food, saving the visitors money.

This was my third time attending, and the crowds were bigger. Attendance has soared, and last year the facility unveiled the new Stadium 2 arena, perfectly sized and with most seats sold as general admission.

Player names and practice times were posted on the outer practice court. True tennis savants planted themselves there to gaze up-close at the players’ form, shape and flow, how they get in a rhythm, when they change it.

I walked directly to the first stadium I reached and asked a volunteer usher where I could sit. “Front and center,” he said with a smile.

I pinched myself and sat two rows back, near the baseline.

I didn’t have to search hard for other Portlanders. Seated next to me for Alexandr Dolgopolov’s match was Mark Hattenhauer, a cardiologist who has attended since 1999.

“It’s the best tournament in the world,” Hattenhauer said. “I’ve been to all the majors, and this is the best.”

This year’s event drew a record fan count of 456,672, close to the total at the French Open, part of the Grand Slam.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: MICHAELA BANCUD - Young tennis fans line up for autographs from the worlds greatest players at the BNP Paribas Open.Djokovic defeated Roger Federer in the BNP Paribas men’s final, and Simona Halep beat Jelena Jankovic for the women’s title, before 16,988 at the 16,100-seat main stadium.

One day during the week, we watched the pony-tailed Dolgopolov, from Ukraine, play against a criminally handsome Santiago Giraldo from Colombia. We were secretly rooting for Dolgopolov, but we cheered for both, especially because the Colombian’s coaching staff was one row in front of us.

Coaching is not allowed, but they were a chatty bunch. “Linda! Linda!” (Beauty! beauty!) they chanted after Santiago rips an especially gorgeous forehand winner.

“Dolgopolov is like sex on a stick, he’s just so relaxed,” Hattenhauer said. “He has a tendency to lose focus sometimes, but he looks good today.”

Dolgopolov won the match in two close sets.

Joan Palmer and Gene Hastings, both University of Oregon Class of 1958, have attended BNP about six times.

“It’s all good tennis,” Hastings said. “You can’t be too picky about where you sit.”

The early rounds, when upsets can occur, are the best, he said.

“There are always loge seats,” Palmer said. “Usually you can move closer if people don’t show or they leave.”

The Monday March 16 evening match between Sharapova and Azarenka required earplugs.

“I wish they’d fine them or dock them points for the noise,” Palmer said.

“That would end it in two days,” Hastings said.

Sharapova defeated Azarenka 6-4, 6-3.

Portland tennis legend Brian Parrott, who launched the Ameican Tennis Hall of Fame, used to bring groups of 24 from Eastmoreland Racquet Club. A huge appetite for tennis remains in Portland, Parrott says, adding that the 2007 Davis Cup finals at Memorial Coliseum sold out in record time.

“It’s really the fifth major,” Parrott said. “It’s such a fun time. An escape from the rain.”

At BNP, some fans jumped from match to match.

I got to see ascending Swiss player Timea Brushinsky, who later lost to Serena Williams, do an oncourt dress change in her match against Ekatarina Makarova. I was behind her as she managed to change into her Lacoste tube dress and replace it with another — a performance captured on YouTube.

My mom and I decided to skip Serena Williams versus Sloane Stephens in Stadium 1. We found shaded seats in Stadium 2 and settled in for a match between Carla Suarez Navarro and British up-and-comer Heather Watson.

We planned to camp there until rising American Jack Sock’s match, but other matches soon tugged at us. A free app, new this year, showed live scores and daily schedules, and broadcast a streaming tennis radio station, letting fans monitor matches from their smartphones. Word traveled fast when matches got interesting or an upset was brewing.

We became antsy and left Navaro-Watson after two sets. We caught the end of a match in which Ukraine’s Lukas Rosol defeated Swiss player Robin Haase.

It was over 91 degrees, and we were burning. We headed to the grass in the center of the grounds and watched part of Serena’s match on the big screen next to the live Tennis Channel feed.

I splurged on a $6.50 frozen coffee drink and contemplated the Tennis Channel’s Justin Gimelstob’s remarkable hair from a distance.

For a tennis fan, it doesn’t get much better than this.

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