The Long and Winding Road to Indian Wells
By Frances Allen
Over the past several years, the combined ATP and Sony Ericsson WTA Tour events, now played at the Indian Wells Tennis Gardens, have been considered as the “Grand Slam of the West.”
But, that wasn’t always the case. However, thanks to the perseverance of men such as Charlie Pasarell, (who lost a record five-hour, 12 minutes match to Pancho Gonzales at Wimbledon in 1969), the history of those torturous years leading up to 2009 and the recently-announced sponsorship of BNP Paribas can now be told dispassionately.
What is now the BNP Paribas Open began as an ATP fund-raising event in Tuscon, before it moved to the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage in 1976.
While the event’s five-year run at Mission Hills was successful, there were doubts that the tournament would remain in the Coachella Valley, as the ATP considered moving it to an about-to-be-built tennis stadium near Disney World in Florida.
However, it just so happened that Pasarell was one of the ATP’s board members, and also the director of tennis at the Desert’s La Quinta Hotel. He prevailed upon the ATP to keep the event in the Coachella Valley and convinced the owners of the La Quinta Hotel to build new tennis facilities to house the event.
The result: a new 7,500-seat tennis stadium and, with Pasarell as tournament director, and a foundation for future growth.
As part of his growth strategy, Pasarell devised an tennis tournament at which both men and women competitions would take place during the same overall time period. It was a hard sell, but as at Wimbledon, Pasarell persevered.
In fact, he did so well that the event outgrew the facilities at La Quinta, and Pasarell realized that a larger, more modern stadium and facilities needed to be build if the vision of a combined tournament was to continue its early success.
A major tennis facility was needed, and Pasarell and friend, Raymond Moore established a company and brought in other investors (including comedian and tennis fan, Alan King) to design, develop and operate a five-star resort hotel and tennis facility in Indian Wells.
Pasarell then signed Newsweek magazine as title sponsor and in 1987, the 350-room Grand Champions Hotel, (now the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort), with its 10,000-seat tennis stadium and related facilities, became home to the “Newsweek Champions Cup.”
Up until 1996, Pasarell’s goal of combining the ATP and WTP events had not been fully reached, and the women’s event was held immediately before, rather than concurrently with, the men’s event.
But, with the maturing of the WTA and the heightened interest in women’s tennis, the ATP and the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour approved combining heir events, making the combined tour one of just six Masters Series/Tier I-level tournaments in the world (including the four Grand slams) that has a combined men’s and women’s event… a distinction it still holds today.
Once more, the success of the combined tournament necessitated more growth, and the Indian Wells Tennis Garden was completed in 2000. The total accomplishment is impressive.
During its entire existence, attendance at the tournament—now known as the Tennis Masters Series Indian Wells—has grown from 30,000 to more than 300,000; prize money has increased from $250,000 to $9 million; television viewership has grown from 25 million homes to nearly a billion homes worldwide; and, the facilities have grown from 7,500 seats to a 20-court, 54-acre complex that includes a 16,100-seat main stadium, two smaller stadiums, 44 luxury suites and nearly 6,000 box seats.
It hasn’t been easy. Just a couple of years ago a change in business philosophy between the investors almost had the effect of the tournament moving to China.
Then the title sponsor, Pacific Life, bowed out of its role, causing another crisis of capital that ended with the signing of French banking giant BNP Paribas as the new title sponsor.
With a new title sponsor that has demonstrated a long-term commitment to the sport of tennis, (BNP Paribas has been supporting tennis events since 1973), and new investors, including such tennis legends as Billie Jean King, Pete Sampras and Chris Evert, the tournament’s future looks rosy. But there is still more growth to come.
Recently, the city of Indian Wells purchased 27 acres originally part of the Tennis Gardens’ holdings and is developing a complex that will include a luxury hotel, movie theater, shopping and dining experiences, all of which will enhance Pasarell’s vision and the enjoyment of Southern California tennis fans far into the next decade.
It looks as if Charlie Pasarell is still hitting aces.