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COMMENTARY

Tennis Still Can Learn a Lot From Pasarell

March 16, 1998|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

INDIAN WELLS — A few years ago, when Sports Illustrated asked, in big headlines, if tennis was dying, the powers that run the sport were publicly furious. Not so in private, where they nodded their heads, admitted the question was well-founded and pledged to find ways to apply a tourniquet.

While the quest to stop the bleeding is ongoing, tennis can look upon Charlie Pasarell's annual fantasy week in the desert as a giant check mark on the good side of the ledger. For tennis, the need is acute.

Keep in mind that this is a sport that:

* Seems to be finding its way, on merit, more and more toward the back pages of sports sections and the last gasps of sportscasts;

* Seems to merely watch in amazement as golf has gone on an incredible boom that has stolen huge numbers of the age and income demographics that tennis must have to grow;

* Recently was listed 12th of 14 sports in Sporting News research that tested public perception of "the relative importance of sports." Tennis was just ahead of minor league baseball and soccer and a notch below women's college basketball;

* Held perhaps its most high-profile, public-relations-friendly gathering last fall at a dedication of the new Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open that invited back all its former champions for a wonderful show on center court--and was publicly stiffed by three of its biggest names, no-shows Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors. Don Budge, winner in 1937 and '38, was there. In a wheelchair.

Pasarell, the former UCLA star turned pro player and now tennis official and entrepreneur, has managed to put on, once again, an event that floats somewhere above the storm clouds that constantly hover over this sport.

His ten days of combined men's and women's competition--the Newsweek Champions Cup and the State Farm Evert Cup--drew record crowds this year. The 1998 total was 148,960, or 6,003 better than last year. They even sold a record 842 grounds passes, for those who were willing to pay merely for the chance to wander to outer courts, with no access to a stadium seat.

Pasarell didn't even have night sessions a few years ago, and this year's Friday night session sold 9,336 tickets, only 2,164 shy of the 11,500 sellout. An even better way to look at the statistical success of this event is that Pasarell was only 17,643 shy of a complete sellout of the tournament.

The Indian Wells event has a lot going for it that others don't.

It is held in a place, at a time of the year, that was created for travel brochures. Palm trees sway in gentle warm breezes, across plush golf courses that beckon on eternally sunny days. The pace, like the elderly drivers that fill the streets here, is slow and meandering. Life is 18 holes and a dinner reservation at 7.

And so, once a year, in this idyllic setting, Pasarell stages some of the best tennis in the world. His event is called a Super Nine, meaning that the top players can't duck it for some lucrative exhibition or ask six figures just to show up. They come, they generally play hard, they enjoy themselves almost as much as the crowds enjoy them, and they depart with obscene amounts of money.

Marcelo Rios, a smug and surly left-hander from Chile, who goes out of his way to endear himself to nobody and moves surprisingly well on the tennis court for somebody carrying around such a large chip on his shoulder, won Sunday's final here, beating Greg Rusedski of England. Rios won $361,000, Rusedski $190,000. And the packed house loved every minute of a match that produced two tiebreakers, including an epic 17-15 finish to the second set.

Not even Rios' attitude, unmistakable to anyone watching closely, could dampen things for the fans here. This event always seems to transcend that, with the only annual concerns of the ticket buyers usually revolving around long lines to the women's restrooms, the need to buy coupons for food at concessions stands and the fact that the Caesar salads purchased on-site aren't of Spago quality.

Tennis is a luxury-box sport, and Pasarell's event has a luxury-box feel, even if you are sitting out in the stands. Part of the sport's trouble, and part of its strength, is that it is so much of, and for, the affluent. Want five tickets in one of the down-close boxes for the full 10 days? Write a check for $3,100.

So, as the sun set here Sunday night on yet another success story at Indian Wells, with Pasarell talking about bigger, brighter, newer stadiums and an even fancier, plusher event a few years hence, the sport of tennis needs to pay its respects.

Something like: "Thanks Charlie, we needed that."

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