Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, having fun during an exhibition match earlier… (Paul Crock / AFP / Getty Images )
The desert tennis tournament that began 36 years ago as a nice little mom-and-pop, sit-on-the-lawn-and-watch event will put its international stature on display for the next two weeks.
The BNP Paribas Open, annually the fifth-best attended tennis event in the world — after the four Grand Slams — will begin Monday with qualifying play and end March 20 with men's and women's singles finals that annually feature some of the top players in the world.
The women's qualifying will be Monday and Tuesday, with admission free to the public. The men's qualifying will be Tuesday and Wednesday, with the Tuesday session free. The women's main draw, a WTA Tour Tier I event, will begin Wednesday; the men's, an ATP Masters Series event, on Thursday. Both main draws will have 96 players.
The field traditionally attracts all but a handful of the top players, and this year is no exception. No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, No. 2 Vera Zvonareva and No. 3 Kim Clijsters will lead the women's field; No. 1 Rafael Nadal, No. 2 Roger Federer and No. 3 Novak Djokovic the men.
Jelena Jankovic and Ivan Ljubicic will try to defend their titles.
The tournament in the desert began in 1976 at Mission Hills. As it grew, under the stewardship of former touring pros Charlie Pasarell and Raymond Moore, it moved to La Quinta and a cozy 7,000-seat center court, then on to a 10,000-seat stadium at the Hyatt Grand Champions that seemed to suffice for both players and fans.
It did not suffice for Pasarell and Moore, along with longtime operational assistants Steve Simon and Dee Dee Felich.
In 2000, 13 years after its opening day at Grand Champions, the tournament was played in the new Indian Wells Tennis Garden, capacity 16,100. Since then, it has gone through two presenting sponsors — Newsweek and Pacific Life Insurance — and now is known as the BNP Paribas Open, its sponsor a European-based bank that spends much of its marketing budget on tennis.
Last year, the tournament took another step toward future stability, when it was purchased by billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison, an avid tennis fan and player. Along the way, there have been offers that would have taken the tournament to China, but Ellison's purchase most likely has ended that.
Last year's event drew a tournament-record 339,657 spectators for its 21 sessions, a slight increase over the previous year, despite the economic climate. This year's tournament will feature enhanced seating capacity on several outside show courts and the addition of the Hawkeye line-calling camera on all outside match courts.