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BILL DWYRE

Billionaire Larry Ellison will pay for tennis, loves to play it too

The Oracle founder is the fifth-wealthiest man in the world, and he was willing to spend about $100 million of that fortune to buy the BNP Paribas Open, securing the future of the Indian Wells event. At 66, he's also a serious player.

March 12, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Larry Ellison, who purchased the BNP Paribas Open last year, is a 66-year-old tennis enthusiast who has been deemed by Forbes as the fifth wealthiest man in the world.
Larry Ellison, who purchased the BNP Paribas Open last year, is a 66-year-old… (John G. Mabanglo / EPA )

We sat in a huge boardroom, with paneled walls, nice paintings and 20 big leather chairs so comfortable they could put you to sleep in minutes.

It was a great place to discuss software trends with Larry Ellison, who was not only deemed by Forbes last week to be the fifth wealthiest man in the world, but who has probably seen more boardrooms than anybody this side of Warren Buffett.

Of course, your typist wouldn't know a broadband from a Band-Aid. So it was a good thing the topic was one vastly more important to the welfare of Western civilization.

That would be tennis.

Last year, Ellison purchased the BNP Paribas Open, which has pretty well established itself as the next best thing in tennis after the four Grand Slams. If nothing else, its attendance, currently heading toward 350,000 for its 13-day run in the Southern California desert, proves that. Only the four majors sell more tickets.

Ellison, 66, is a tennis enthusiast, which probably understates it.

"I play five days a week," he says. "It's usually on clay. I love it."

This is not a pat-it-around guy, either. Asked if he is rated around a 4.0 or 4.5 player — ratings that indicate a strong, serious player, almost college-team level — Ellison says, "Oh, I think a little better than that."

He admits it is hard to know exactly, because he isn't playing senior tournaments, even though he smacks his lips at the thought.

"It is tempting," he says.

One might imagine that the board of directors of Oracle, his massive software company in Redwood Shores, Ca., would like competitive tennis to remain merely a temptation. He has already put together a team that won an America's Cup in sailing, so the window for more fun time can't be huge.

"Life is not practice," he says. "It can't be that all I do is work."

He says he came back and forth to the tournament a few times last year, the first year he owned the event. This time, he says, "I will stay the rest of the week. I like it here."

In corporate tennis circles, his purchase of the Indian Wells event is seen as something almost heroic, a move that not only injected cash and stability into a tournament that had become a crown jewel of the sport, but also sent an important message: If Larry Ellison thinks enough of the sport to spend around $100 million on it, and even commit to improving a tournament that didn't seem to need much, than tennis is still a big player on the international scene.

"I love the sport," he says. "Nobody had to sell me on doing this."

There had been the possibility that, with financial difficulties, this tournament might be sold and moved to another country, likely China. PM Sports Management, the Charlie Pasarell-Raymond Moore venture that owned and grew this tournament over 36 years, had gotten itself in decent shape the last few years to be able to carry on easily. But Ellison's offer was too good to refuse, as was the extra financial security.

"Nobody wanted to see this tournament go to another country," Ellison says.

He is an unabashed supporter of and optimist about the sport. He lights up when he talks about classic Jimmy Connors-John McEnroe matches he has seen. He indicates feeling honored to have met the great Aussie, Rod Laver, and says Laver's era, with Ken Rosewall and Roy Emerson, was a time of tennis pride, much like the current era of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

"They are special," Ellison says of Federer and Nadal. "I remember that Australian final, when Rafa beat Roger and Roger was so crushed by losing, and Rafa went over and put his arm around him."

Ellison is at the age when men usually turn to golf, but he says he doesn't play the game, even though he just bought a huge property in Rancho Mirage that includes its own golf course, called Porcupine Creek.

"The joke is that I don't play golf because I have only one club," Ellison says.

Fifteen minutes had passed and nary a broadband had been discussed. Nor any skinny bands. This was tennis time, and bigger things were on the agenda, such as Juan Martin Del Potro's massive forehand.

In this discussion, probably as in most business discussions, Ellison's first serves were all in.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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