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BILL DWYRE

Charlie Pasarell and Co. keep tennis' desert palace glittering

Freed from financial worries of earlier years, Pasarell, Ray Moore and Steve Simon keep finding ways to make Indian Wells Tennis Garden and its signature event, the BNP Paribas Open, bigger and better.

March 05, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Julia Cohen serves to Eva Birnerova during qualifying for the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on Monday
Julia Cohen serves to Eva Birnerova during qualifying for the BNP Paribas… (Matthew Stockman / Getty…)

The Three Musketeers of tennis are really bursting at the seams this year.

It is their time. The sun is baking the Palm Springs desert most days now, and Charlie Pasarell, Ray Moore and Steve Simon are like 5-year-olds on Christmas morning.

Their BNP Paribas Open starts Wednesday. The tickets are flying over the counter. The weather forecast is good, so far. Plus, almost every player you have ever heard of and wanted to see play, as well as dozens you haven't and don't, will be there, squeaking and grunting and hitting shots regular people can't imagine.

The norm, when writing about events such as this, is to feature the players. Yes, Roger Federer will be there, as will Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and the wonderfully quirky defending champion and No. 1 player in the world, Novak Djokovic. So will Maria Sharapova, No. 1-ranked Victoria Azarenka, 2011 newcomer and Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and defending champion Caroline Wozniacki. Competing will be 11 former Indian Wells champions and 14 major-tournament winners.

But there is plenty of time for them. The tournament wraps up Sunday, March 18, with finals in men's and women's singles.

This will be the 13th year it has been held in the tennis Taj Mahal that Pasarell and Moore shepherded from conception to reality, with Simon, the tournament director, doing much of the heavy lifting. Even to the non-fan, it's worth at least a drive-by. With seating for 16,100, it is the second-largest tennis stadium in the country, after the U.S. Open's main court. Having a huge stadium in New York City is one thing. Having one rising from the desert sands of tiny Indian Wells is clearly another.

Pasarell, 68, and Moore, 65, were tournament players of note when even the biggest tournaments weren't worth $1 million, much less a $1-million winner's check for both men and women here.

Pasarell and Moore were good doubles players and played Davis Cup for the U.S. and South Africa, respectively. Pasarell's claims to playing fame were in sharing UCLA's No. 1 spot with Arthur Ashe and in his 1969 Wimbledon loss to Pancho Gonzalez, a first-round match that took 5 hours 12 minutes.

When their playing days were over, each sought a day job. They formed PM Sports Management and began operating the men's tour event in the desert. That began 37 years ago, with a nice, little sunken court at La Quinta Resort, where people lounged on the lawn and watched. It grew and moved a few miles to the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort in Indian Wells, a facility most thought was perfect.

Not Pasarell and Moore.

"A couple years into it," Pasarell says, "we could see we were running out of room."

So they bought 54 acres a mile away and put up a players' and spectators' palace at a cost of $77 million. That raised the question of whether they were also running out of sanity.

The first event in the new Indian Wells Tennis Garden was in 2000, making this year's the 13th.

How has that worked out?

There were rumors they weren't going to make it, that they would have to sell and move. But the best answer rests with the number of people who have trekked through the gates the last six years. Attendance in 2006 was 270,453. That has gone up every year, to last year's milestone of 350,086.

"We are looking for, hoping for, something like 380,000, maybe this year," Pasarell says.

Key to this has been the recent sponsorship commitment of the European bank BNP Paribas, and the purchase of the event by billionaire Larry Ellison. That has allowed the Three Musketeers to stop counting pennies and do what they love to do — figure out ways to improve the tournament. With Ellison's money.

"We want to make the fan experience better every year," Simon says.

This year's contribution, Ellison's idea, includes Hawkeye line-calling machines on each court. No other tennis tournament has that, not even the Grand Slams. The equipment needed for Hawkeye provides each court with video replay capabilities. During a lull, a fan watching on Court 6 can see an important point in the main stadium.

The outside courts have been upgraded to give each a stadium feel. Plastic chairs have been replaced by permanent seats.

The facility has 24 courts, but only eight are used for competition. The other 16 are practice courts — most on-site practice courts anywhere — and the large crowds that traditionally linger and hang over fences to see the stars warm up, or Nadal with his shirt off, will have newly installed bleachers from which to watch. New electronic signage will even tell them when and where to go. Yes, just for practice sessions.

The tickets, of course, cost an arm and a leg, but the Three Musketeers have addressed that too. They sell general admission tickets every day, starting at $35 early in the tournament and going to $50. For that, a person can wander the grounds and a new village area under a huge permanent tent, watch matches on the outside courts, see several matches at a time on big screens overlooking a lounging area on the northeast side of the stadium, or even sit in the main stadium in an upper-level section allotted to them.

By all measures, this has become the fifth-most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, right after the four Grand Slams. But don't assume the Musketeers will rest on their laurels. They never have.

Imagine a retractable dome over all 54 acres. Just for the days when it gets a little too hot, of course.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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