Let’s go over the history of the Indian Wells tournament through stories and anecdotes told by an exceptional witness of this tennis event.
When it debuted in 1974, the BNP Paribas Open was known as the American Airlines Tennis Games and was played at the Margaret Court Racquet Club Ranch in Tucson, Arizona. The inaugural tournament had “instant tradition” because esteemed Australian Fred Stolle, who was winding down his playing career, had become the club’s Director of Tennis. (He not only competed in the event he was also involved in its organization.) After two years in Tucson, in 1976, the event moved 372 miles west and found a new home at the Mission Hills Country Club in the Palm Springs area desert community of Rancho Mirage, California.
That was the first time I covered the championships, which, in those days, was solely a men’s event. In the years since, the men’s tournament has changed names five times and so has the women’s competition, which was added to the format in 1989. They have “Name-Shared” on two occasions. What’s more it has taken place at four different but exclusive tennis facilities around Palm Springs. No other Masters Series tournament has a similar GPS history…And having witnessed so much of it, this story will sort through my library of recollections…
The tournament remained in Rancho Mirage through 1980 then followed Highway 111, (which is the major north-south corridor running from Palm Springs to La Quinta and beyond), 12 miles northwest to the La Quinta Resort and Club. In 1981, it was called the Grand Marnier Tennis Games. The next year, it became the Congoleum Classic and was so titled until 1984. In 1985, it became the Pilot Pen Classic and the name held in ‘86…as well as ’87 but the competitive site moved five miles away to the new Grand Champions Resort in Indian Wells.
Following the final show at the La Quinta Resort and Club, I wrote that because of its roller-coaster history the annual March event should be called “The Pat Cash Tournament…When it was good it was very good. But when it was bad, it was awful.” As it turned out, Grand Champions changed the perception…
The Newsweek Champions Cup became the new moniker in 1988 and remained until 1999…The women became part of the “Spring Tennis Showcase” in 1989 under the Virginia Slims of Indian Wells banner.
I remember sitting at a patio table on the concourse at the Grand Champions and visiting with Raymond Moore, (more about him later), during the ’89 tournament. He explain that in the future he could envision the tennis calendar with at least one combined men’s/women’s championship taking place on a monthly basis. (Looking back 34 years, it is probably safe to say that Moore would not have expected that the combined tournaments would become a “grouped one on top of the other” circuit… The 11 Masters Series events in 2023 follow the traditional “lack of separation” scheduling. The tournaments are the BNP Paribas Open; Miami Open; Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters [Only Men]; Mutua Madrid Open; Internazionali BNL d’Italia ; National Bank Open Presented by Rogers; Western & Southern Open; Rolex Shanghai Masters [Only Men]; Rolex Paris Masters [Only Men]; Dubai Tennis Championships [Only Women];Guadalajara Open [Only Women])
Virginia Slims remained the women’s title sponsor until 1991 when the Virginia Slims of Palm Springs slipped into the “naming” for a year. Next up was the Matrix Essentials Evert Cup which enjoyed two years of fame before it became solely the Evert Cup in 1994 which it also was in 1999. The legendary Chris Evert was in the spotlight again when the tournament was titled the State Farm Evert Cup from 1995 until ‘98. During this period, 1996 to be exact, the format changed and the women, instead of playing exclusively at the beginning of the competition had matches scheduled throughout the 10-day ATP/WTA spectacular.
Thirty-six years after Shirley Ellis’ Rhythm & Blues ditty “The Name Game” was a hit the men and women “Teamed Up…” becoming the Tennis Masters Series in 2000 and ’01 then the Pacific Life Open from 2002 until ’08…And they were all staged at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. In 2009 a dramatic changed took place. Larry Ellison, the billionaire Oracle co-founder, became the tournament owner and BNP Paribas stepped in as the title sponsor.
Charlie Pasarell and (Raymond) Moore are listed as tournament founders…which is historically striking because they both played the introductory American Airlines Tennis Games. In fact, Pasarell teamed with Sherwood Stewart of the US to win the doubles in 1974. Playing with Americans Dennis Ralston in 1975 and Roscoe Tanner in ’76, Moore was a doubles finalist. The next year, Moore and Tanner were the trophy winners.
Pasarell and Moore are a unique combination. “Charlito” (Little Charles because his father, an outstanding tennis player, was also named Charles) was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Moore came into the world in Johannesburg, South Africa. In their playing days, one had the polished look of a future real-estate developer once his tennis career concluded. The other had the tie-died T-shirt, hippy haired appearance of a norms challenging social activist. Looks aside…They both could play.
After the 1986 Pilot Pen Classic the visionary Pasarell wanted the event to become one of the game’s biggest attractions which meant a larger facility was needed. In order to realize the dream, he teamed with his close friend Moore, who was also a desert resident, to form PM Sports Management. The partners enlisted a group of deep pocketed investors, including fabled entertainer Alan King, and the group was able to locate 36 acres in Indian Wells and built Grand Champions, a lush resort hotel and tennis facility. The hotel opened in 1986 and a year later the 10, 000 seat stadium and 12 court location held its first tournament.
After ten years, even with expansion of the grounds to handle increased attendance and sponsor activities, Grand Champions had become almost claustrophobic…
So a search was initiated to find property in Indian Wells that could be developed. The quest led to the location of a 54 acre parcel of land. The tournament’s plan for expansion interested Mark McCormick, the founder of IMG and Bob Kain, the organization’s President, and they became partners with Pasarell and Moore. When it opened in 2000, Indian Wells Tennis Garden, featured a 16,100 seat stadium and seven courts for competitive matches.
In 2006, IMG decided to end its involvement in the tournament. This led to a new group of financial supporters, including Tennis Magazine and Calim Private Equity, LLC, along with the USTA, Pete Sampras, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King, to acquire IMG’s 50% equity stake in the championships, and join the Pasarell and Moore team.
Since the tournament’s inception, 46 men’s and 32 women’s events have taken place. (Both were canceled in 2020 due to the COVID 19 pandemic.) Sifting through a Masters Series tournament with a history of 78 combined results leads to a revealing trove of treasures, including the fact that the men’s singles champions have come from 13 countries while the women’s have had titlists from 16 locations.
Roger Federer of Switzerland and Novak Djokovic of Serbia are tied for the most Men’s Singles titles at five. Federer has played and won the most matches, (79 and 66 respectively). Unfortunately, the women’s facts are not as illuminating. But the records indicate that nine women have claimed the singles championship twice. Lindsay Davenport, who is a member of the group, has played more singles finals than anyone else…6.
Of all the consistencies found in the Coachella Valley hosting tournament venues, the weather has been the most inconsistent. In all my years of attending I still have to prepare a wide-ranging clothing collection for my stay because the conditions vary substantially. A tennis warm-up may be needed in the morning because it’s cool; shorts are part of afternoon attire because it’s sunblock warm; a ski jacket could be called for at night because it’s so cold that your fingers can grow numb. One year there was slush and snow on the 10 Freeway that leads to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden facility. Sometimes weather changes take place in minutes then it could be hours before the next front arrives.
Wind, though, is always part of the playing equation. Debris can swirl around the courts and I have experienced sandstorms that practically blew players off the court. There have also been torrential rainstorms that were borderline flood worthy. Indian Wells, where sunshine is part of the “Come visit…” advertising, can be a weather “Mixed Bag…” in March.
As a result, the conditions have always offered a playing challenge. Another part of the test, which is quite perplexing for hard courts, is that the Plexipave surface plays like Terre Battue…As a result, matches are long, ball bashing affairs that lead to high unforced error totals, a scant winners count and are, regularly, interest defying… “Slow”.
Overall, the speed of the courts has remained the same, so after the 2012 tournament, I pointed out, “…The bats that the pros play, combined with techie strings that are used, allow balls to be hit in an almost un-tennis-like fashion. Add to this, the court surface changes that have taken place and the abyss of “What’s Going On?” has been reached.
“To understand this tennis world conundrum, one has to grasp the essence of slow, slower and slowest… Indian Wells Tennis Garden provides another opportunity to view ‘slow’ tennis at its finest.
“Given the sun and breezes that are usually found in the Southern California desert, Indian Wells should offer quicker conditions. The air is virtually devoid of moisture that could slow a ball’s pace, but the court speed belies the logic of what seems to be obvious.
“Andy Murray of Great Britain, seeded No. 4, was shocked in the first round by Guillermo García López of Spain 6-4, 6-2. After the defeat, Murray admitted that he hadn’t played first-rate tennis, and he gave credit to García López for being on his game and bringing about his demise.
“He also noted, ‘…Almost felt like playing the match on a clay court. I wasn’t able to hit through the court.’
“He went on to add, ‘It’s a very different court to the one in Dubai and the ball’s bouncing very high…”
Whether it has been the array of champions or the entertaining off court activities, covering the tournament has been a joy. Annually, it’s the first time in the Masters and Premier Mandatory1000 Series schedule brings the men and women together. The venue is ever-changing which adds to the event’s appeal. With spectators coming from across the US and around the world, there is always a verve, a dynamism, found at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Often called the “Fifth Grand Slam” because the attendance for the thirteen-day event is just short of the numbers found at the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and US Open, March in the desert is, indeed, “Tennis in Paradise”.
Charlie Pasarell became a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island in 2013. Unfortunately for Raymond Moore he gained notoriety but it wasn’t for a career of accomplishments…
Following the 2016 Women’s final, as the CEO and Tournament Director of the BNP Paribas Open, he observed, “I think the WTA [Women’s Tennis Association] … You know, in my next life, when I come back, I want to be someone in the WTA because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions, and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky. If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport. They really have…”
The reaction, not only in tennis but worldwide, was swift and condemning which led Moore to resign from the tournament’s administration on March 22, 2016.