By Jane Voigt
Just how big a deal is The BNP Paribas Open?
From a tennis-player’s perspective it ranks just below any Grand Slam. The men call Indian Wells, it’s familiar name, an ATP Masters 1000 event. The women on the WTA Tour call it a Premier Mandatory tournament. Players are registered automatically in their respective draws. They can opt out due to injury or for unknown reasons. That move gets a fine upwards to $10,000.
Fans love Indian Wells. Hundreds of hours of TV coverage, live streaming web sites, and social media choices abound. If you can’t be at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden the electronic world can make you feel as if you’re nestled right there in the Coachella Valley. If Pharrell Williams Oscar-nominated hit, “Happy,” could be broadcast around the site thousands of ticket holders might break out in dance and ‘clap along because you know happiness is a truth.’
From the business side of the court, Indian Wells is a lush desert fruit with plump lucrative sponsors, ever-expanding site plans, and an atmosphere fit for the everyday man and woman plus the glamourous Hollywood gang that zips east on I-10 in little over two hours.
Who’s to thank? Larry Ellison, co-founder and chief executive officer of Oracle Corporation. In any given year he is ranked one of the top five wealthiest men in the world. His estimated net worth is over $30 billion, give or take a billion. In his late 60s, Ellison is not the type of man to laze about and absorb a lifestyle of his choice. He loves being rich.
Therefore when Indian Wells hit a dry patch and owners reached out for capital Ellison stepped up, infusing the lagging tournament with buckets of cash. Buckets. In one year he outfit every show court — 8 — with Hawkeye technology. Last March his team broke ground for more expansion. It transformed Court 2 into an arena that seats 8,000, which raised the overall seating capacity to 41,485 … a 17% increase from 2013.
“‘What’s really hit me is the entire site has been transformed,'” Raymond Moore, Indian Wells Tennis Garden CEO and former owner plus managing partner of the tournament, told the ATP. “‘It’s completely different from anything that’s been here for 15 years. I don’t want to be negative of the site before, but it always had this feeling of being unfinished. Now it’s finished.'”
That’s the magic of a Larry Ellison venture. The man whipped the place in shape in a year. Not many construction projects of that magnitude could say the same.
Inside new Stadium Court 2 are three restaurants. Not chains like TGI Fridays. No. Award-winning restaurants are permanent fixtures, serving Japanese cuisine, steaks, and Italian delights. Additionally Wi-Fi wafts through the dry air for all to tap. Four-hundred Date Palm trees are planted, 16 acres of new turf were rolled out and a 19,000 square-foot shade was erected. ‘Clap along because you know happiness is a truth.’
Indian Wells Mayor Ted J. Mertens announced on Tennis Chanel yesterday that the city would reap $2 million in taxes from the event this year. He added that he and his wife love the event, and follow tennis closely.
Steve Simon, tournament director, told the ATP, “‘I don’t think they [fans] have any idea the magnitude of what’s been going on.'”
Of course when everything is said and done about the site, the players remain the focal point.
And although the top guys are in, the number one women’s player — Serena Williams — is not. She intimated at The Australian Open that she might join the fun, but “after careful consideration,” the Toronto Sun reported, she decided against it. The boycott remains entrenched. The mental scars from 13 years back have not healed. That’s when sister Venus and Richard Williams, their father, were jeered as they tried to take their seats to watch Serena’s final. The day before, Venus pulled out of the semifinal against Serena on court minutes before the start time. That left thousands of fans hollering mad. They surmised that Richard had decided Serena would move on. Venus was to take the hit. Or so the folklore goes.
Her absence tends to diminish the tournament’s proud sense of a entire scene of tennis greatness. However, the door opens for Maria Sharapova (seeded No. 4) to defend her title without having to face Williams and perhaps lose for the 14th consecutive time.
Victoria Azarenka (seeded No. 3) would love to repeat her 2012 title, but did not play Doha or Dubai this year due to a foot injury. Up against American Lauren Davis in the first round, ranked No. 66, Azarenka will have to brush off the dust and build confidence quickly if she hopes to make it through the week.
Agnieszka Radwanska, seeded No. 2, has never advanced to the final but came close in 2010 when she lost to Wozniacki in the semifinals.
Of more interest, though, is Li Na. She is seeded No. 1. The Australian Open women’s singles champion (right) is the first Chinese woman to sit in that prestigious spot. There she will have a birds-eye view of the draw and a prime-time opportunity to shine at this desert jewel tournament.