Illustration by Carles Garcia O’Dowd

Making the BNP Paribas Open: Workers Share Tennis Stories

How an army of ushers, EMTs, security officers, ball kids, and ambassadors makes the tennis tournament tick.

Ellen Alperstein Attractions

Illustration by Carles Garcia O’Dowd

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a veritable city to raise an international tennis tournament. Every March, the BNP Paribas Open takes over Indian Wells, the smallest host city of the pro tour’s biggest events. Over the tournament’s two weeks in 2023, the Indian Wells Tennis Garden drew 441,983 people to a village populated full time by 5,404 souls. In 2019, attendance at the venue bested even that of the French Open — one of  the sport’s four Grand Slam events — in Paris.

Tournament operator Desert Champions employs 40 people year-round. In July, the site is so dead even the lizards are lonely. But come January, those 54 acres start growing the temporary infrastructure required by a huge event. By late February, most of the 750 vendors and contractors have cultivated the Tennis Garden into a metropolis run by nearly 9,000 humans both professional and pro bono. These are some of their stories.

Good for What Ails You

Some years ago, a fan watching a top-rank match in Stadium 1 felt woozy and sought treatment by an EMT at First Aid. When she was ready to leave, the EMT logged the case and asked, “Ma’am, can I get your name?”

“Lynette Federer.”

So moved by the ministrations to his mother, Roger Federer stopped by several times in subsequent years to thank the staff. They get that a lot.

Since its inception in 1976, the tournament has evolved from several smaller venues and title sponsors into its Tennis Garden home in 2000. What hasn’t changed is the climate: It’s often hot, windy, and always festive. People get sunburned, sand blows into their eyes, they trip on the stairs.

Tennis Garden patrons are famously well-behaved — they’re more Rafa Nadal than Nick Kyrgios. They don’t overdose, but they do overdrink. Last year, a passed-out drunk awoke to puke on a paramedic who was lifting him into a wheelchair.

As many as 10 paramedics and EMTs are on call each day, and most have at least 20 years of experience here. The First Aid stations in Stadiums 1 and 2 stock acetaminophen and eyewash, splints and defibrillators. No one treated here pays a penny. If someone presents with chest pain or a possible broken bone, one of three on-site physicians from Eisenhower Health is summoned. An ambulance stands by.

Patrons observe a Roger Federer match circa 2017. These spectators got the memo: Hats are vital accessories to block the sometimes unrelenting sun.

Patrons observe a Roger Federer match circa 2017. These spectators got the memo: Hats are vital accessories to block the sometimes unrelenting sun.

First Aid manager Todd Hombs has 31 years of Indian Wells tournament experience. When he’s not here for contractor Life Support Services, he works as a paramedic for American Medical Response in San Diego. He takes vacation time to respond to Tennis Garden casualties. “When you have 400,000-plus people for two weeks, that’s like three major cities coming into this venue,” he says. “You’re going to [have medical issues].”

Ten days into the 2023 tournament, 10 people had been transported to the hospital. “We usually average one a day,” Hombs says. Most are heart issues. Hombs has seen one cardiac arrest. Only two people have presented with heat stroke, because, he explains, security or volunteer workers spot sun-sickened people and bring them to First Aid before it escalates. During Hombs’ tenure, no one has died.

In 2017, a woman passed out in her seat at the bottom of the bowl in Stadium 1 during a full-capacity match. Hombs and a colleague carried her up the steps to the ground-level stretcher and ferried her to a First Aid bed. They were packing her with cold towels when they got a call from across the campus for another heat-related swoon. They stretchered that man to First Aid and into a bed next to the recovering woman. She looked over at him.


He looked at her. “Gladys?”

They were husband and wife.


A woman passes out merchandise at the tournament.

Safety First

On St. Patrick’s Day last year, a couple of Riverside County Sheriff deputies slapped handcuffs on two 20-something guys near the big screen. One was clearly inebriated. The deputies quizzed them about a bag in their possession containing women’s clothes, a cellphone, and a credit card bearing a name that didn’t match theirs.

Busted for grand theft and conspiracy to commit a crime, they were probably too toasted to notice the credit card bore a photo of the victim/owner, a tournament volunteer. Dumb and Dumber spent the night at the Indio jail.

One or two jail incidents occur per tournament, but most of the cops you see look bored.

“This is a great crowd,” says director of security Richard Bower, a 34-year tournament contractor.

Several agencies work in concert to keep people safe, and his team assumes nothing. The FBI conducts an annual threat assessment in advance of the tournament “looking at every possible incident that could happen,” says Bower, an independent consultant for Desert Champions and a former cop. Among his uniformed and unarmed event staff are retired Secret Service and FBI agents. In addition to the sheriffs, he works with two or three FBI agents on-site, plus K-9 teams.

The dogs alert only for explosives, not drugs. Loaded guns contain explosives, so if  someone manages to sneak a weapon through the metal detectors, Fido is not his best friend.

Security practices what Bower calls “predictive profiling” to “try and predict future behavior based on present actions.” Most fishy folks are benign. Some are just weird. One guy crossed Bower’s radar for his manner and dress that perfectly imitated a prominent player. When Bower approached him for a chat, “he fainted,” the security director reports. He wasn’t a stalker, just a fan unwholesomely infatuated with Federer.

“If I see somebody we’re really concerned about, we call the FBI in, we call law enforcement in, and we’ll do a joint confrontation.” That also happens once or twice a tournament.

The profile “suspicion indicators,” Bower claims, are not based on race, gender, or religion. “It’s based on things,” he says, “that make you feel uncomfortable.”

“We had a guy who was watching the infrastructure of Stadium 2,” Bower recalls, “taking pictures of  this and that. So I just walked up and said, ‘Hey man, that looks pretty cool, huh?’ ” Was he casing? Or just capturing the play of light? Neither — the guy was an architecture student who never knew Bower was checking him out for more diabolical interests.

Tennis Garden bad guys aren’t hostage-taking villains pissed off because Coco Gauff dropped a set; they’re Fila store shoplifters and bag-grabbing drunks. Several years ago, “pets on property [were] an issue,” Bower laments. Some players brought their dogs, and there were so many in the players’ area, one media representative says, “It was like a playpen.” Numerous patrons followed suit, invariably claiming their dogs were service animals. Few qualified.

Bower calls the Tennis Garden crowd “docile,” but he concedes that “my greatest concern is either a major natural catastrophe or some type of terrorist attack.”

He writes emergency and incident control plans for all security units. “You can’t prevent [a natural disaster],” Bower says, “but you can respond to it properly.” If there were a terrorist attack, he would turn its management over to law enforcement and assume a support role.

“I look at everything from a worst-case scenario. What bad could possibly happen? We plan for those things,” he says. “It’s not a fun place to live because I’m looking at things through very dark eyes.”


Patrons hang out at the open-air bar.

Hide and Seek

As Henry Ford said, you can have any color you like as long as it’s black. He was selling Model Ts, but he’d have made a killing with eyewear at the BNP Paribas Open. The most common items in the tournament’s Lost and Found are black sunglasses, by a factor of infinity.

Everybody loses glasses. But who loses an Invisalign dental retainer? A worn bra?

A single day might see 100 items turned in to Lost and Found, located in Stadium 2. More than half are reunited with their owners, according to manager Aprile Bower. (She’s Richard Bower’s sister-in-law.) Outside of tournament hours, she works in a tax office. In March. She does not yawn through the interview. She is an organizational wizard.

Bower and two staffers log every item into an iPad program with a detailed description and where it was lost or found. They take photos of founds and contact numbers for seekers.

People lose stuff in the Adirondack chairs by the big screen, in restaurants, and in restrooms, where housekeeping often collects items abandoned atop toilet paper holders.

“One time, a gentleman from overseas lost a pouch with money in it,” Bower recalls. “Probably $500 or $600. His ID was in it.” Another patron found it at an ATM machine, delivered it to Lost and Found, and the Irish gent got it back within the hour. “He was shocked that all his cash was there.”

One tournament regular is a serial loser, she continues. “The first year, he lost a hat. The second, it was his phone. And the third year, it was a bag. He had bought something from one of  the [clothing] stores.”

Talk about lucky losers — he got it all back the same day he lost it. Every year, Bower notes, he checks in and says, “I just popped in to say hi. I haven’t lost anything yet.”

Last year, a guy lost his keys in the early evening and filed a report at Lost and Found before the final match of the night. The match ended with no sign of the keys.

It requires close to 9,000 workers and volunteers to run the 54-acre Indian Wells Tennis Garden for the BNP Paribas Open, which accommodates well over 400,000 attendees each year.

It requires close to 9,000 workers and volunteers to run the 54-acre Indian Wells Tennis Garden for the BNP Paribas Open, which accommodates well over 400,000 attendees each year.

The guy told Bower he’d called a locksmith for access to his house and would get a lift home. She took the description of his Honda, so it wouldn’t be towed from the parking lot.

“Five minutes after he walked out, the keys came in,” she says. Someone had turned them in to a security guard. She called Honda Guy, who hadn’t even made it to the parking lot.

People, like possessions, go walkabout. When that happens, Lost and Found dispatches a description to security and roving volunteers. No one goes missing for long. One man attending the tournament with a friend had left his cellphone at home, figuring he could use his buddy’s. When they got separated, he realized his folly, checked in at Lost and Found, and invoked his sense of humor: “Am I lost? Go to Jesus.”


A group of volunteers show off their winning smiles at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

At Your Service

Several years ago, a couple from Ketchikan, Alaska, found people sitting in their seats in Stadium 1. Both parties had been sold the same seats, and the place was packed. Usher coordinator Lloyd Ault was summoned. A tournament volunteer for 21 years, Ault knew how to make everybody happy. Working with the box office, he arranged for an upgrade to one of the cushy suites.

Turns out, Ault says, the couple “both work for the police in Ketchikan, so I have a get-out-of-jail-free card in Alaska.”

He won’t need it. “Everybody who comes through that turnstile is a guest in your home,” he says. “If they’re a nasty guest, call security.” He laughs. He likes to laugh.

Fans sitting a few rows from the court in Stadium 1 weren’t laughing the day a disruptive guy took a seat that was not his. Unable to roust him, the ushers and their captain summoned the muscle: the slightly built, elderly Ault. He asked the loudmouth, nicely, to move to his ticketed seat. The man declined. Ault smiled and said, “Sir, your seat is up there. I’m going to walk to the guy with a white shirt. He’s security. If you’re not following me, he’s gonna take you up there, and he’s not gonna put you in your seat — he’s gonna take you out the front gate and kick your ass into the parking lot.”

Of the 1,192 volunteers who staffed the 2023 BNP Paribas Open, ushers composed the largest group, about 450 strong. They populate all nine stadiums, assisting with seating and crowd movement. As one of their leaders, Ault works every day. “I’m only 89,” he says, happily offering his age even though “it cuts down on the number of women after me.” The retired Rockwell/Boeing engineer used to work on submarine sonar systems, claims he “flunked retirement,” and now plays a lot of tennis at his home in Indian Wells. He lives so close to the Tennis Garden that after one grueling, short-staffed day a few years ago, he drove home, opened his gate, and heard someone through the earpiece he forgot  he left in. “I still had my radio strapped to my hip,” he recalls. “It’s got good distance.”

Ault gets to work early to study the draw sheet, the number of tickets sold, and the day’s volunteer roster, and figures out who goes where and for how long. Different stadiums have different requirements. Some have assigned seating. Some have general admission. Some have both. Ushers work with security to ensure smooth sailing.

The Swiss army knives of people, ushers do what needs doing. Last year, amid a shortage of ball kids, ushers held the players’ shade umbrellas during court changeovers. When a woman dropped her engagement ring from a high bleacher to the ground, an usher monkey-barred his way through the assembly to retrieve it. The job requires stamina and good cheer, occasionally in the face of people who don’t deserve it. It’s easier when the boss is a tennis-loving problem-solver with a math brain and a grandpa’s heart.

Judy  Terry  co-chairs  the  ambassadors,  another volunteer department that requires physical fitness and congeniality, as well as thorough knowledge of the Tennis Garden and its staff.  Ambassadors rove throughout the venue wearing yellow hats and “Ask Me” buttons. They get questions both  boring  (“Where’s the bathroom?”) and bizarre (“What kind of palm tree is that?”).

It’s a big place, and people get confused. Invariably, Terry notes, women ask for directions. Men don’t.

A retired nurse, Terry, 74, splits her time between La Quinta and Park City, Utah. She helped start the ambassador program after serving as an usher and a gate monitor. She screens job applicants for stamina and charm. “Every ambassador must be comfortable with strangers.”

Armed with laminated maps, ambassadors cover five zones. Most are middle-aged, but one regular, a man from New Zealand, told Terry last year that he was retiring … at 81. Another long-timer, a German woman, wears a fitness tracker on the job, and once reported, “I logged 10 miles today.”

In 2021 and 2022, pandemic-induced challenges tested ambassadors’ diplomacy. Vaccination checks caused long lines, and people were cranky. Before digital ticketing was implemented fully in 2021, scalpers could be a problem. One such scofflaw was a regular, changing his appearance every day to thwart the profile issued to ambassadors and security. An ambassador spotted him anyway, giving him the two-fingered “I see you” salute before calling security.

Terry asked the eagle-eyed woman how she identified the guy in the crowd. “Because he didn’t change his shoes,” replied the retired CIA agent.

Ambassadors claim diverse backgrounds. Apart from the former spy, there’s the Special Victims Unit detective, the hospital chaplain, the mortician, the state gaming commission staffer ...

Roving ambassadors are not allowed to sit. (Terry once requested tall stools and shade umbrellas for occasional relief but was denied.) They may not use personal cellphones except in emergencies or to assist patrons with the tournament app. When in uniform, they may not say anything negative about the tournament, players, or any personnel. They may not take photos with players or ask for their autographs. Terry once had to yank an ambassador’s credentials after he was caught taking player photos with a long lens.

There were 40 ambassadors in 2023, and Terry hopes for 50 this year. She schedules their shifts, conducts daily briefings, and compiles a nightly report. She says security director Richard Bower “is on my speed dial” because ambassadors are Bower’s eyes. They see everything.

Cathy Thomas sees everything that happens on court. A resident of Palm Desert and Michigan, she grew up in Liverpool, England, in a family of 12 kids. Keeping track of everyone probably helped her as the chair of match statistics. She started volunteering as a roving umpire and occasional linesman when the then-adolescent tournament ran short of professionals. Long before 2011, when Indian Wells became the first tournament to employ Hawk-Eye electronic line-calling technology on every main-draw match court, roving umpires worked the outside courts to resolve disputes.

In the mid-1990s, Thomas was given a computer to track the speed of Goran Ivanišević’s serve. She was promoted to scorekeeper in the first iteration of the match statistics department, pushing buttons to display numbers on the stadium’s big screen. Not until the Tennis Garden was built in 2000 did match stats mature into the data of record it is today.

Statistics are kept for matches on the four largest courts. Every shot is tracked: every foot fault, every crosscourt backhand volley, every winner. The tour associations, coaches, and media rely on that data. There are three levels of stats, and chair umpires capture the official Level 1 stats on their iPads. Until this year, volunteer actuaries handled the lower-level data, and all were tennis players and/or coaches. The job requires an intimate knowledge of the game, visual acuity, and attention superpowers.

Beginning this year, the tournament’s tech department will compile all match stats. According to tournament founder Raymond Moore, that’s because the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) wants to standardize data collection across all 64 of  the men’s pro tournaments. “Each year, the technology gets more sophisticated,” Moore says. So, this month, the former match stat volunteers will not be watching tennis matches, but rather tennis players, in their new role as hospitality staffers in the players’ lounge.

Thomas, 84, taught tennis for more than 40 years, and she plays several times a week. Her 33 years of tournament service have supplied her with deep dish, mostly from umpiring a few pros who were as inhospitable as they were talented.

In her day, umpires were not allowed to wear sunglasses, look directly at, or speak to players. The usual suspects, however, had no problem engaging with her. Jimmy Connors put his racket between his legs and stroked it toward her in an lewd gesture. After a call he disputed, John McEnroe walked to the service line, saying loud enough only for Thomas to hear, “There’s a bad smell here. Do you smell that?” Loud enough only for him to hear, she replied, “You must’ve crapped your pants.”


Multiple cameras and layers of security keep tournament guests safe, but for VIPs, celebrities, and Larry Ellison, owner of the BNP Paribas Open and the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, it’s BYOS. Richard Bower’s security team tags personal security “so that they’re visible to us.”

On any given day, there might be as many as 25 armed bodyguards at Stadium 1. None of them ever wants to use his weapon, and none has ever had to get snarky with a patron. “We’ve never had an issue here,” Bower says.


Volunteers for the BNP Paribas Open are recruited and trained by The Champions Volunteer Foundation. The nonprofit organization provides grants for education, recreation, and healthcare programs in the Coachella Valley from funds raised via the tournament each year. Title sponsor BNP Paribas bank recognizes the foundation annually for its impact.

Nancie Wingo, director of volunteer development, says the volunteer population of the Tennis Garden city for the 2024 tournament at press time is 1,390, surpassing last year’s roster of 1,192; 350 are the ball kids. Many volunteers return year after year to fill positions in 15 departments ranging from suite hosts to shuttle drivers to gate crew.

Lost and Found

Although most found items are returned to their owners, some goods turned in to Lost and Found remain after the tournament concludes. They’re boxed up with their reports, deposited at the on-site administrative offices of Desert Champions, and held for four months. If they remain unclaimed, they’re donated to charity. Except for the bra. And the dental retainer. We hope.


Ball kids gesture during a match of the BNP Paribas Open.