Order on the Court

While the brawl for bragging rights raged on between the Racquet Club and the Tennis Club in Palm Springs, a new champion was emerging in the east valley.

August 31, 2017
Story by David Lansing
Classic photo of La Quinta Hotel tennis court
Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage was the site of the early history of what became the BNP Paribas Open.

It may have been some 40 years ago but tennis hall-of-famer Charlie Pasarell still remembers the last ATP tennis tournament played in Tucson before it was relocated to Mission Hills Country Club and the valley where it would grow to become the BNP Paribas Open. First of all, it wasn’t really even a tennis tournament. “They called it the American Airlines Tennis Games,” he recalls, “because it was really a fundraiser for the ATP tour.”

The winner of the tournament, John Alexander, upset Ilie Nastase for which the Aussie won $30,000. And a horse. “It was a broken-down racehorse,” says Pasarell with a chuckle. “What was John going to do with a racehorse? Ship him back to Sydney?”

Actually, the horse, whose name was Chino Flash, was a 7-year-old stallion whose racing days were indeed long behind him. The deal was that Alexander had to give him back after a year. Which wasn’t a problem because after Alexander climbed up on ol’ Flash for the trophy presentation and waved a white Stetson (also a gift to the winner) at the appreciative crowd, he gingerly climbed down off the saddle, handed off the reins to a very pretty young blond wrangler, and never saw the horse again.

Charlie Pasarell

From left: Charlie Pasarell; 1979 champion Roscoe Tanner, and Arthur Ashe was an alumnus with Pasarell of UCLA’s tennis team.

“That’s pretty much the way it was back then,” says Pasarell, who, along with a handful of other tennis professionals, founded the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) in 1975 as a way to institute an international ranking of players and — let’s be honest — to get more bucks (and fewer ponies) to the players. Have they succeeded? Well, total prize money for the first tournament at Mission Hills Country Club in 1976 was $200,000. In 2017, the prize money (men’s and women’s) for the BNP Paribas Open was just shy of $14 million. Winners Roger Federer and Elena Vesnina each took home over a million dollars — and neither one of them had to figure out what to do with a broken-down quarter horse.


Charlie Pasarell with former tourney champion Chris Evert, and Aussie legend Rod Laver.

In the history of tennis, there is “Before OE” and “After OE,” with OE being the Open Era. The Open Era officially began in April 1968 when the four Grand Slam tournaments finally agreed to allow professional tennis players to compete in tournaments. It’s difficult to remember, but before the Open Era you couldn’t play at Wimbledon or the other majors if you were a pro. So when John Alexander won Wimbledon in 1967, as an amateur, he got a limp handshake from the Duchess of Kent and a nice little silver trophy — and nothing else. Not even an old pony. Billie Jean King, who won the women’s tournament that year, didn’t even get that. Her reward was a silver platter, suitable for a nice selection of cheeses or, perhaps, to hold a basket of strawberries. To quote Charlie Pasarell, that’s just the way it was back then.


The color guard at Mission Hills when it was sponsored by American Airlines.

So let’s say you’re Rod Laver, one of the greatest tennis players ever to hoist a trophy cup at Wimbledon (as an amateur he won 46 tournaments, including twice at Wimbledon, before going pro in 1963). How did you make any money as a pro? Well, there were professional tennis tournaments of sorts, like the U.S. Pro Tennis Championship, which he won in 1964, 1966, and 1967. His victory in ’67, earned at a cricket club in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, earned him $8,000 first-prize money (worth about $57,000 today). Not much for the most prestigious pro tournament in the U.S. at the time.

You could also play in head-to-head “exhibition” matches, which were typical at both the Palm Springs Tennis Club and the Racquet Club. Tony Burke, hired by Pearl “Auntie” McManus to bring some glitz and glamour to the Tennis Club, recalls, in his biography Palm Springs: Why I Love You, arranging exhibition matches with Donald Budge, Fred Perry, and Jack Kramer in which they were paid a few hundred bucks.

Bobby Riggs, Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, Stan Smith, Pancho Gonzales, Arthur Ashe, and Billie Jean King all played exhibition matches at the Racquet Club in the ’60s and ’70s. An article in this magazine written in 2012 by Gloria Greer, once the publicity director at the Racquet Club, recalls Riggs, best known for his “Battle of the Sexes” exhibition match with Billie Jean King, playing in a Racquet Club tournament where he came in second “and happily walked away with $1,000.” She also remembers an exhibition match where Roscoe Tanner beat Arthur Ashe to win $2,500. In short, making a living as a tennis professional before the Open Era was possible, but just barely. And only for a handful of players (the 1967 U.S. Pro Tennis Championships invited just 16 players from around the world — and no women).

We’ve come a long way, baby, and to the casual observer it all seems so inevitable. But nothing could be further from the truth. How the precursor to the BNP Paribas tournament went from a raggedy fundraiser for tennis pros to what Charlie Pasarell and many others call “The Fifth Major” is, in fact, quite a tale.
Remember the 2010 David Fincher/Aaron Sorkin biographical drama The Social Network about the founding of Facebook? That story, based on a book by Ben Mezrich subtitled A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal, has nothing on the history of the BNP Paribas Open. If they made a movie of the BNP, they might want to title it something like How Charlie Pasarell Saved Tennis in the Desert from Floods, Bankruptcy, and Treachery.


Jimmy Connors and his wife, Patti McGuire, are mobbed by fans.


Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King made an impressive doubles team.


Raymond Moore and Charlie Pasarell pose in front of the tennis version of the Field of Dreams.

That story begins right after John Alexander gingerly climbed off Chino Flash and handed him over to that Tucson cowgirl. Just four months later, American Airlines canceled the Tucson tournament and, after some lobbying to move it to either Austin, Texas, or La Costa, California, chose instead to relaunch the tournament at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage. The club’s current pro emeritus, Tommy Tucker, remembers being talked into working on the tournament by his friend Dennis Ralston who, at the time, was the reigning club pro at Mission Hills.


Bill Smith is flanked by sisters Jeanne and Chris Evert.

“I was living in San Francisco,” Tucker told me from his home in nearby Cathedral City. “I wasn’t the least interested in moving to Palm Springs. And I told Dennis that. But he said, ‘Why don’t you just come out for a month?’ And I did. And that was pretty much that.”

An article in The Desert Sun reported that “despite winds that gusted up to 40 mph and blew sand into players’ and spectators’ faces, a capacity crowd showed up to watch Jimmy Connors defeat Roscoe Tanner, 6-4, 6-4 for the $35,000 first prize.”

Three years later, Ralston had moved on to coach at SMU and Tucker found himself the new director of tennis at Mission Hills Country Club, running three of the biggest tournaments in the world — the Davis Cup finals, the Colgate Women’s Masters, and the Congoleum Classic, predecessor of the BNP Paribas Open.

And while many would claim that Tucker has been as influential as anyone in bringing great tennis to the Coachella Valley (shortly after he became Mission Hills Country Club’s director of tennis, 16 of the top 50 players in the world were training there), he’s the first to acknowledge Charlie Pasarell’s outsize role in growing the sport in the desert. “Charlie did more for tennis in the Coachella Valley than anyone else. Particularly after the debacle in 1980.”

So what happened in 1980? “That’s the year we had the 100-year-flood in the Coachella Valley,” says Pasarell, reminded of the catastrophic event ironically in a phone call during a rain delay while at the 2016 Wimbledon tournament.


Raymond Moore and Roscoe Tanner, 
two of the top players in the 1978 tournament, play a doubles match.

(The Mission Hills tournament began Feb. 11, 1980; weather records show that Palm Springs received a record 17.43 inches of rain that month.)

“The roads were flooded. The courts were flooded. Matches had to be canceled. And the Mission Hills tournament that year lost like $80,000 — which was a lot of money at the time.”

The tournament had to be halted at the semifinals stage and the four semifinalists — Jimmy Connors, Brian Teacher, Peter Fleming, and Gene Mayer — received $11,000 each as compensation.

After that, recalls Pasarell, the ATP board decided they didn’t want to be in the tournament business. “Too risky.” But there was an offer to move the tournament to a proposed tennis stadium to be built near Disney World in Florida. “As an ATP board member, I really didn’t want the tournament going to Florida. I thought it belonged in the Coachella Valley. So I went and got sanctioned to host a tournament and then I went to Landmark [Land Co.], which owned the La Quinta Hotel, where I was the director of tennis, and talked my boss into building a new 7,500-seat tennis stadium and hosting the tournament.”

As Pasarell remembers it, they had less than 10 weeks to build the stadium and get ready for the event in 1981. “It was a last-minute thing, believe me, but we pulled it off and managed to keep the tournament in the desert.”

They had less than 10 weeks to build the stadium and get ready for the event in 1981. 
“It was a last minute thing, believe me, 
but we pulled it off.”

The following year saw one of the most memorable finals of the tournament (then called the Congoleum Classic) when Yannick Noah upset No. 1–ranked Ivan Lendl, ending his remarkable winning streak of 44 matches, just two short of the men’s record. But to Pasarell, even more memorable was the 1985 tournament when local Larry Stefanki, ranked 143rd in the world and coached by none other than Tommy Tucker, was given one of two wild-card entries by tournament director Pasarell, who had been holding them for Swedes Mats Wilander and Stefan Edbert. Three days before the start of the tournament, he still hadn’t heard back from the Swedes so he offered one of the spots to the relatively unknown Stefanki — who then went on to win the tournament.

As Bill Murray, in the classic movie Caddyshack, might have put it had he been calling match point, “This crowd has gone deathly silent. Out of nowhere, now to become the champion, Larry Stefanki, a true Cinderella story.”


Yannick Noah accepts Charlie Pasarell’s congratulations for his 1982 victory over Ivan Lendl.


Chris Evert dashes for a return shot.


Jimmy Connors swats a backhand.

(Stefanki only played professionally for two years after his astonishing win at La Quinta but, like his mentor and friend Tommy Tucker, went on to become a renowned tennis coach, training such players as John McEnroe, Andy Roddick, and Maria Sharapova.)

An article in the Los Angeles Times about the tournament exclaimed that Stefanki’s unlikely win was “almost too good, too sensational. This is the stuff of comic books, Steven Spielberg movies, and prime-time TV drama. Unbelievable!”

During the six years the tournament was held in La Quinta (1981–1986), it became a victim of its own success, outgrowing the tennis stadium and facilities at La Quinta Hotel, now the La Quinta Resort & Club.

“I saw the direction tennis was going, where big stadiums were being built all around the world,” recalls Pasarell, “and knew we needed a larger, permanent facility.” With longtime friend and former player Raymond Moore, Pasarell started PM Sports Management and developed a plan to build a luxurious hotel and modern tennis facility in nearby Indian Wells. Construction on the 350-room Hyatt Grand Champions Hotel was completed in 1986 and the former Congoleum Classic became the Newsweek Champions Cup, moving to the new tennis center with its 12 courts, including a 10,000-seat tennis stadium, in 1987.


Martina Navratilova accepts another trophy.


Crowd favorite Boris Becker’s powerful forehand.


Ivan Lendl displays uncharacteristic emotion.

In an oral history celebrating the tournament’s 40th anniversary in 2015, Lindsay Davenport, who won the inaugural event, which was also the first year that a top women’s professional competition was held in conjunction with the men’s event, recalls, “It started out as kind of a quaint, nice tournament and quickly developed into one of the premier tournaments in all the world.”

Pasarell was instrumental in bringing the women in. “I had to fight the powers that be to get the women in. As it turns out, I had to go out and buy a couple of women’s tournaments that weren’t doing well so we could clear the weeks to bring the women’s tournament in. We put the women’s event the week before the men’s event, which wasn’t ideal. I wanted them playing simultaneously over 10 days but I didn’t win that battle.”

Stefanki’s win 
was “almost 
too good, too 
sensational. Unbelievable!”

At least not initially. But that changed in 1995 when the women’s Sunday final was rained out and had to be rescheduled for Monday, the traditional start of the men’s tournament. “We just had a crazy sold-out day and everyone finally realized that this was the way to go — combine the men’s and women’s tournaments.”
Which is exactly what happened the following year, helping the tournament attain the status as one of only six tournaments in the world, including the four Majors, that combined the two events concurrently. That year attendance jumped from 100,000 the year before to 127,000 for the combined tournament, even though it ran for fewer days.

Once again, the tournament outgrew its facilities. In 1995, against Pasarell’s wishes, it was decided to move things to Las Vegas. “We went to Vegas to close the deal and then at the last moment, they backed out,” says Pasarell. “I came back to the valley very discouraged. But I found out there were four properties for sale where the current stadium is now. For $60,000 I was able to tie up the properties for 60 days. I flew out to meet with Mark McCormack, the founder of IMG, the largest sports agency in the world, and told them I needed their backing. We went out to lunch, shook hands on the deal, and that was that. That’s how we became partners with IMG. By 2000, we’d completed the Tennis Garden with a 16,000-seat stadium [the second largest in the world].”

And that’s the end of the story, right? Well, not exactly. “After we built the new stadium,” says Pasarell, “we had some very lean years. We’d sold the rights to a Swiss company but they went bankrupt and we lost something like $16 million over the next four years.”

The tournament was barely hanging on. Pasarell put up $8 million from his family business back home in Puerto Rico and Mark McCormack took out a $40 million loan to keep things afloat. Then McCormack died suddenly and IMG decided they wanted out of the event.

Said Billie Jean King on the event’s 40th anniversary in 2015, “This will always be Charlie’s house to me. It was his dream. I don’t think we should ever forget 
that he dreamed about it, invested in it, and made it happen.”

“So Raymond [Moore] and I recruited some new investors, including Pete Sampras, Chris Evert, and Billie Jean King, and bought out IMG’s 50-percent interest. I put just about everything I had into it. We changed our approach to the tournament to keep it alive. We became less dependent on sponsors and more dependent on ticket sales. After 2006, we increased our revenue through ticket sales by almost 80 percent. I knew this was the right approach because sponsors come and go.”

Attendance grew to more than 300,000 fans. It became so popular that once again, outside interests looked to buy the event. “Qatar stepped in. They were making incredible offers, offers we knew no one else could match. But I was really adamant about not selling the event to anyone who wanted to move the event out of the valley. We had worked so hard for so long to make it what it was that it just seemed criminal to lose it. But I didn’t see how the board was going to turn down Qatar’s offer.”
Then Raymond Moore stepped up. He’d developed a great relationship with tennis lover and Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison. Did he have any interest in buying the event and the Indian Wells Tennis Garden? He did indeed.

“Larry offered an amazing amount to buy the event,” says Pasarell, “and even though the Qatar government offered more, the board was 100 percent behind keeping the event in the valley. I realized at that point that I didn’t need to own this tournament — I just wanted to be sure that it stayed . That was my role.”

Said Billie Jean King on the event’s 40th anniversary in 2015, “This will always be Charlie’s house to me. It was his dream. I don’t think we should ever forget that he dreamed about it, invested in it, and made it happen.”