By Bill Simons
It was the moment everyone had waited for. After a year of frenzied work and incredible investment, the shining jewel in the crown at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden was ready. The grounds of the Garden had been morphed into a kind of wonder: a desert oasis with a touch of Disney. Palm trees, all 417 of them, swayed in a kind breeze. Shaded areas abounded, and viewing stands at practice courts attracted throngs. Green sod defied gray sands.
But the blandly-named “Stadium Two” (which, according to some reports, cost $70 million) was at the heart of the expansion. And, at last, there was a marquee match scheduled on the 8,000 seat arena. Out on court, none other than Roger (“Greatest of All Time”) Federer and recent Aussie Open champ Stan Wawrinka were facing the beloved (in some places) duo of Alsam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and Rohan Bopanna.
The stands were packed, the mood buoyant.
A Salt Lake City fan in a gray “Live Lucky” cap went through many an organic orange slice before starting to chew on some Tootsie Rolls. The obligatory Swiss flags and Fed signs were in place. (Our faves were those old standbys, “Shhh! Quiet! Genius at work” and “Roger That.”)
The stadium is sunken. The shade soothes, while above the court there was a clean, clutter-free look. Take that, US Open—no signage.
Well, check that. There were two odd signs on each side of the arena. Each read “Concessions.” But wait, how wrong can that be!
This place seemed to have made no concessions. No expense, it seems, was spared.
And, up above, on the place’s western tier, there are restaurants where you could munch and view. Here, families fussed over menus at Nobu, or asked their waiter at the Chop House just what type of Pinot would go best with their filet mignon. (Medium rare, thank you very much.) Ah, the good life in paradise? Even Federer’s pregnant wife Mirka and her lively young twins were on hand.
Everything seems so fine, a sparkling new, intimate tennis vintage. Federer’s out there flashing his graceful power, such beauty. Wawrinka’s backhand amazes. Beyond this, the Diamond Vision screens sparkle bright, and the acoustics resonate perfectly. A fan twists open her Sprite and the swoosh resonates, a sweet sound-swirl.
“I love this place,” says one LA woman. “You’re so close, you really get a sense of their speed—so fast!”
“There are so many people here,” adds another observer. “They could have put this thing on Stadium One.”
“Yeah,” says another. “But I wouldn’t have watched. It’s better here.”
Sure, there are flaws that defy the script. Hidden broadcast rooms are still cluttered with wires and widgets. And Bopanna has the audacity to smash a winner off a fierce Federer serve. Then, when Mr. Perfect—that would be Roger—nets an overhead sitter, an unsympathetic fan crows, “Oh, I can do that.”
Ultimately, there is only one man we know who could have put together such a palatial tennis playground: the tennis-loving billionaire Larry Ellison. The Australian Open has to deal with the State of Victoria. Wimbledon is all about the stuffy but progressive All-England Club. The US Open has its ample committees. Miami has to deal with City Hall, and the French Open must navigate Parisian politics. (And you think Congress is a headache?)
Here, all the tournament folks have to do is ask their tennis-loving billionaire if they can go ahead. And there in the first row of his new palace is our hero of the day. The head of Oracle may not be an oracle himself, but he’s certainly “The Wizard of Wow.” His girlfriend and tournament CEO Ray Moore are by his side, and all the while Larry Ellison, watches attentively— flawless beard, red cheeks, black T-Shirt, —buff and alert.
I had tried before to interview the fifth-richest man in the world. His teaching pro and assorted handlers were not encouraging. And when I spotted him in Paris in June by the player lounge at the French Open, I asked him, in the spur of the moment, if we could talk. He offered a kindly “Maybe later.”
Well, now it was later. Never mind that two burly security lads (their earpieces in place) hovered nearby, I adeptly sidestepped them and approached the man himself and then dropped a few benign names and asked him if I could ask him a few questions. The moment was right and so began my chat with the gracious Wizard of Wow.
INSIDE TENNIS: Hey Larry, what’s more of an achievement, your boat Oracle in last year’s America’s Cup scoring one of the most rousing comebacks in sports history, or this incredible stadium where we are sitting being built in less than a year?
LARRY ELLISON: I’m very proud of both, they’re hard to compare. I’m proud of the sailing team coming back after being down 8-1 and for this stadium being built in ten months. They’re both exceptional achievements.
IT: You’re a kid from the Bronx, how does it feel to see this incredible facility?
LE: I am actually from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. l lived in even worse neighborhoods than the Bronx. It’s a long way to come in one lifetime, but it has been very, very exciting, I have met lots and lots of very interesting people. That makes life worth living.
IT: You have such a passion, a love of sports. Not every businessman—
LE: I like the clarity of sports. In so much of life there are so many shades of gray, and the clarity of sports [is that] you either win or lose. On any given day, one team wins and one loses. One woman wins, one loses. One man wins, one loses. So it is wonderful and brutal to have that clarity and finality.
IT: This facility is so intimate, so beautiful, and has that creative design with the restaurants built in. Did you have any input?
LE: Yes, we wanted to build a stadium where everyone would have a good view, so we thought this was the right size. We wanted everyone to have an intimate feel, to be closer to the players, and at the same time have lunch or dinner at Nobu and enjoy a California roll while watching the tiebreaker.
IT: You were at Roland Garros last year. Over there, when the French Open wants to make a significant change, they have to go to the French municipality, while here, when Ray Moore or Steve Simon wants to make a change, they just come to you. Talk about that ability, that freedom of just being able to make decisions and being able to go for it.
LE: Ray and Charlie built this tournament, and they always wanted to build a new Stadium 2, and it was time to do it. We did two things, we built the Stadium 2, and we brought in 417 palm trees so the Indian Wells Tennis Garden is truly a garden.
IT: You have a wonderful home in the hills here in the desert, and a home in the San Francisco Bay Area, and you own a fabulous club in Malibu. Talk a little about the beauty of California and how you embrace that.
LE: California is a very big state, so out here in the desert is very different than being on the beach in Malibu. And I also have a home up in Tahoe which is different than my home in San Francisco, which overlooks the Bay. California is a spectacularly beautiful state and it has such different weather south, east, or west. It’s just wonderful to live here and to be able to enjoy all parts of California with all its natural beauty .
IT: If the tennis gods said, ‘Okay, Larry, you can watch one player, who would it be? You have seen Mac, Roger, you are close to Rafa.
LE: That’s an impossible question. Roger is so elegant, Rafa sometimes looks like a leopard out there with a racquet in his hand. You see the wonderful athleticism of Nadal, the grace of Federer, and McEnroe has his feel and touch. They all have so much. It is important to appreciate what each one of them brings and how each of them made the sport great.
IT: You can argue that no other sportsman is more humble than Rafa. What’s special about that young man?
LE: He is special. He is always trying to get better at what he does. He takes nothing for granted. He goes out there and fights hard for every point and appreciates what he has been able to accomplish in his young life. He deals so well with his responsibilities to the game and to the fans, It gives him a humility that made him enormously popular.
IT: You have that wonderful tennis club in Malibu where you chose to do a fundraiser with VIka Azarenka and Serena Williams which raised a million dollars. How does that touch your heart?
LE: Here we were able to raise money for four different foundations when we opened Stadium 2 the other night, just before the tournament began. McEnroe and Jim Courier were wonderful to commit their time. We had a fundraiser at Nikita restaurant in Malibu, again where we each had a chance to give back. It is really the players that are spending their time and committing themselves to giving back to the community. So I am proud to help whenever I can.
IT: Serena is a great California champion. Would you like to see her come back and play here in Indian Wells?
LE: Of course, but I respect whatever decision she makes. Its important that each individual makes the decision that is right for them. So, I respect whatever she and Venus decide to do. They have my utmost respect. They’re both great champions. I wish them both well.
IT: So, Larry, give us a word or phrase that captures your feeling for your incredible investment here?
LE: I am just proud to help finish what Ray and Charlie [Pasarell] began.
IT: Talk about Larry Ellison’s tennis game. I know you work hard with your coach Sandy Mayer, but what are your strengths and weaknesses?
LE: I played for the first time under the lights and I realized that you have to wear a hat, because I didn’t see a darn thing when I played against McEnroe. I love playing tennis. I play almost every day. It’s great for fitness. It is like anything else, every day you feel you are getting a little bit better, and it is important to all of us who like to compete.
IT: Do you think that tennis somehow helps you in business? Does it help give you a mental edge or does it help you take your mind off things for a bit?
LE: I love competition. I love competing in business, and I love competing in sports. Whether it is in sales or in tennis, basketball or in sailing. I like to test my limits. And I can test my limits in tennis, like anything else.