By Joel Drucker
No shot in tennis has as many variations as the serve. Ponder the stylized Egyptian-like turn of John McEnroe, the rocked front heel-to-flow of Pete Sampras, the high toss and sharp strike of Steffi Graf, or even the prudence of Chris Evert. Each is different – and even more, revealing of everything from creativity to grace to urgency to caution.
Then there is Charlie Pasarell. Earlier this month, Pasarell was voted in to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, an accomplishment earned largely for his role in the creation of the BNP Paribas Open – the near-Slam ATP-WTA event held in Indian Wells, California. But Pasarell was also a superb player, ranked number one in the U.S. in 1967.
The Pasarell motion defines so much. There was a profound hip turn as he swung his racquet back. The toss was accurate, the body coiled, the delivery powerful and adept at hitting all corners. Says the man he partnered with at Indian Wells for a quarter-century, current BNP Paribas Open CEO Ray Moore, “It was one of the best service motions you’ll ever see – fluid, natural.” All fitting in with a principle Pasarell has followed his whole life: Shoot for the moon.
60 Years in Tennis
Pasarell embodies one of the highest compliments tennis folk pay to one another: he lived his life in the game. Sitting inside a luxury suite inside the Indian Wells stadium an hour before play starts, holding a cup of coffee in his hand, Pasarell explains how tennis has commanded his heart for 60 of his 68 years. Pasarell’s deep voice, blue eyes and thick black hair conjure a movie star from bygone studio days; or better yet, a patrician land baron in command of a hacienda, what comedian Alan King, one of Pasarell’s partners in the tournament, dubbed “the padron.”
Puerto Rico was Pasarell’s launching pad. His father Charlie – “Big Charlie” – had been a fine tennis player, good enough to compete at the U.S.Championships at Forest Hills. Young Charlie had begun taking lessons with the great coach Welby Van Horn, himself a Forest Hills finalist in 1939. Work hard, urged Van Horn, and one day you might be as good as your dad. Came the reply: Are you kidding? I’m going to be number one in the world. “Puerto Rico,” says Pasarell. “Puerto Rico, that was a small island.”
Engaged in the Arena
But while he reached number one in the U.S. just one year after winning the NCAA singles title at UCLA, Pasarell didn’t quite scale the mountain. There were quarterfinal appearances at majors, Davis Cup matches and several notable epic matches. Most significant was a marathon match at Wimbledon in 1969 versus the great Pancho Gonzalez – Pasarell’s idol -- that Pasarell lost after leading two sets to love and holding seven match points. To hear Pasarell tell the tale is a lyrical, powerful experience, a profound necklace that links players past and present and all the joy and pain that accompanies competition (and the best account is told in my Tennis Channel colleague Steve Flink’s book, The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time
There had also been a notable friendship. In the quarterfinals of the1956 Orange Bowl, the 12-year-old Pasarell beat a promising peer from Virginia named Arthur Ashe. Five years later, the two were best friends, room mates at UCLA. But in 1968, a year after Pasarell had been America’ best, it was Ashe who leaped from the pack to win the U.S. Open. “He wasn’t Arthur,” says Moore of Pasarell the player. Pasarell had laid the ground for his great contribution while still active as a player. He had commenced his career as an amateur. These were the days of feudal lords, where players lodged with families at dainty clubs and if they were good enough, were paid under the table. Then, Open tennis had come in 1968. It was a time of opportunity, but also, for well more than a decade, tennis’ version of the French Revolution – regimes and fiefdoms, land grabs and troubadours, opportunists and soldiers, insurrections and response. It was a period of significant political upheaval worthy of a dissertation (or better yet, Richard Evans’ book, Open Tennis
). The shackles had come off, but what would the new tennis republic look like?
In 1970, in Bristol, England, Pasarell was among those who set the wheels in motion for the creation of the first significant players association. Says Pasarell, “The players had to have a voice. All these people were running things, and we had to have our say too.” Two years later the ATP came to life, Pasarell present at the creation, involved constantly. A year later at Wimbledon,when actions compelled the players to boycott Wimbledon, Pasarell was among the leaders.
As a child, he’d envisioned building a tennis game that would make him great in the long term. As an adult, he pondered a concept that would make the sport thrive. Says Moore, “Charlie wanted to make an impact in the sport that he didn’t make as a player.”
As with the Gonzalez match, it’s a tale he’s told many times. Also like the Gonzalez match, it’s a tale that endures. “In 1978 I drafted a document outlining how the future was to have big dual-gender tournaments with great facilities,” says Pasarell. This was only a decade into the Open era. Men and women were each building their own tours, a necessary step in liberating them from their feudal overlords. But Pasarell was looking down the road. Beat Big Charlie? Please. Puerto Rico? Not enough. Tomorrow the world. Then the moon on the way to the universe.
Life Off The Court
Then came what Moore calls “a twist of fate” which proves the adage that luck is the residue of hard work. Pasarell’s career had ended in 1977. There had been significant off-court endeavors too. With Ashe, Pasarell started the National Junior Tennis League, an inner-city player development program. He’d helped develop the Head Master, one of the first metal racquets. Later had come the creation of another racquet company, PDP – maker of several extremely popular frames in the late ‘70s.
In 1980, Pasarell was the tennis director of Landmark, a real estate company that owned several hotels, including La Quinta, a famed spot 20 minutes east of the Palm Springs. The ATP at that point had held an event in the area for five years, but in 1980, at its location at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, a rainstorm had washed out the tournament at the quarterfinal stage. ATP honcho Butch Buchholz -- a close friend of Pasarell who would also earn a spot in the Hall of Fame largely by dint of creating what’s now the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne – was convinced that the Palm Springs area was not a viable spot for tennis. Pasarell begged to differ. He convinced Landmark to stage the event at La Quinta, and rapidly he was off to the races.
Year one of the Pasarell Era featured a final between Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl – and even better for Pasarell and his business partners, a small profit. The next year, charismatic Yannick Noah ended Lendl’s 44-match winning streak.
Pasarell’s friends speak fondly of the way his head is so often in the clouds, of a faraway look. Indeed, in talking with him the gears shift. There is Pasarell the remote, talking kindly but seemingly preoccupied. Then there is Charlie the businessman, propelled by attentive eye contact, rattling off data about operating expenses, attendance, sponsorship, profit, loss and most of all, real estate. As he explains, “every seat is real estate. That’s how you must think it, that’s how you sell it.” Then there is the man nicknamed “Charlito,” the boyish athlete, Pasarell’s friendly laughs coming in rapid succession as he recalls life on the tour and matches played not just by himself by his mates. Through all three persona flow a ribbon of generosity, Pasarell celebrating a subculture he can talk about nonstop. Says Moore, “No one is more passionate about tennis than Charlie.”
So naturally, as the La Quinta event thrived, Pasarell looked skyward. “It took me three years to see that to take it to the next level we’d need another facility,” he says. For $100 million, Pasarell moved to nearby Indian Wells in 1987, having created out of nothing a first-rate tennis facility – and to house it all, a hotel, the Hyatt Grand Champions. But still, the 1978 vision endured. At the Hyatt, it had reached the point of women and men playing events on consecutive weeks. Crowds had more than tripled from the 30,000 who’d come to La Quinta. “To think,”says Pasarell, “that when we moved to the Hyatt I thought we would be there forever. But within five years, I knew we were outgrowing it.”
This time Pasarell’s vision took the dialogue beyond Palm Springs. New spots such as Las Vegas and Phoenix entered the picture. But at last, Pasarell – along with Moore, who’d joined forces with him in ’87 – found the current spot in Indian Wells, opening the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in 2000. Says Pasarell, “I just always asked myself what I would have wanted as a player: courts, locker rooms, food – everything. It was great to have everything we could imagine.”
There followed a decade of increasing popularity, Indian Wells emerging side-by-side with Buchholz’s Key Biscayne event as the next best thing to a Slam; and in many ways, for fans, often even better given the tournament’s casual atmosphere and chance to watch the world’s best up close.
But even as Pasarell’s tournament thrived, there were business matters, from an ATP-wide sponsorship deal that went awry, to the economic impact of 9.11, to millions in debt incurred in building the stadium, to partnerships with IMG, a buyout, new investors, the economic meltdown of 2008, suitors from Doha and Shanghai.
Why Shouldn’t It Work Out?
Through it all, though, Pasarell’s optimism was relentless. Says Moore,“Charlie always believes things will work out.” Sure enough, by 2010 he and Moore were able to sell the tournament to billionaire Larry Ellison, a step that by the end of last year led to Pasarell seamlessly exiting his official role with the event. Says Pasarell, “The best decision we ever made was to sell the tournament to Larry.”
As he nears 70, Pasarell occupies an emeritus role at Indian Wells. He relishes the chance to take in the scope of a luxury suite and sight lines that he personally oversaw. He walks the grounds in the morning to watch a practice. By day and into the night he will host family and friends. And as Pasarell ponders his July induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, he says, “I don’t want my emotions to get the better of me.” Of course he knows they likely will, that as he takes the stage in Newport, Charlie the businessman will hopefully surrender to Charlito. It was a long journey from Puerto Rico. If Pasarell hadn’t quite bagged the moon with his racquet, in the desert he’d created a universe.
Joel Drucker has been involved with Tennis Channel since it hit the airwaves in 2003, initially as co-producer of the interview show “Center Court.” Subsequently he has been involved in dozens of the network’s activities, including work as story editor at all the Grand Slams and the production of numerous TC events