INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Being a billionaire has its perks. One of which, apparently, is the ability to get the most famous tennis players in the world to agree to come to a lonely stretch of crow-inhabited sand, put hard hats on their heads, and have their pictures taken pretending to shovel dirt together. First it was Ion Tiriac, the sport’s European tycoon, who enjoyed this spectacle when he broke ground for his Caja Magica a few years ago in Madrid. Today it was Tiriac’s American counterpart, Larry Ellison, who had the pleasure here in the California desert.
This was ground-breaking day at the BNP Paribas Open. Ellison, wearing tennis sneakers and a sweatshirt, and flanked by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Victoria Azarenka, Ana Ivanovic, the mayor of Indian Wells, a couple of ATP representatives, an architect, a project manager, and an unnamed, attractive young woman, christened his latest expansion project for the tournament. He stood on the spot where a new, 8,000-seat Stadium Court 2 will open next year. That sounded great, though Ellison seemed more interested in the two restaurants that will be built into the structure. He said Federer had confided to him recently that he had always wanted to order a California roll during a changeover. Voilà, Larry had the answer. He would put a Nobu on site next year. Only the best, obviously, for Ellison, though nobody was quite sure if he was kidding or not.
This was my first day at Indian Wells this year, and I had forgotten, after 12 months in New York, how quiet and relaxing it is compared to most big tennis events. Victoria Azarenka was practicing on the first court, Federer on the next one over, and there were plenty of fans watching both. But there was no crush of noise, no wining and dining as you walked in, the way there is at the U.S. Open, no music blaring or multiple cocktail lounges to thread your way past, no store clerks breaking into song, the way they do at Roland Garros, no chants of "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oy, oy oy!"
Instead, there were the courts, there were the sky and the mountains, there were the players, and there were the fans. The loudest sound you heard were tennis balls being hit. You could take a stroll and see Milos Raonic, Feliciano Lopez, Andy Murray, Nicolas Almagro, and Taylor Townsend practicing on one court after the next.
There have been changes and upgrades during the four years that Ellison has owned the event. Some have been great: HawkEye on every court, and a new tent to keep spectators out of the heat. Some have been trade-offs: While there are more seats around the practice courts, you can’t roam as freely among them as you once could. Each year the place adds more infrastructure. Next year’s expansion will accelerate that trend. The site is called the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, and Ellison said that the “emphasis would be on garden,” with increased landscaping all around.
The tournament won’t stay the same, and many will miss the quaint old days when it was smaller and freer, or at least when it seemed smaller and freer. But it’s also hard to imagine, no matter how many sushi palaces Ellison may install, the place ever resembling the U.S. Open or any other bustling big event. The sky will always be high here, the sun will (almost) always be out, and there will always be more desert sand to build on. Even Larry Ellison won’t be able to bring down the hills that surround the tennis center and give it so much of its character. It’s a hard setting to screw up.
For today, Ellison and his assembled tennis stars were all smiles. They were happy to put the construction hats on, and even happier to get a chance to hit serves at the sport’s assembled photographers for a photo-op. Nadal rocketed his over their heads and plugged the cars lined up behind them.
As for his skill as a construction worker, though, Rafa left something to be desired. Smiling the whole way, he dug down into the sand with both hands on top of the shovel and flipped the sand straight up in front of his face, kind of like a basketball player trying an underhand foul shot. He was having fun, but it didn't look like Rafa knew his way around this kind of dirt. Being a tennis player, like being a billionaire, has its privileges.