Desert Smash: Where the stars shine brightest

by: Steve Tignor | March 03, 2018

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Ryan Macauley, head of Desert Smash, gives an inside look at this year’s event—which will be streamed LIVE on this Tuesday, March 6:

Desert Smash is the plutonium shot that says, ‘Hey, let’s take something that was already there—and let’s really show it to the world,” says Tennis Channel President Ken Solomon. 

That “something” is the heady mix of Hollywood and tennis cultures that Solomon grew up surrounded by when he was a young player and fan in Southern California. It’s a mix that he believes has, unfortunately, remained largely invisible to fans and TV viewers in recent years. It’s something that he wants to change.

“You saw Will Ferrell in Australia, and Will Smith, too,” Solomon says of the two movie stars who atten-ded this year’s Australian Open. 

“This happens a lot, but it’s been limited because tournaments have been the drivers to celebrities sitting in the stands and occasionally doing a shot and saying, ‘And there’s Justin Timberlake.’ Everyone waves and the crowd cheers, when there’s so much more to it—when tennis really is part of their lives.”

What has been missing, according to Solomon, is a nexus, a central location where tennis and Hollywood can mingle properly, and where celebrities can show their love of the sport. On March 6, he’s hoping to provide that nexus a few miles from Indian Wells, at La Quinta Resort & Club, a Waldorf Astoria Resort with Desert Smash. 

Desert Smash, which mixes entertainment and friendly competition and raises money for multiple charities, has played host to Jon Hamm, Justin Bieber, Kevin Hart, Redfoo of LMFAO, Marcia Gay Harden, Randy Jackson, Jason Collins and other tennis-loving celebs over the years. In the event’s pro-ams, they’ve faced off against American players like John Isner and Sam Querrey.

That tradition will continue this year, with Chrissy Metz and Chris Sullivan from the hit show This is Us, comedian J.B. Smoove, actors Colton Haynes, Liev Schreiber and Boris Kodjoe, and Olympic gold-medal gymnasts Nadia Comaneci—now famous as her fellow Romanian Simona Halep’s No. 1 fan—and Bart Conner set to pair off with Isner, Querrey, and Bob and Mike Bryan.

“I’ve been participating in Desert Smash for four years now,” Haynes, 29, says. “This is such a rewarding event to participate in year after year because the proceeds always go to incredible causes.”

“I was No. 1 on my high school team my junior year,” Haynes adds with a laugh, “but it was only because I got every ball back and would play these annoying lob points that would always irritate my opponents.”

Haynes is also a fan of one American player in particular.

Serena Williams, who happens to be one of my close friends,” Haynes says. “She makes fun of me for crying every time she wins a tournament or when she has good news about her tennis career.”

More than any other current pro, Williams glides between the worlds of sports and celebrity, the way many tennis players once did. In the 1970s and ’80s, Alan King created a loose, telegenic, celebrity vibe at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas; Pancho Gonzalez was the teaching pro, and Mike Agassi fired balls at his son Andre on its courts. 

Solomon hopes to recreate that culture in the California desert; for him, it’s a natural and long overdue return to the game’s deepest roots in this country.

Tennis in the U.S. originated on the east coast, but it wasn’t until the sport found its way across the country to California that it took on its uniquely American character. There the weather was fine and the facilities were plentiful and public. Generations of American champions, from Gonzalez and Maureen Connolly to Pete Sampras and Williams, practiced in the sunshine 12 months a year. And it was there where those stars of the court mingled with their neighbors, the stars of the screen. 

The Racquet Club of Palm Springs, which opened in 1934, served as the original nexus. The club welcomed generations of show business elite—the industry’s actors, writers, directors and producers—to its courts, its pool and its bungalows. From stars of the 1930s like Clark Gable and Joan Crawford to 1950s Rat Packers like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, to Audrey Hepburn and Dinah Shore and Sonny Bono in the ’60s, the Racquet Club helped make Palm Springs the collective second home of Hollywood. From the beginning, they were joined by tennis royalty. Everyone from Don Budge and Alice Marble to Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert practiced and staged exhibitions on those courts. 

It’s a second home that Solomon knows well. His parents, Abby and Steve, were members at the Racquet Club; Steve played tennis with Gonzalez, and backgammon with James Garner and Henry Fonda. 

“If you follow the evolution of the Racquet Club,” Ken Solomon says, “Hollywood grew up around that. The greatest writers, the greatest actors, they were there. And what did they do? They played tennis. If you’re trying to find the center of celebrity and tennis, you can trace those roots through the desert.”

For Solomon, it was King’s celeb-soaked tournaments in a different desert, the one surrounding Las Vegas, that served as a model on how to blend Hollywood style with tennis’ competitive substance, and how to put on an event that made everyone wish they were there.

“It was a place that the rest of the country looked at,” Solomon says of King’s Caesar’s Palace tournaments, “and saw the biggest stars in this gorgeous place in the middle of winter, having a great time and playing a great tournament.”

Solomon sees the Coachella Valley, and the event in Indian Wells, as the natural inheritors of the tradition started at the Racquet Club of Palm Springs and continued by King. Songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman—regulars at the Racquet Club who will be at Desert Smash—are symbols of this progression. 

At Desert Smash, Solomon plans to hold concerts, skills competitions, comedy acts and pool parties to go along with the pro-am tennis event, all of it leading into and complementing the big ATP and WTA tournament at Indian Wells. 

“Singers, actors, players and real people, all having fun,” says Solomon, who notes Dr. Phil McGraw as one of today’s biggest tennis-playing celebrities. “That’s what tennis has always been about.”

If it works out the way Solomon plans, Desert Smash will help raise the profile of Indian Wells, and provide a new template for tennis coverage on TV.

“Stars and players were always inextricably tied together in California,” Solomon says. “There just wasn’t a platform to illuminate it. There wasn’t an event that brought it to life. We’re starting to do that with Desert Smash. I think it’s going to be a gift that keeps on giving.”

Desert Smash: A Celebration of Celebrity, Charity and Tennis Unlike Any Other

The 14th annual Desert Smash charity tennis event is Tuesday, March 6, and there are many reasons to mark your calendar. Here are just five of those reasons, including the event's host, Serena Williams.

Desert Smash is the kick off to Indian Wells, which will be broadcast on Tennis Channel over the next two weeks.




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