Hang out at a tennis tournament long enough and you will meet your share of dreamers. On a back practice court is an instructor with the silver bullet for improving Roger Federer’s backhand. Near the exhibitor booth stands an inventor with a racquet that will save the world. Roaming in hopes of chatting up a potential sponsor is that promoter who’s got an event in mind that will dramatically increase the sport’s popularity. And let’s not forget, hovering in the media area, those producers who seek to create features and documentaries. These people all personify the notion that talk is cheap.

Then there is Charlie Pasarell. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Pasarell greatly admired his father. “Big Charlie” was an excellent tennis player who’d competed at Forest Hills. One day, the younger Charlie was told by his grandfather that if he worked hard at his tennis, he might one day be as good as “Big Charlie.” The little boy politely countered: No, no, I’ll be better. I’ll be world champion. He got darn close, including being the top-ranked American in 1967.

A decade later, as his playing days wound down, Pasarell came up with what was dubbed “The Blockbuster Plan”—for tennis to create more Grand Slam-style events. It was the kind of ambitious idea you’d expect from a man with a big serve and a bold playing style.

Soon after that, in 1981, Pasarell founded, owned and, for 31 years, served as tournament director of what’s now the BNP Paribas Open, the combined ATP-WTA event currently underway in Indian Wells, California. “Charlie has always had big dreams,” says his fellow Hall of Famer and close friend, Donald Dell. “But best of all, he has always had what it takes to bring them to life.”

Though Pasarell’s official engagement with the tournament ended in 2012, he remains immersed in it. On this Saturday October morning, he’s sitting in the Indian Wells Tennis Garden’s parking lot, keen to shortly watch the afternoon’s matches with his son-in-law during the tournament’s highly popular middle weekend. “I still feel that it’s my baby, so to speak,” says the 76-year-old Pasarell. “I love this event. It’s one of the things in my life that I’m most proud of.”


WATCH: Staged for the first time since 2019, the BNP Paribas Open has evolved into a veritable Tennis Paradise in the California desert.


“It was those big weekends that finally convinced everyone that tennis is best when men and women play together,” says another Hall of Famer and dear mate of Pasarell’s, Miami Open founder Butch Buchholz. “Each of our tournaments wanted that to happen. And Charlie was amazing. He had so much vision and perseverance.”

Of course, even Pasarell couldn’t have imagined the tournament ever taking place in October. Just over 18 months ago, as Pasarell drove from his home near San Diego to Indian Wells, he received a phone call telling him the tournament was being cancelled due to the pandemic. “At first I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “But we all had to accept it. It was a huge loss for everybody, for local hotels and restaurants, for players and sponsors and fans. So it’s now great to be back.”

Pasarell is impressed by all that’s happened at Indian Wells since billionaire Larry Ellison bought the event in 2009. The prior eight years had been very challenging, Pasarell and his partner Ray Moore grappling with everything from a $110 million marketing deal that capsized, the economic fallout of 9.11 and servicing $74 million worth of debt to pay for the new stadium that opened in 2000. Each of these factors led to the tournament nearly being sold and relocated outside of the U.S. “We found the absolute best owner and person to have and run this event,” says Pasarell.

One major step Ellison took early on was to make the BNP Paribas Open the first tournament to have Hawk-Eye on every court, an asset that immediately pleased the players. Says the great Australian Roy Emerson, a frequent attendee, “Having been a player, Charlie was aware of all the big and little things players needed to compete effectively. You won’t believe how bad things could get at some of those events we played in the amateur and early pro years. So when Charlie became a tournament director, he knew about things like having good practice courts, well-organized officials, trainers, accommodations—all of it.”

But while taking care of the players was a natural extension of his own experience, Pasarell made sure to create an increasingly better environment for the fans. “Matches are the main attraction,” he says, “but not the only attraction. You’ve seen how people love watching practice. Sure, you want people watching tennis for three to four hours, but you also want them to hang out for ten hours. So there’s food and shopping, sitting and walking around the grounds with friends.”

Pasarell takes in the BNP Paribas Open action alongside current owner Larry Ellison.

Pasarell takes in the BNP Paribas Open action alongside current owner Larry Ellison.


Having made a major mark on tennis, Pasarell is now focused on leaving a legacy in his native Puerto Rico. He and his younger brother Stan have spent many years developing Costa Isabela, a beachfront resort that will include a hotel and golf course. “We are tennis players that get into five-set matches with these real estate projects,” says Buchholz. “I so admire Charlie’s endurance.”

After the BNP Paribas Open ends, Pasarell will head immediately to Texas, where he’ll be a captain and coach for a week at John Newcombe’s annual fantasy camp. As happens everywhere “Charlito” goes, he’ll tell compelling stories from a life of friends and family, work and play. There’ll be the tale of Pasarell’s 1969 Wimbledon epic versus Pancho Gonzales, a battle that spanned over two days and saw the older Gonzales fight off seven match points before winning it by the now unrepeatable score of 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. There’ll be stories of Pasarell’s close friendship with Arthur Ashe, going back to the juniors, on through to being teammates at UCLA and on into the pros. Or maybe he’ll discuss the only time he played “Big Charlie” in a tournament, a three-set win earned by the son on a triple-digit afternoon Puerto Rico.

And then there’ll be the story of Indian Wells. Some dream of creating a single tennis facility. In less than 20 years, Pasarell built three. As Dell says, “Charlie’s not just a dreamer. He’s a doer. He’s the single biggest reason that tournament is so successful.”

It was time now for Pasarell to exit his car and enjoy Saturday afternoon at the tournament. “My favorite scene is to watch people lounging around the grass and the trees,” he says. “People are enjoying themselves. That’s what it’s all about.”