Tennis: Grand vision puts Big Top in shade

Legendary visitor to tennis tent is realising a dream.
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LET'S NOT knock tennis in a tent. A top-class tournament anywhere in Britain outside the altar of Wimbledon is a welcome addition to a meagre list. But you know what Goran Ivanisevic meant when he said last week: "This is London. They should find a better place to play than in a tent."

Charlie Pasarell was also a brief visitor to the Battersea tent last week. His verdict: "It is an interesting site and it works OK." Then he flew back home to California to resume his hands-on supervision of the stunning new complex (dubbed Charlie's Field of Dreams) being built in Indian Wells to house the Mercedes Super Nine event of which he is tournament director.

You remember Charlie Pasarell. The upright, dark-haired young American who battled Pancho Gonzales over five marathon sets and two days at Wimbledon 30 years ago, missing seven match points before losing (22-24 1-6 16-14 6-3 11-9 in five hours 12 minutes) a match which will forever remain - because of the introduction of the tiebreak - the longest played at the Championships. "It was the most meaningful occasion of my life," he says. "Probably if I had won nobody would have talked about it."

Now 55, Pasarell has become a very big cheese. He is a member of the six-man ATP Tour board of directors, as well as its tournament council. But most of all Charlie is renowned for making big dreams come true.

Indian Wells, a suburb of that swish Californian desert resort Palm Springs, has a population of under 4,000 but for the past dozen years Charlie has transformed it into one of the best-known tournaments in the calendar, with the centrepiece a sunken court seating 10,000. The event, which gets under way there this week, will be the last in that location because it has become too cramped for Charlie's grand vision.

Surrounded as it is by a luxury hotel, a golf course and a main road, the setting defied expansion, so Charlie reluctantly decided he needed to take his tournament elsewhere. Since the Super Nines rank second only in importance to the four Grand Slams there was much interest from would- be hosts. Rio de Janeiro wanted it; so did Las Vegas. "I can't tell you how close I came to moving this event to Las Vegas 15 months ago," he said.

Then the city fathers of Indian Wells stepped in. It was made known that a 145-acre chunk of desert less than two miles from the present stadium was available, not only for instant purchase but development. "Las Vegas was an attractive offer but the approval process would have taken longer," he said. "So staying right where we are worked out the best from our perspective."

Charlie and his business partners, who include the former touring pro Ray Moore, have, in equal commitment with IMG, stumped up more than pounds 40m for Charlie's Field of Dreams, to be known officially as Indian Wells Tennis Garden. The main stadium, partly sunken, will house 16,000. There will be two other show courts with capacity for 8,000 and 5,000, as well as a 3,000-seat clubhouse court and another dozen with space for up to 500 spectators on the 52-acre facility, with the remaining 93 acres eventually being taken up by hotels and condominiums.

The site is little more than several large holes in the ground at the moment but everything will be ready, Charlie vows, for the Indian Wells 2000 tournament 12 months hence. Its use will be primarily for the 10 days of the Super Nine event, though it will also house a tennis academy, "a crown jewel of tennis" as Pasarell says.

"Obviously the new set-up will lend itself to many other things and we are already talking to people. But they are basically gravy. This will be funded by the tennis only." He admits to the occasional nightmare about the Field of Dreams. "Sure I've had a few nights when I woke up in a cold sweat and asked myself why I am doing this." But, reaching into Spielberg- speak, he adds: "I thought to myself, if I build this, they will come. And they have already, sponsors, ticket buyers."

A former No 1 ranked American, Pasarell won 18 singles titles, was a member of the US Davis Cup team for five years and a Wimbledon quarter- finalist in 1976. "I played the game to be the best. Ten wasn't good enough, two wasn't good enough. Carrying that attitude throughout life has really helped. If I am building something I want it to be the best. I have been accused of leaving a trail of stadiums around the country but this will be the last, I promise you."

And the best, Charlie.