Indian Wells tennis just keeps getting bigger

Main draw begins Wednesday for the BNP Paribas Open

The prestigious, ever-growing, we-try-harder tennis tournament at Indian Wells will, once again, have new offerings when it opens main draw play in the Southern California desert Wednesday.

The BNP Paribas Open will hand out $10,762,466 in prize money, $5,381,233 to both the men's and women's draw, with $900,000 going to each champion.

It has also expanded seating by 3,625 on the grounds, making a daily sellout now 45,110. Attendance at this event, which has become sort of a symbolic fifth major in tennis, now annually reaches levels approaching those events that drive the bus in the sport — the Australian, French and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon.

BNP Paribas attendance was 431,527 last year, and has made a steady increase over the years. Attendance in 2010, before the addition of 8,000-seat Stadium 2 court, was 339,657.

Larger video screens have been added to the main stadium and shade awnings to restaurant and bar areas around Stadium 2. There will even be a new app that will deliver live streaming from several practice courts.

But all those new things pale in comparison to the return of Serena Williams, the No. 1 player in the world, who won the title at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in 2001 and hasn't been back since.

Her absence has been well documented. In 2001, her sister, Venus, defaulted from their semifinal match just prior to its start. When Serena took the court to play the final against Kim Clijsters of Belgium, she was booed by some in the crowd.

A week later, her father, Richard Williams, told a USA Today reporter that the booing was racially motivated. Others have speculated that it was motivated by the anger of fans who had tickets for the Venus-Serena semifinal.

Serena Williams, who won her 19th major title at this year's Australian Open, accepted a wild card from the tournament and is seeded No. 1. She will play her first match Friday night.

Other top-seeded women players are No. 2 Maria Sharapova, No. 3 Simona Halep and No. 4 Caroline Wozniacki.

The men's top-seeded player is Novak Djokovic, fresh off his fifth Australian Open title, which gives him eight majors. In that Aussie final, Djokovic beat Andy Murray, who is seeded No. 4 at Indian Wells. Roger Federer is seeded second and Rafael Nadal third.

Missing in the women's draw will be Petra Kvitova, two-time Wimbledon champion, who has withdrawn, citing exhaustion. Top men's players Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will miss the event because of injuries.

The women's main draw begins Wednesday, the men's Thursday.

ESPN and Tennis Channel will contribute to a total of 101 hours of live TV coverage. ESPN will carry the March 22 finals, starting at 11 a.m.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Twitter: @Dwyrelatimes

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