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Ace of a Place : Charlie Pasarell and Tennis Have Become a Hot Combination in the Desert

<i> Times Sports Editor</i>

Early Sunday morning, long before the final of his tennis tournament was to be played on the center court that he dreamed of in the stadium that he built, the King Midas of the pro tennis world strolled his grounds and surveyed all that he had touched. And behold, it was gold.

His real name is Charlie Pasarell, and he is quite young to be king, only recently turned 45. Around here, he is regularly called “the tennis prince of the desert.” For what he has done with real estate and tennis interest here, a better nickname might be “the Desert Fox.”

He has a restaurant named for him here, Charlie’s. He recently had the title of President of Grand Champions Resort Corporation bestowed on him. For all we know, he also has his own Angels.

Certainly, his recent impact on the men’s pro tennis tournament that has been played in the desert for 16 years has been heavenly. When he took over its direction in 1981, as a former star player in the middle 1960s and an employee of Landmark, a real-estate development company, it was a tournament with a checkered past. It had been held at Mission Hills, then moved to La Quinta. And it seemed to go through sponsors and patrons faster than it did tennis balls.

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In 1980, when rainstorms hit the desert, the tournament never was completed. Dozens noticed.

In fact, the roller-coaster history of the tournament prompted one writer, Mark Winters of Inside Tennis, to label it The Pat Cash Tournament: “When it was good, it was very, very good. But when it was bad, it was awful.”

Once Pasarell started getting the knack for this tennis tournament racket, the sport began to really bloom in the desert. Ironically, the blooming began in a dusty parking lot.

“Four years ago, Charlie took me out into the parking lot at La Quinta,” said Gerry Smith, vice-chairman of Newsweek magazine, the current main sponsor of Pasarell’s tournament. “There really wasn’t any place else to put down two chairs and spread out plans and blueprints. So there we sat, in the dirt, looking at Charlie’s dream.”

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A short time later, Pasarell was giving Smith a closer look at his dream, still bearing little semblance to reality.

“He took me over to where the stadium is now,” Smith said, “and we stood up on top of this huge sandpile and he said, ‘There’s center court.’ And he pointed off in the distance, to some cement pilings, and he said, ‘There’s where the hotel, Grand Champions, will be.’

“All that I did is have the blind foresight to agree with his vision.”

Pasarell’s vision included some ugly sights, such as workers going around the clock under huge lights for the last three weeks before the hotel opening and first tournament in the new stadium three years ago.

“It looked like a war zone,” Pasarell said. “They poured the last part of the driveway leading into the hotel at 3 a.m. the day it opened.

In the end, the hotel and stadium construction project, a complex that Pasarell knew was needed if the tournament was to take on increasing stature, cost $100 million. Of that, $16 million went to build the stadium that now seats 10,500 and gets raves all over the tour.

Sunday, when Miloslav Mecir beat Yannick Noah in an exciting five-set final, it marked the third year of play in Pasarell’s Palace. The total prize money, mostly loose change a few years ago, was $702,500. Mecir got $136,700, the equivalent of about one-quarter of a two-bedroom home, without a view, in Southern California.

Next year’s Champions Cup will offer prize money of $1 million and is designated as one of a select group of “Championship Series” tournaments. This year, 30 of the top 40 players in the world competed here. Next year, it is expected to be even more popular.

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And all this via the vision of a man named Charles Manuel Pasarell, who grew up in Puerto Rico, battled Arthur Ashe for the No. 1 spot on UCLA’s tennis team, rose to the spot as top player in the United States in 1967 and one of the top 10 in the world, and, interestingly, has left his playing legacy on the game with his participation in two of the longest matches in history, a 6-hour 23-minute doubles match in 1968 and his famous 5-hour 12-minute match over two days with Pancho Gonzalez at Wimbledon.

His is a personality of perseverance.

So the Grand Champions is fast becoming a happening, an in-thing for tennis fans, so much so that it even inspired some ridiculous hyperbole after the Mecir-Noah match. Said one of the corporate types presenting one of the awards on center court, “When the history of tennis is written, Grand Champions will be its biggest prize.”

That, of course, sent reporters scrambling to call their offices to see if Wimbledon had been canceled.

Standing nearby when said hyperbole was uttered was Pasarell, who didn’t appear to be the least bit flustered. He merely smiled, just as he will on the way to the bank for years to come.


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