If you are a fan of the sport of tennis, or just a fan of sports, it is difficult not to be seduced by the new and improved version of Charlie Pasarell's ongoing dream in the desert. If this is not tennis Camelot, you can see it from here.
Years ago, Pasarell was known as one of the best thinking players on the men's tour. These days, his racket is serving the sport from boardrooms rather than baselines.
What has resulted is 10 days in mid-March, unblemished by big-city lights and sounds, of warm weather, spectacular mountain views, palm trees swaying in hot desert breezes and some of the best tennis played anywhere all year.
By both men and women.
The coed touch is the new twist here. This year, for the first time ever, the tournament combined men's and women's tour matches at the same time and venue. That sort of thing is done in tennis only at the four Grand Slam events--the Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open--plus next week's Lipton tournament in Florida, a pre-Australian event in Sydney, and the Japan Open in Tokyo. In addition, Pasarell put the two events together while balancing the demands, and certainly egos, of two separate title sponsors.
Even tougher, two separate genders.
For this, he could be a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. But the suspicion is that he will settle for exactly what he got--a huge success.
There were plenty of potential land mines going into this event:
--The locker-room area for the male players was already tiny, so the women had to be shipped off to an adjoining set of hotel villas behind the practice courts. That situation was policed by a sign in the men's locker room that said: "Men Only. Do Not Enter." That was not received warmly by a few of the women's officials. But as the tournament went on, the villas became more and more to the liking of the women.
--The women's tournament, the State Farm Evert Cup, a $550,000 event, awarded Steffi Graf $100,000 for her title; the men's event, the Newsweek Champions Cup, a $2.2-million event, awarded Michael Chang $320,000 for his title. That would be a much stickier wicket were there not the expectation that, next year, the Evert Cup will be upgraded to a Tier 1 event, with accompanying increased payoffs.
--Of the 75 hours of telecasts from this combined event, including ESPN, ESPN2, Eurosport, ESPN International and the German network ZDF, 12 hours went to the women's event, and only two, Graf's final victory over Conchita Martinez, was on the main ESPN network. Again, that situation would be more of a deal-breaker here were it not clear to both sides that much of this was based on prior contracts.
--There was much speculation that making people buy boxes and season tickets for three additional women-only sessions might backfire. Instead, those three sessions drew 25,539, well above prior early-round sessions when the Evert Cup stood alone. As a whole, the tournament drew 147,751, including sold-out sessions every day starting last Monday and a sold-out session Friday night. The 10-day, 15-session tournament averaged 9,850 a session and 14,774 a day.
So, in the end, the land mines were only talked about, never stepped on. And Pasarell, who reportedly has plans for ambitious additions to the facilities here, had yet another building block to the future.
"Somebody called this the U.S. Open of the West," Pasarell said. "That's a nice compliment, but we'll never get to that level. . . . What we have here is a special event in a very special place. It's not in a big city. It's not one of those things where a person can say, 'I think I'll leave the office about 1 o'clock and catch some tennis.' Here, people plan their vacations."
Pasarell has many important allies in his quest to place this combined event a mere notch below the Grand Slams. Ann Person Worcester, the women's tour CEO, backed the joining of the two events and said she liked what she saw, especially the first weekend, when the women played alone and drew well. And J. Wayne Richmond, who is in charge of the ATP tour in the Americas, said Sunday, "Charlie has done a great thing here. This event is good for all of tennis. We are one of the few pro sports in the world where the skill levels of men and women are such that you can put them out there together."
It was perhaps best summed up by Bud Collins, tennis columnist for the Boston Globe and internationally known tennis broadcaster, who said, "I think Charlie has made this one of the three great tennis events in the United States, with Lipton and the U.S. Open.
"You have to have the women to present the full face of tennis. And the full face of tennis makes a beautiful picture."