Larry Ellison a hero for Indian Wells tennis

Larry Ellison, the software billionaire and chief executive of Oracle, knows when tennis took hold of him. It’s a date he can’t quite pinpoint, but he remembers the moment.

“I was watching television,” Ellison said. " Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall were playing. It was when they had turned professional and pros weren’t allowed to play the slams. Laver hit his first three serves to Rosewall’s backhand. Rosewall hit winners off of each, all three perfect shots. Laver never went to his backhand again on the serve and won the match.

“It was spectacular, wonderful. These guys were barnstorming, going town to town and playing this high-quality tennis that was dazzling. I’ve been a fan ever since.”

Now the 65-year-old Ellison is both fan — and savior, at least locally.

In December he purchased the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, which begins main-draw play Wednesday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. The event last year drew 332,498 fans, more than any tournament except for the Grand Slam events. But there had been rumblings that the tournament was on the market. Indeed, several groups were interested in buying the event — and moving it to China or the Middle East.

Ellison — the fourth-richest man in the world, according to Forbes magazine — wanted to make sure the tournament stayed home at the Indian Wells complex, which he also bought, spending a reported $100 million in the process.

“The importance of Larry stepping forward shouldn’t be underestimated,” said Sandy Mayer, a former top-10 singles player who is Ellison’s tennis teacher now. “Having the Indian Wells event in the U.S. is a good thing for the game overall here.”

Ellison, who has attended the tournament the last three years, said buying it only seemed natural when Ray Moore — who along with Charlie Pasarell, had been running the event — approached him.

“He said it might be headed to China or the Middle East … and I thought that would be a terrible thing,” Ellison said. “I gave it a lot of thought and decided it was something I wanted to do. This is a great event. I wanted to be a part of it.”

The world’s top-ranked player, Roger Federer, who will be at Indian Wells, is glad Ellison came on board.

“Obviously, it’s great for someone to spend so much money on our sport and even more so because it’s a person who obviously does love the sport, loves the game,” Federer said. “It will be interesting to see how much he will be around.”

The answer is a lot, because for Ellison this is not strictly business.

“It’s got to be both,” he said. “The tournament is expensive enough. If it weren’t a good investment I certainly wouldn’t have bought it.”

But, consider this:

He had a clay court built in the yard of his Woodside, Calif., home.

He takes lessons, often five a week.

He hits with Tommy Haas and John McEnroe.

He considers Pete Sampras’ second serve as the single-best shot he’s seen in tennis.

Ellison, who calls himself a Rafael Nadal “fan boy,” spoke of the dramatic 2009 Australian Open five-set semifinal between Nadal and Fernando Verdasco and of the emotions two days later in the final when Nadal beat Federer, who cried when it was over. Nadal’s graciousness, Ellison said, was a lesson for everyone.

“Rafa was so upset Roger had lost,” Ellison said. “Rafa was really upset, he was almost in tears. As fierce as he is on the court, and no one fights harder than Rafa, he is even a nicer person. Rafa is the kid you want to adopt. Roger seems like a man. Rafa is a big kid.”

Ellison is thinking big already about Indian Wells. On Friday he has put together a charity event called “Hit for Haiti.” It is sponsored by Oracle and features two doubles matches: Federer and Sampras vs. Nadal and Andre Agassi, and Martina Navratilova and Justine Henin vs. Steffi Graf and Lindsay Davenport.

“I think, outside the Slams, that match will be the most-viewed tennis match in the world this year,” Ellison predicted.

Yet there is one thing he seems to want even more: getting Venus and Serena Williams back.

The sisters famously left Indian Wells in anger in 2001 and haven’t played it since. They and their father, Richard, accused the crowd of making racist comments — a crowd that first grew disgruntled when Venus defaulted to her sister in the semifinal because of tendinitis in her knee. Then in the final, the crowd booed Serena, bringing her to tears by the end of the match.

“If I could have a chance to get to know them better, if I could talk to Serena, I think I could persuade her,” Ellison said. “It’s hard to get through the agents though.”

The ultra-competitive Ellison — an accomplished sailor, he has won the America’s Cup — may have loved the game since that Laver-Rosewall moment but didn’t begin playing until seven years ago. “I thought it would be great for conditioning,” he said, “and something where I wouldn’t feel the need to compete.”

Ellison knows his limits on the court.

“I was warming up with Johnny Mac,” he recalled, referring to John McEnroe, “and John got the impression I could play tennis until I tried to hit a volley and an overhead.”

But he gives it his all, even when helping ATP Tour pro Haas warm up. Recalled Haas: “He hit a running forehand once against me. I am not kidding. It was a little Pete Sampras-like.”

Haas, too, is glad Ellison stepped up at Indian Wells.

“It’s some of the best news we’ve had,” Haas said. “He’s a smart businessman, but I think he has a very real love of the sport, so he is thinking always about what to do next to make things better.”