Charlie Pasarell has long been tennis’ answer to baseball’s Field of Dreams. Pasarell built it, and they came.
Actually, Pasarell kept building, and the players kept coming. No singular sensation for this visionary of the sport.
Monday in New York, the inductees to the International Tennis Hall of Fame were announced. They were Martina Hingis, 32, a women’s star long before she was a woman; Thelma Coyne Long, 94, legendary Australian player; Cliff Drysdale, 71, a good player who achieved as much stature in the broadcast booth as on the court; Ion Tiriac, 73, the Romanian player and powerful European event promoter; and Pasarell, 69.
It is difficult to determine what drove Pasarell’s selection. He had his finger in so many tennis pies.
His playing career was solid. A junior phenom from Puerto Rico who came to UCLA, he was joined by Arthur Ashe in the mid-1960s and formed a Bruins powerhouse.
“For a while, I was No. 1,” Pasarell says. “Then, pretty soon, Arthur was No. 1.”
Pasarell’s pro career included a highlight loss. In 1969 at Wimbledon, Pasarell, 25, played Pancho Gonzales, 41. Pasarell took the first two sets, 24-22, 6-1. Most 41-year-olds would have caved. Gonzales wasn’t most 41-year-olds. He won the next three sets, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. The match took 5 hours 21 minutes over two days and was an endurance record until John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played 11 hours 5 minutes over three days in 2010.
The Gonzales match marked Pasarell forever, and he has reached peace with it.
“For lots of years,” he says, “I would say, if I could go back in time and have my choice, I’d prefer to win. But I’ve come to understand what it meant. Now it’s OK. Had I won that match, you wouldn’t even be asking me about it.”
He was ranked as high as No. 11 in the world and was winding down in the late 1970s while living in the Palm Springs desert when Ernie Vossler of La Quinta’s Landmark development firm invited him to lunch.
“He said he had checked my [playing] results, and they weren’t good,” Pasarell says. “So he offered me a chance to head their tennis program and develop it. He said I’d have a leash, but a long one.”
Vossler, a former pro golfer, died two weeks ago, at 84.
Pasarell the player soon became Pasarell the promoter, visionary and builder. He went from backhands to brick and mortar. In 1981, he acquired a sanction from the tour and moved a stop from Mission Hills to La Quinta. A few years later, he decided that nice mom-and-pop event wasn’t enough.
So he developed the Hyatt Grand Champions Hotel, with a marvelous adjacent tennis stadium. It was March in the desert, the weather almost always perfect, and the players came. So did fans, in big numbers.
Not big enough for Pasarell, though. He saw more, wanted more.
Soon, he and partner Ray Moore, another former player living in the desert, bought land a mile away and built the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, a 16,100-seat stadium that opened for tournament play in 2000 and remains a stunning example of tennis opulence. This year’s event, the BNP Paribas Open, starts Wednesday. Most of the top players in the world will compete, as usual.
Along the way, as he was building, Pasarell was a member of tennis’ main governing bodies. If there was a meeting of import in the sport, he was at the table.
In 2009, Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp. bought the Indian Wells event, and last May, Pasarell stepped down from the operational group.
“I’ll still be there,” he says. “I’ll buy my tickets like I always did. It’s my baby.”
It’s also the closest thing to a Grand Slam tournament — without the official designation. Attendance could reach 400,000 this year.
If Pasarell sounds like a man easing into retirement, forget it. Visionaries never stop having visions.
He is currently developing, with younger brother Stanley, 2,000 acres with four miles of oceanfront and two miles of cliffs along Puerto Rico’s coast. A championship golf course has opened, with guest lodges. Hotels, golf villas and home sites are to come.
It is called Royal Isabela. Give it a couple of years and you may start hearing about a new tennis event, the Royal Isabela Open. The tournament logo would be an unnamed tennis Hall of Famer, looking out a window and visualizing Shoeless Joe Jackson hitting a forehand.