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Tommy Haas on What Makes Indian Wells Tennis’ “Fifth Grand Slam”

Tournament director Tommy Haas sat down with Boardroom to talk about the present and future of the Fifth Grand Slam.

It’s been 19 months since the cancellation of the 2020 BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, a Masters 1000 event. At the start of the pandemic, the tournament was one of the first sporting events to get the axe, and it was one of the last to make it back into our lives.

After such a long layoff, tournament director Tommy Haas says he’s just happy to bring tennis back to “tennis paradise,” as he calls the $77 million facility built back in 2000.

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In the years since, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison has purchased the tournament (and the tournament site), taking the event to new heights. The grounds now feature a second stadium, which seats 8,000, as well as some upscale eateries like NoBu.

While there are currently nine tournaments classified as Masters 1000s — the biggest regular-season ATP tennis tournaments outside of the grand slams — there seems to be an aura about Indian Wells that isn’t there with the other tournaments. Is it the timing of the event, which takes place at the beginning of the year and marks the beginning of the most exciting part of the tennis tournament? Is it the scenery?

Boardroom caught up with Haas this week to get his take on what sets the Indian Wells Masters apart, how the tournament is doing after being forced to reschedule until October, and some of the future stars of the game.

KENNY DUCEY: What do you think makes Indian Wells such a special tournament, and what sets it apart from the other eight Masters 1000 tournaments? It’s been called the fifth grand slam.

TOMMY HAAS: I think from a player’s point of view, when you’re traveling close to 36 to 40 weeks a year, you always look for these kinds of things that make life a little bit easier, right? I mean, you come here, the weather is pretty much perfect every day. You can pretty much guarantee if you want to practice at 9 a.m. or at four in the afternoon, you’re gonna have sunshine and perfect conditions. All the hotels are pretty close by, you don’t have too much traffic. The restaurants are close by as well, if you do want to go into Palm Desert on El Paseo.

There’s also the help of Larry Ellison, who has a great vision and looks to make this an overall great experience for everyone involved, not just for the players but the fans too. You can have a snack at NoBu on Stadium 2 while you’re watching some tennis. You can go to Spago at Stadium 1, watch some tennis, and possibly even have Wolfgang Puck serve you some schnitzel or a nice dessert. That really speaks to a venue that I don’t think exists anywhere else in the world, no matter what sport you look at.

The best product that we have in tennis is having the men and the women play at the same time, just like the grand slams. It’s tennis paradise.

KD: You mentioned Larry Ellison. Where do you feel like he’s had his biggest influence on this tournament? It’s been 12 years now since he bought it.

TH: It was tough times about 12, 13 years ago for this spectacular event. This event used to be played at the Park Hyatt up until 2000, and then investors came together and bought this land where we are now and they built this incredible 16,000-seat stadium.

“It’s almost like a Disney World for tennis freaks in many ways.”

Once the crash happened in ’08, this tournament was struggling a little bit and there were rumors going around that it was going to be bought and it might move to China. Luckily, the tennis world comes together and people talk, and one person might know another and former players mention this to Larry Ellison. They say, ‘Look, I know that you’re a tennis fan, this tournament out in the desert is spectacular, and it would be great for American tennis as well not to lose this event to China.’

Larry came down, took a look, as a tennis fan. He said ‘Look, this is something that I’m passionate about,’ and he took over from there. Ever since, any idea that comes to mind [is a possibility]. Building another stadium — Stadium 2 — which brings in a little bit of a different type of atmosphere. You can have a great meal with your friends while overlooking the stadium and still watching tennis, which really hasn’t been done with that type of class.

It’s almost like a Disney World for tennis freaks in many ways.

KD: Are you guys looking at expanding at all?

TH: There’s ideas swirling around, that we might do in the future on the grounds. I mean people come up to me all the time and say, what’s next?

[I] always kind of say, ‘look, the facility is in such great shape and it is so amazing that we don’t really need to rush and do something next year. We can’t forget that. We really only use this facility for about two-and-a-half weeks for this event.

And then, we might have other events throughout the year. So, we got to be smart about what we’re gonna do next. I know there’s been talk on maybe doing a Stadium 3 with a tennis museum.

[They might be] doing a hotel here, near the venue. So there’s lots of ideas and we just keep making sure that we do the right thing in the future.

KD: Tell me about this “Billionaire’s Box” you guys have there. What makes it unique?

TH: If you want to call it that, yeah, you can. Those seats are not the cheapest; for the entire two weeks of having them, they go for a nice cost. I think if you’re a tennis fan, it’s actually very, very fair. And once you have those seats and you get into the champions club, you do have your own private NoBu bunker down there with all the amenities that someone wishes for, you have the seating area looking at the outside courts and tennis, and you have incredible food and service.

Larry went to Wimbledon one year, I think maybe eight or nine years ago, and he was invited to sit in the Royal Box. He liked that idea of kind of creating something similar for him and huge tennis fans that want to sit really up close and personal.

KD: So the U.S. Open didn’t make as much last year during the pandemic, and the prize money came down. I was curious if tournaments are doing anything to offset some of the cost. By not having the tournament last year, are there any things that you do differently this year?

TH: That starts to get really complicated. Obviously it was a huge loss for us, not having the event 19 months ago — everything you have to do to organize this event, set up the entire venue, having everybody ready to go then not having the tournament. All the merchandise we had purchased that we then sell, or the food and beverages.

KD: From a business perspective, Novak Djokovic obviously isn’t playing in this tournament. What kind of impact does that have? Do you think it changes the number of people that are you’re gonna bring in? And also, who are some of the players you do think people will come out and see?

TH: First of all, I think that it wasn’t just Djokovic on the men’s side, obviously, we already knew Roger Federer had surgery again on his knee, his third one. We knew that Rafa Nadal, two-and-a-half months ago, announced that he’s done for the rest of the year. Dominic Thiem, I watched him actually get injured during Mallorca when I was there, he’s our defending champion. There’s [Juan Martin Del Potro], another guy that has done really well here and is very well-liked, he’s still fighting injury. So the list is very, very long on the ATP side.

You know, when you look at that from [my] tournament director point of view or everyone here that works at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, it’s obviously not the greatest thing in the world.

Most of the people traveling from Canada, who are also traveling with restrictions probably are not here this time around. Most of the Europeans traveling to this event in October, with restrictions again coming from Europe, probably don’t have a chance to come to this country still. So, we knew that the numbers were going to be a little bit less. Then, people have different opinions about the [vaccine] mandate that we have in place. We were very strong about making sure that the dedication goes to being one of the safest sporting events.

Having been walking around the grounds, the last couple of days, it’s been very positive. We’re probably gonna be at 50-60% of the capacity that we usually have, but our main goal was also to really just bring tennis back.

KD: Who do you think is the biggest attraction now that the Big Three aren’t there?

TH: You know, this sport always prevails.

Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

You look at the US Open, especially the women’s side, all of the sudden you have Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu, these two new teenagers that are just blowing up and beating all the top players in the world, and they’re so likable.

You have [Daniil] Medvedev, the US Open Champion. You have Sascha Zverev, who’s knocking in the door of winning a major. He’s been really, really consistent and won the Gold medal. Then you have [Stefanos] Tsitsipas who I call sort of like “Borg 2.0” with the long hair and the all-around game and the flare out there, which is fun to watch.

So, you have a lot of these, the next generation. You’ve got some young Americans in the draw, Andy Murray is trying to have his resurgence, [Gael] Monfils is one of the fan favorites.

KD: Do you think that America can learn something from the way Canada has produced its stars, or even Russia? The women’s side has some great talent, but how can we improve men’s tennis and produce a No. 1 singles star?

TH: It’s a lot about the mindset. It’s a lot about the coaches that you have, it’s about the team around you.

There are a lot of young Americans that are sort of knocking on the door, but you have to ask yourself, how much really are you dedicating yourself to be a top 10 player, to be, potentially, a person that can win a grand slam?

It’s always easy to say ‘Yeah I’m good, I’m talented. I’m top 50, top 40, top 30 now,’ but what am I really doing to go after those goals? Then, you look at the people that come from Russia or Serbia, or maybe that move out to Canada, and appreciate the chance they’re given. They have a little bit of a different upbringing, maybe a little bit of a different mentality.

[In] the US, life is pretty darn good, right? So, people get comfortable a little bit too much or too early and happy with having some good results here and there, and sort of put their feet up and say, ‘Look, maybe next year, it’s gonna be better.’

You have these coaches around that have to do many other jobs besides just being your tennis coach, too. You have to be a friend, you have to be a mentor. You have to sometimes be somebody that is very, very tough, sometimes you have to be more understanding and giving them a break.

At the end of the day, it’s about the entire package around the player, the people behind the scenes. Usually the ones that are doing really well have the best teams around them.

KD: You see that with Jenson Brooksby and Sebastian Korda.

TH: Yeah, Brooksby in his on-court interview after this first round, he said ‘I’m so happy I won. I’m so happy I have the opportunity to be in the next round but I’m not really satisfied with the way I played today, so I’m actually going to go to the practice courts right after this and work on my game a little more.’ You see how focused he is out there.

You see also that he’s not the most talented player in the world, but he does everything that he can to try to be the best player that he can be and constantly improve. You can kind of sense that. And the way he fights in the way he represents himself out there. It’s something special and you don’t see that in all the players, all the time, no matter where you’re from.

Sebastian Korda is another one of those situations. He grew up in Bradenton, Florida, I’ve known him since he was born. I played his dad a couple times on tour back in the day. It’s that mentality, right? You come from a family that has done it as well. They’re so disciplined and structured. It’s like second nature to them. A lot of people aren’t used to that kind of a lifestyle.

Ultimately, the earlier you find something that you’re passionate about, the better. It’s something that they enjoy doing. It’s not like, ‘Come on, I’m forcing you to play piano, come on, I’m forcing you to play soccer or a little baseball.’ If you really like it, it makes life a lot easier.