A Tennis Tourney Moves Forward

After controversial remarks cost the tournament director his job last year, the BNP Paribas Open hits the reset button

The BNP Paribas Open, which kicks off this month in Indian Wells, is often called tennis’s “fifth major” because only the four Grand Slams feature tougher competition, more prize money, or larger crowds. Its transformation since 1981 from a low-key, low-profile tournament in the desert to a must-see stop on the tennis tour was shepherded primarily by CEO and tournament director Raymond Moore. So it’s a cruel irony that Moore should have been the cause of the event’s worst public relations disaster.

Last March, during a press conference before the finals, Moore careened off the rails and offered a remarkably tone-deaf take on the Women’s Tennis Association. “In my next life I want to be someone in the WTA because they ride on the coattails of the men,” he said. “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport.”

While the Federer-Nadal rivalry unquestionably triggered a wave of interest in tennis that lifted all boats, Moore’s remarks were so incendiary that tournament officials didn’t even bother with spin control. Moore was excoriated by both players and pundits, and his resignation was announced 36 hours later. The timing was doubly unfortunate considering that one of the major stories in 2016 was supposed to have been the feel-good return of Venus Williams, who had boycotted the event ever since she and her sister, Serena, were booed during a match in 2001. (Serena came back in 2015.)

After the Moore train wreck, and with attendance down for the first time in a decade, officials looked for a tournament director who could generate buzz and rehabilitate the event’s image without alienating, well, everybody. They decided not to promote from within or go with one of the usual suspects from elsewhere in the tennis world. Instead they hired longtime tour pro Tommy Haas.

It was, in many respects, a strange choice. Although Haas has been ranked as high as number two in the world and he plays the most elegant all-court game this side of Federer, he’s never been a superstar, much less a household name. He has no administrative experience or institutional knowledge. And that may be a good thing.

A German native with the accent to prove it, he moved to Florida when he was 13 to train at the Nick Bollettieri tennis factory. He now makes his principal home in Los Angeles with his wife, 90210 actress Sara Foster, and their two daughters. At 38, Haas is handsome and affable, with a quick, self-deprecating wit. He’s also adept with social media, a critical skill for connecting with a new generation of fans and players. “Tommy made sense because he knows the game and knows plenty about how to get engaged, and he’s young,” chief operating officer Steve Birdwell says. “And that’s great because the game is changing.”

But Haas’s most important asset may be his friendship with tournament owner Larry Ellison. The Oracle tycoon—and fifth-richest person in America, according to Forbes—has lavished unprecedented resources on Indian Wells. (Moore continues to advise him.) The Open, which already boasts the second-largest tennis stadium in the world (capacity 16,100), unveiled a second stadium in 2014 that holds 8,000 seats and a sit-down outpost of Nobu.

“Because of my close personal relationship with Mr. Ellison, I thought we could exchange a lot of ideas about how we could raise the bar even more,” Haas says. “I was joking that Stadium 1 was telling Stadium 2, ‘Hey, I’m the big brother. I need a little face-lift here.’ ” This year spectators will find a dramatically renovated facility featuring 21 new concession stands and restaurants, including a Spago.

Haas himself promises to be the biggest surprise. When he was named tournament director, he was recovering from toe surgery and assumed likely to retire. In fact, he was back on the court by the end of 2016, and he’s hoping to compete at Indian Wells. As Birdwell puts it, “If you wind up with a tournament director who’s still playing professionally, he suddenly becomes your home team player.”