Welby%27s Wall.JPG
Welby%27s Wall.JPG

Joel Drucker: Throwback Thursday - Where It All Started

The saying goes that while failure is an orphan, success has many parents. At the BNP Paribas Open, the most proudly paternal is Larry Ellison. Since his 2009 purchase of the tournament, Ellison has poured millions into enhancements, most of the changes taking place under the leadership of Raymond Moore. The potential papa of the future is Tommy Haas, the new tournament director.

Amid so many upgrades – new stadia, seats, restaurants, electronic line-calling and so much more – one wonders what these many parents and the hundreds of thousands who come to this event each year know of the root of all of this.

Head south from Stadium One. To the right, an enormous 60-yard wide soccer field, where ATP and WTA players stretch, jog, sprint and kick. To the left, the four most prominent practice courts, bleachers packed with hundreds of fans, awe-struck to see the world’s best so close.

Keep going, now a football field length from Stadium One. Another row of practice courts, 12 in all. It’s often searing hot out here, on-court temperatures in triple figures. At the south end of practice court 14 is a backboard. In the upper left corner, these words: Welby’s Wall.

Born in 1920, Welby Van Horn was an excellent player from Los Angeles. In 1939, Van Horn reached the finals of the U.S. National Championships, losing to future Hall of Famer Bobby Riggs. By the 1950’s, Van Horn had earned a reputation as one of the most well-regarded instructors in the world. His base: the Caribe Hilton – four courts at a hotel in Puerto Rico.

“Tall, lean, hawk-nosed, crew-cut and deeply tanned,” read a 1961 Sports Illustrated article on Van Horn, “he stands hour after hour on the Caribe courts alongside a supermarket pushcart filled with balls, patiently feeding them across the net to his young protégés, correcting their every stroke, insisting each be finished as perfectly as it is begun. Van Horn is a fanatic on balance, as an essential to position and footwork, as part of sound fore-and backhand strokes.”

Soon after his arrival in Puerto Rico, Van Horn came in contact with a tennis-loving family. One of that family’s sons absorbed Van Horn’s ideas so deeply that Arthur Ashe would describe his strokes as right out of a textbook. The boy would earn a scholarship to UCLA, win the NCAA singles title in 1966 and a year later became the number one-ranked man in America. As the boy turned into man, as his career wound down in the ‘70s, he had a vision, one he hoped to bring to the Southern California desert.

His name: Charlie Pasarell. The dream commenced in 1981, Pasarell’s first year at the helm of a tournament that the previous year had been rained out in the semis and given serious reconsideration for location. But Pasarell persevered and continued to dream big. The Indian Wells Tennis Garden opened in 2000. Each year, the tournament grows bigger and bigger.

Barely noticeable, the small spot that honors Van Horn remains. Stare at it for 30 seconds and think back to a young Pasarell. He hangs on Van Horn’s every word. “There is more of a similarity between a tennis racket and a stringed musical instrument than just the strings,” Van Horn said in the Sports Illustrated article. “Anyone can improve his game by listening to the ball as well as watching it.” Thanks to Van Horn, Pasarell’s ears and eyes have brought much.

Read more articles by Joel Drucker

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