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Oracle CEO Ellison Saves Tennis' BNP Paribas Open

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Oracle CEO Ellison Saves Tennis' BNP Paribas Open

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Oracle CEO Ellison Saves Tennis' BNP Paribas Open

Oracle CEO Ellison Saves Tennis' BNP Paribas Open

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/134646327/134622577" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The BNP Paribas Open is considered one of the biggest tennis tournaments of the year — yet few people in the United States have heard of it. The tournament was close to moving from its current home in Indian Wells, Calif., to China or the Middle East. That is, until Oracle CEO Larry Ellison stepped in to save it.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the biggest tennis tournaments in this country will crown its champions this weekend. It's the BNP Paribas Open, which is played in Indian Wells, California. The tournament was in danger of moving overseas, but one of the world's richest men stepped in and bought it.

NPR's Ben Bergman has this report.

(Soundbite of tennis balls being hit)

(Soundbite of groaning and cheering)

BEN BERGMAN: Those grunts and thwacks come from Italian Francesca Schiavone, playing against Frenchwoman Alize Cornet in the 3rd round of the BNP Paribas Open. Nearly all the world's top players come here to the Southern California desert to compete: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Caroline Wozniacki, and, of course...

Unidentified Man #1: From Switzerland, please welcome Olympic gold medalist Roger Federer.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

BERGMAN: The tournament has strong attendance, surpassed only by that of the four majors, and it's become big enough to be known as the fifth major. Tournament officials say they've always turned a profit, but not enough profit.

In 2009, the tournament came close to moving overseas. Offers reportedly came from China and the Middle East. Then, as Tennis magazine put it, a white knight of American tennis stepped forward.

Mr. LARRY ELLISON (CEO, Oracle): The opportunity came up to buy the tournament. I found out it was for sale. And I considered it the best tournament that anyone can buy. You just can't buy Wimbledon. It's not for sale.

BERGMAN: That's Larry Ellison, CEO of the software company Oracle. If anyone could buy Wimbledon, it would be Ellison. Forbes ranks him fifth-richest man in the world, worth an estimated $40 billion. He spent a reported $100 million to buy this tournament - play money for him.

Mr. ELLISON: I couldn't be happier. I think it's a wonderful asset. And I love tennis. I play tennis five days a week. My regular tennis partner is Sandy Mayer, who was top 10 in the world for a very, very long time. He's very fit.

BERGMAN: As is Ellison, with muscles bulging out of his polo shirt. He's well-known for sailing, but he's also a lifelong tennis fan. Now he gets to have dinner with Roger Federer and choose any seat he wants, which, for him, is right behind the players.

Mr. ELLISON: I don't really enjoy spending time in the luxury box. If I want to watch television and chat with people, I'll stay home. It's great sitting behind the server in a tennis match.

BERGMAN: Ellison is speaking in a conference room at the stadium right before he heads back to center court to see Rafael Nadal. It's on the courts where Ellison has made his biggest changes. And not surprisingly, for someone who made his fortune in Silicon Valley, they've come in the area of improved technology.

There are more video displays, and he's expanded the use of Hawkeye, a system that allows players to challenge a line judges' call.

Unidentified Man #2: Mr. Malisse is challenging the baseline call. The ball was called out.

BERGMAN: Hawkeye is expensive, so most tournaments only use it on their top show courts. Ellison had it installed on all eight match courts.

Mr. ELLISON: Whatever court you're on, if you think you got a bad call, you don't have to fret about it. You can challenge. No one's going to get knocked out early in the tournament on a court outside because of a bad call.

Unidentified Group: Ooh.

BERGMAN: Crowds love to follow along on video displays to see where the ball lands.

Unidentified Group: Ah.

Unidentified Man #2: Open(ph).

BERGMAN: Hawkeye is just one of the benefits that come with Ellison's ownership, says the legendary tennis commentator Bud Collins. He calls the Oracle CEO Santa Claus with a tennis racket.

Mr. BUD COLLINS (Tennis Commentator): Running across Larry Ellison with all his money was a great stroke of luck for the tournament. There are wealthy people connected to tennis everywhere, but not on that scale. So when you inject him into the tennis scene, people have to take notice.

BERGMAN: And in another sign the tournament is on the upswing: Sunday's finals will be broadcast on ABC, a big step up from Fox Sports Net, where they were shown in recent years.

Ben Bergman, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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