INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA - Being a tournament director at a 'Premier Mandatory' event on the WTA is no simple task. At the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California - where the women share the stage with the men - Steve Simon has established himself as one of the best in the business as a tournament director with outstanding creative judgment, sharp instincts and indisputable professionalism. This is the 25th anniversary year for the women, and that will not be taken lightly by the tournament or the players. It is an unmistakable sign of the way the women's game has evolved over the years, and how deeply they are appreciated as athletes, personalities, and, in some cases, icons. Simon spoke with Steve Flink of tennischannel.com in an interview exclusively for wtatennis.com about a wide range of topics and some important enhancements made for the 2014 tournament.
There have been some crucial changes made for the 2014 BNP Paribas Open. Was this related to the 25th anniversary of the women's event and the 40th edition of the tournament overall?
Steve Simon: The changes were not made in conjunction with any of the anniversaries. They were done solely for the growth of the event. It has happened coincidentally with the milestones we are reaching.
You will have a brand new 8,000 seat Stadium 2 ready for the upcoming tournament. How did you manage to complete a project of this magnitude so quickly when you put your first shovel in the ground the day after the 2013 event?
Steve Simon: We have been amazed as well. What we did here maybe has changed the way that the building of stadia is looked at in the future. When we first started working on the project in the summer of 2012, everything was based on a 24-month build-out. What we did was pretty extensive and a lot more than just Stadium 2. There is additional infrastructure. We want to bring more and more people to the site and not compromise the experience of the people coming, so that you are not having two-hour waits to go to the restroom or have a soft drink. We also wanted to marry the existing facility with the new so everything here looks like it has been before. We want fans to have a new, enjoyable experience and see a transformed facility that offers them a lot.
Stadium 2 is in many ways the new face of the tournament but you also have three new restaurants and a marquee side entrance. It is a complicated plan. Aren't there are a lot of pieces to this puzzle?
Steve Simon: Yes there are, and I think it is exceeding our expectations. We are excited about how it has come together. Stadium 2 was meant to be a different experience than the main stadium. It is half the size so we changed the size of the court and the site lines to make it very intimate. We wanted Stadium 2 to have more of a restaurant experience where any fan could participate, so we integrated three new marquee restaurants: Nobu, Piero's Pizza Vino and Chop House. Two of those restaurants actually have seating where people will be able to watch Stadium 2 matches while they are dining. All of them have patio areas. We have also integrated six other eating installations within the stadium and three of them feed another 19,000 square feet shade structure we built. It is all about having a unique experience.
You have made a substantial commitment to the players by becoming the first event to use the Hawkeye replay system on every court - not just the show courts. Why?
Steve Simon: It is critical. Hawkeye has been a great thing for the game, not only for the players. It brings the fans into the competition. Taking it to all of the courts from our standpoint was about a sense of fairness. The venue can change but the tools that the players have available to them for competition should be equal. Putting Hawkeye on all of the courts also meant putting video walls on every court so fans can enjoy it. This year we have taken it a step further because Hawkeye starts with the first day of qualifying. Every match played here will have the system available.
How much of a difference will the addition of four new practice courts for the players make to the tournament this year?
Steve Simon: It is very important. We will have 20 dedicated practice courts on site for the players. Obviously with our unique environment here for the two weeks of the event, the players don't like to go off site to practice. We have expanded their weight rooms and training rooms and made other improvements for them. Our practice courts are packed with fans. We have kept it intimate, allowing the fans to get up close to the players. We actually have marquee practice courts where you may have 4,000 to 5,000 people watching at one time. The fans have a great opportunity to see the players in a relaxed atmosphere up close with a little trash talking going on.
In 2012, you raised prize money for the men's and women's champions to $1,000,000. Was that symbolic as well as a big show of support for the players?
Steve Simon: It is a combination. The top players are clearly deserving of it. They are performing at the highest level and driving the business. We wanted to see them get compensation that was comparable to their peers in other sports. It gets back to fairness. Our event has been growing and doing well. The players should be participating in that growth.
Do you have any special celebration planned for the 25th anniversary of the women's event?
Steve Simon: The WTA has been in touch with us and we are discussing a few things. We don't have the final plans in place yet but I am sure there will be some definite recognition of the 25 years of being involved with the WTA and hosting WTA tennis here. We look forward to that enormously.
How important is it to bring in the non-diehard tennis fans for the evolution of the tournament over the next 25 years?
Steve Simon: That is where your growth comes from. To be able to hit our next stated goal of attracting 500,000 fans, we are going to need casual sports fans and even non-traditional tennis fans that want to come to this event and experience it. Last year we had 387,000 and this year we expect to break the 400,000 mark. Hopefully this becomes an event that people put on their 'Bucket List' as something they want to experience at some point in time, just like some people have the Kentucky Derby and The Masters golf in that category.
Some have said your goal at the BNP Paribas Open is to establish the tournament as a singularly inspirational and unique sporting experience. Does that mean you must keep reinventing yourself?
Steve Simon: Yes. You don't ever stop. There are some foundations and personality to your event that is a basis you work from, but you have to keep evolving, growing and changing. We have always taken the position that if you are doing the same thing you did two years ago in the event business, you are going backwards. Our customer today is always looking to not see the same thing over and over. They want what is new. We are continuously challenged by that and always will be.
Is it likely that the 2014 BNP Paribas Open might be even more exhilarating than usual because of the new elements?
Steve Simon: I believe it will because of the changes we have made. There is an awful lot of excitement about some of the enhancements to the facility with respect to the opportunity of watching tennis or going to have a steak at the Chop House or going to Nobu or Pizza Vino, and a few other unique things. We are very excited about everyone - the players and the public - seeing what we have done.
~ Steve Flink, based in Katonah, New York, has been covering tennis since 1974. He has written for World Tennis Magazine and Tennis Week Magazine, and is the author of 'The Greatest Tennis Matches Of All Time'. He is currently the lead columnist for tennischannel.com.