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Inside the Lines: Indian Wells – Tennis’ Unofficial Fifth Slam

March 14, 2023
Rafael Nadal bites the Indian Wells trophy.

Photo : Reuters

Hello tennis fans and welcome to “Inside the Lines,” a column I’ll be writing for the National Bank Open presented by Rogers each week that features news and story lines from the world of men’s tennis.

This week on Inside the Lines I examine the presence of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells on the tennis landscape and turn to some of the biggest voices in our sport to help gauge its status as one of the most respected and enjoyed tennis tournaments in the world.

Indian Wells has long been referred to as the fifth Slam, a tribute that signals its prominence among the 1000 level events on both the ATP and WTA Tours. What elevates it above some of its contemporaries and puts it alongside the grandest four events on the tennis calendar?

Part of it may be due to the timing of the tournament. It’s the first 1000-level combined men’s and women’s event of the tennis season. Having the best male and female players present at an event automatically gives it more notoriety and allows tennis fans to see the best of the best all in one spot. It also benefits from the fact that it has been two months since the first major of the year in Melbourne which means fans are starved for tennis that showcases all of the top players in the sport at one venue.

The overall visual appeal and weather conditions in Indian Wells also doesn’t hurt. As podcaster and tennis media personality Craig Shapiro recounts, the stunning views are unparalleled on the tennis calendar.

“It’s an absolutely breathtaking backdrop, there’s nothing like it. The mountain views make you feel like you are on a movie set and the two stadiums are state of the art.”

Canadian Leylah Annie Fernandez echoes that sentiment when I asked her recently what made Indian Wells stand out among the field of 1000 level tournaments on the calendar.

Read also: Lots of Moments for Canadians but Only Auger-Aliassime Survives in Indian Wells

“It is truly tennis paradise! Every morning you get on court and you get the view of the mountains with the palm trees, it’s so beautiful and then the fans are incredible. There’s so many people here to come watch us play, singles, doubles, men, women, so I think you can feel the love they have for the sport and the players.”

Speaking with tennis writer, reporter and courtside MC at Indian Wells Blair Henley about what makes the event stand apart from its peers, she said, “I think the space is a big factor, along with just the overall visual beauty and cleanliness. Stadium 1 is close to a capacity of 16,000 spectators which gives it the feel of a major as well. They also treat the players quite well, from player gifting to player dining to transportation – many players even get their own BMWs.”

Could tennis ever actually add a fifth major to the existing landscape, joining the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open?

Traditionalists would likely nix the idea wanting to maintain consistency and to avoid upsetting existing records obtained by players who have played in a four-major season. Others who are less risk-averse would argue that bringing a fifth major event into the fold could encourage the growth of the sport, bring more sponsors and fans to the table and continue to see an increase in revenues for the players – particularly those outside the Top 50 – who could stand to benefit as well.

New York Times columnist and acclaimed author Christopher Clarey offered some grounded perspective on this possibility and had this to say on the prospect of Indian Wells ever officially becoming a Major:

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“I would say right now there isn’t really a fifth major in tennis and I don’t think the sport has any real incentive in a lot of ways to declare one. I think four is good. The tours are also going to change something with more and more tournaments going to the twelve day format that’s used in Indian Wells and Miami and it will feel less special. So that will be a change that will make it a little more of an equalizer for Indian Wells.”

Tennis host and commentator Nick McCarvel also weighed-in and summed things up nicely in terms of the reality of having more than four Slams on the tennis calendar:

“Will tennis ever enter into a five or six or more Slam format, probably not, but (Indian Wells) is knocking right there on the door with the Slams.”

Here in Canada, our two premiere 1000 events the National Bank Open in Toronto and l’Omnium Banque Nationale in Montreal are getting ready to receive a boost in the coming years to continue to challenge for bragging rights as some of the biggest tennis tournaments in the world. As of August 2025, the men’s event will grow from a draw of 64 players to 96 and also occupy a bigger presence on the ATP calendar. Rather than a nine-day tournament including qualifying it will run for 12 days just like Indian Wells.

To sum it all up I go back to our recent chat with Leylah Annie Fernandez on this week’s episode of Match Point Canada where we asked her about whether Indian Wells has a Grand Slam vibe. Her answer reveals her own unwavering focus on court regardless of the level of tournament and also offers perhaps the mentality we should all adopt when comparing events to one another.

“I’ve always thought every tournament is the same,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if I’m playing a 250 or 125 I always feel like it’s a Grand Slam for me!”