The Miami Open Presented by Itau began Wednesday in earnest at Crandon Park, Key Biscayne, Fla. It’s the second in back-to-back hard court events of the highest order, outside Grand Slams. Like the BNP Paribas Open from Indian Wells, Calif., Miami is a ATP Masters 1000 and a WTA Premier Mandatory.
Sounds as if the two are sisters; but, they’re not.
As soon as broadcasts began, comparisons between Miami and Indian Wells ensued. “Players prefer California,” commentator Mark Knowles proclaimed on Tennis Channel.
The temperatures are higher in the desert, but the humidity in Florida can yield difficult conditions, even for the ultra-fit pro-tennis player.
Just getting to the site presents problems, as well. Most players and tournament staff stay in Miami, which requires a commute to Key Biscayne that can be tediously long — and marred with gobs of traffic, if not timed correctly.
The comparison has been a topic for years — which tournament is better: west or east? Yet the most coveted label, “the Fifth Grand Slam,” which had been Miami’s to have and hold, has slipped from its grips. Larry Ellison’s infusions of cash into Indian Wells have firmly locked up that distinction.
Miami’s tag lines and promotions tell fans it’s the “most glamorous tournament on the ATP and WTA tours [and] offers more than just tennis.”
IMG Tennis Executive VP and Tournament Director Adam Barrett sits at the head of the food chain in south Florida. In 2013, Barrett gathered the press and announced the site’s expansion, which, at the time, was called The Sony Open. Lately, the event has gone through title sponsors like spring breezes through coconut palms – this year contracting with a South American bank, Iatu, which is out of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and meshes perfectly with the Latin atmosphere.
Lacoste, a higher-end clothing manufacturer outbid FILA for clothing sponsorship, as well.
However, the $50 million expansion plan, approved in 2012 by nearly 73% of Miami-Dade voters, continues to meet obstacles. The land, now called Crandon Park, was donated 70 years ago by Bruce Matheson’s family as part of the National Parks system. Matheson, who is the decision-maker about the land’s use, has been a thorn in Barrett’s side for years.
Matheson has baulked at every step. Last fall, The Miami Herald reported Matheson said that the tall bright lights necessary for night matches would look like, “an oil refinery.” Barrett retorted, “It would look like a professional tennis center. It looks like an oil refinery now.”
Clearly resentments are well entrenched on both sides.
The bottom line presents a harsh reality for Barrett and IMG. The current lease with Miami Dade County expires in 2023; if green lights don’t begin to shine for improvements, the tournament is faced with a probable move. The facility, as it currently exists, would not suit the top-tier demands of the tournament. There have been no significant changes on site since 2005 – only superficial, feel-good additions.
For example, this year all the asphalt that supported the food court has been removed and replaced with pavers.
“It not only looks better, it’s also cooler,” Barrett told styrk.com. Silver-colored tables, orange chairs and shade structures were also touted as improvements. Certainly, they don’t measure up to Indian Wells’ 8,000-seat Stadium 2, or the BNP Paribas Open’s record-breaking attendance records.
“We set a record,” Indian Wells CEO Raymond Moore, said, at the annual Breakfast with the Media, Sunday before the men’s and women’s finals. “Depending on exactly how many people we have today, it’s going to be about 455,000.”
Last year, attendance stood at 431,000 for the two weeks. In 2014, Miami’s attendance hovered around 300,000.
The desert landscape that surrounds Indian Wells provides room for expansion, which is in the works. The area communities are more cooperative than ever, too.
“There has been a big change in attitude in the City,” Moore said. “They are very supportive. They don’t put obstacles in our way. It’s kind of a partnership that we are very appreciative of.”
Rumors of a third show stadium were confirmed at the breakfast conference.
“We would like to build a themed stadium, which would be called a museum stadium,” Moore explained. “We have done a lot of work and applying for permits and approvals with the authorities, the cities. We’d be the first ones to have a museum stadium. Wimbledon has a museum and the French has a museum, but they don’t have a museum stadium — one stadium dedicated to a museum.”
Clearly, the two tournaments could not be more different in what they currently offer fans, staff and players. So people can end up confused why Miami, if it wants to distinguish itself from Indian Wells, didn’t decide to turn this hard-court event into a clay-court tournament. Perhaps even a green-clay tournament, like Family Circle Cup; that could make it the launching pad for the European red-clay spring season, stop the comparisons, and elevate the tournament to the biggest clay-court event in the country.
Barrett, though, was adamant when asked about this direction. “This tournament has always been a hard-court event and will remain one,” he told one reported who posed the possibility.
However, the Miami Open can stand head and shoulders above Indian Wells this year, if only because Juan Martin del Potro will make his comeback at Crandon Park. He had expected to return at Indian Wells, but withdrew early from singles and days later from doubles.
“I feel local here,” he told the Miami press. “There are so many Argentine fans, Latino American people around; everybody’s talking Spanish.”
Del Potro has slipped to No. 616 in the rankings and plays Vasek Pospisil in his first round tomorrow. No longer interested in rising to No. 1, Del Potro admitted, “Now, I just want to play tennis again. My goals change every year because I don’t know what could happen physically. For now, I’m happy to play my first match.”
As long as Serena Williams right knee continues to improve, the Palm Gardens, Fla. resident will vie for an eighth trophy in Miami, beginning Friday.
“I’m just managing where I am right now,” she told the press Wednesday. “I don’t want to put too much pressure on it before my first match. I’m just here in Miami, so I’m just going to go for it and see what happens.”
Miami has always been one of the Williams sisters’ favorite tournaments. Attendees have enjoyed their presence ever since they hit the scene in the mid-90s.
“When I hit on court today, just something about Miami, you know,” the top seed said. “I just feel so good out here. So I was like, Oh, this is fun. I’m just looking forward to just enjoying myself this year more than ever.”
Perhaps the Miami Open doesn’t have the splash and pizazz of Indian Wells, or eight show courts enhanced with Hawkeye ball tracking. But it does have a player field every year that spins the turnstiles for entertainment-seeking tennis fans who, more than likely, have little to no idea the travails facing a tournament they have enjoyed since its inception in 1980. Although the squabbling isn’t over between tournament officials and obstructing groups, the light at the end of the tunnel could be just as bright as the one out west.
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