“Driving over that bridge, it was always beautiful,” said James Blake, the former top-five player who was named tournament director of the Miami Open late last year. “You can’t complain when that’s your drive to work.”
Butch Buchholz and his brother Cliff had the idea in the early 1980s to create a “fifth Grand Slam,” a professional tournament for men and women with equal prize money, to attract the world’s top players to South Florida in early spring.
The tournament was forced from its first two homes, in Delray Beach in 1985 and Boca West in 1986. When Buchholz first toured Crandon Park, he saw a garbage dump and a defunct gasoline filling station. It was littered with old tires, refrigerators, even a dog carcass.
But Buchholz also saw 5,000 parking spaces across the street and envisioned a tennis mecca that would attract world-class players and international fans. What he did not count on was the opposition of environmentalists who feared the venue would attract rock concerts and tractor pulls.
“We didn’t have an easy start,” said Buchholz, 77, who remembers children lying in front of bulldozers to prevent early construction. “I felt like I was in a long five-set match. But I just said, ‘I’ve got to win this thing.’”
The long fight wasn’t over, even after the first tournament was held in Crandon Park in 1987. The most vocal opponent to the tournament was Bruce Matheson, a local resident. His family deeded the parkland to Miami-Dade County in the 1940s, but, under the deal, the family maintained control over how the land was used. In recent years, when the tournament wanted to spend $50 million in private funds to make much-needed upgrades to the site, including replacing temporary stadiums with permanent ones, Matheson stymied the deal. A lengthy lawsuit over land use persuaded tournament owners to make a move.
“We wanted to stay here,” said Mark Shapiro, the co-president of WME/IMG, which bought the tournament from Buchholz in 1999. “I couldn’t understand how one guy could have so much control over this island.”
Just as Shapiro and WME/IMG were entertaining offers to move the tournament north to Orlando or west to California, the Dolphins owner Stephen Ross stepped in, proposing a move to his football complex.
Serena Williams, a minority owner of the Dolphins, said she thought Ross was crazy.
But she was with Ross on March 19 at a groundbreaking ceremony for a temporary stadium court to be erected on part of the football field.
“I grew up in Miami and I believe in Miami and how aspirational it is,” said Ross, 77, who has spent $550 million renovating the stadium since he purchased the Dolphins from Wayne Huizenga in 2008. “To me, this is a sound business deal and should be great for all of South Florida. I love challenges.”
Ross added, with a chuckle, “I did it all for my partner, Serena.”
Credit Erik S. Lesser/EPA, via Shutterstock
The new facility will feature 30 total courts, nine more than at Crandon Park, including double the number of practice courts. A permanent grandstand will be erected, and the players will benefit from expanded dining, gym and locker room facilities. Outside the stadium, a 90-foot-by-40-foot video screen will be installed, allowing fans to relax and dine in the plaza while still catching the on-court action.
“We’re going to build a full-on festival,” Shapiro said. “There’s going to be art, music, food vendors, multiple stages for everything. It’s going to be a real taste of Miami.”
If one group’s bounty is another’s bummer, there are businesses and individuals who will suffer when the tournament moves. Last year, attendance topped 300,000 for the 10-day event. Employees at Stefano’s Liquor Store, a short distance from the tennis center, likened the tournament’s financial impact on their business to the days leading up to Thanksgiving.
Phyllis Briskin has been a tournament volunteer for all 32 years in Miami, first as an usher and now as a co-chairwoman for patron hospitality.
“We see the same people once a year and we’re a team,” said Briskin, 79, who may not work at the tournament next year. “There’s just a certain grace that this tournament promotes.”
All around the grounds are signs that the end is near. The biggest sellers in the souvenir shop are $40 towels, $35 T-shirts and $10 key chains with a replica of the current stadium. The visors and posters were sold out. Inside a tent previewing next year’s tournament, marketers estimated that half the people were excited for the new site and the other half were lamenting the move.
Over the last 32 years, the Crandon Park site has provided some memorable moments. Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati began their careers in Miami. Djokovic and Andre Agassi each won the men’s title six times, while Serena Williams, who lives in South Florida, has captured the women’s championship eight times. The event is the home tournament for the many players who are based in Florida.
In 1999, Serena and Venus Williams met in the championship match, the first time sisters contested a top-level final since Maud Watson beat her sister Lilian in the 1884 Wimbledon final. As the song “We Are Family” rang through the public-address system, 18-year-old Venus beat 17-year-old Serena in three sets.
Roger Federer and Nadal played the first two of their 38 career meetings in Miami. In 2004, Nadal, then 17, stunned Federer, the new world No. 1, in straight sets in the third round. In the final a year later, Federer avenged the loss, rebounding from two sets down and 1-4 in the third to win in five sets over 3 hours 42 minutes.
In 1989, Thomas Muster, the Austrian star, was hit by a drunken driver as he was loading bags into the trunk of his car hours after his semifinal win. He tore ligaments in his knee and was forced to default the final against Ivan Lendl. Muster came back eight years later to capture the title over Sergi Bruguera.
In 1994, Pete Sampras got food poisoning on the eve of his final with Agassi. He tried to default, but Agassi would not let him, offering to postpone the match for several hours to give Sampras time to recover. Sampras went on to defeat Agassi in three sets.
Credit Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Perhaps the most emotional moment in tournament history occurred last weekend when members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tennis teams joined top players, including Nick Kyrgios, Garbiñe Muguruza, Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan, in a stadium court ceremony. The school, where 17 people were killed in a shooting on Feb. 14, is 42 miles northwest of Key Biscayne. The athletes wore T-shirts with the slogan #mdstrong that were sold on site, earning more than $30,000 for the Stoneman Douglas Victims’ Fund.
Federer, who has competed in Miami for 17 years, winning the title in 2005, 2006 and 2017, said, “I hope we look back 30 years from now and say, ‘Thank God we made this move.’”