The Subtropical Open

Thomas Swick

They come every spring. In a city that values appearance, they are taller, leaner, fitter than the rest of us. They spend their days outdoors. They don’t (for the most part) waste their nights clubbing. They show up on time. 

They make a mockery of our much-vaunted diversity. Sakkari. Świątek. Alcaraz. Nishioka. Raducanu. Ruud, Dimitrov. Monfils. Zhang. Berrettini. Sabalenka. Schwartzman. Kostyuk. Fucsovics. Jabeur. They are a touring Babel. We are merely bilingual.

The gathering of these gods and goddesses took place for three decades on Key Biscayne. There was something beautifully appropriate about a tennis tournament on a subtropical island. Flying balls, swaying palms. A summer game played within a lob of the beach. (Topspin and undertow.) Everyone — players, spectators, ball kids — getting good tans.

Some mainland Miami locals were unaware of the show put on just offshore in March. This is a football town, in every sense of the word. In the middle of the baseball season, the sports pages fill with stories about the Dolphins, and the home of the Dolphins draws its largest crowds when fútbol teams like FC Barcelona and SSC Napoli grace it with their presence.

But tennis fans knew. Wimbledon was synonymous with tennis; Miami was the antithesis of Wimbledon; yet here too, once a year, you could see the greatest players in the game. All you had to do was cross the Rickenbacker Causeway. Or sail your boat into No Name Harbor.

The Crandon Park Tennis Center was like a nature reserve scattered with courts. Being there for the Miami Open — which in its history has carried numerous names, Lipton being the most refreshing — was literally a stroll in the park, with tennis as the main attraction.

My introduction to the tournament was the men’s final in 1994. After more than a week of tennis, all but two players had been sent off the island: Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. The match was delayed an hour while Sampras battled an illness in the locker room. When both men finally appeared on court, they received a loud ovation: Sampras for his fortitude and Agassi for his sportsmanship in refusing to accept a forfeit (which his coach, it was revealed later, had urged him to do). A suddenly spry Sampras won in three sets.

The following year I discovered the pleasures of wandering the grounds, where all the courts were lively the first week with non-marquee singles matches, dazzling doubles matches, and instructive — for weekend players — practice sessions. Sitting only a few feet from the court, you could study the preparation and form — provided you took your eye off the ball — and truly appreciate the speed and power. Shots hit so hard they seemed headed for the fence dipped at the last second to land on the baseline. Once, while watching Stan Wawrinka warming up with Richard Gasquet — a de facto master class in the one-handed backhand — I saw a man hold up his cellphone so his friend at the office could hear the ‘pop’ off their rackets.

The outside courts served also as a kind of sporting World’s Fair, the only place in Miami where you could hear Hindi encouragements amidst Serbian chants. Frequently, I’d pick a match based not on the rankings but the nationalities of the players, savoring the sibilance of Brazilian Portuguese or working on my Polish. Spanish-speaking fans were plentiful, of course, and gave most of the South American players something of a home court advantage. One year the Italian Francesca Schiavone stopped in the middle of a raucous doubles match and, turning to the crowd, begged it for mercy. And at a meeting between Sandrine Testud and Fabiola Zuluaga — as mellifluous a name as the sport has ever had — a female fan of the Colombian, sitting just behind the chair umpire, appeared, in the gathering dusk, to repeatedly put a hex on the Frenchwoman.

Often I was rewarded with quieter moments. A large iguana taking advantage of a changeover to scurry across Court 5. Andrea Petkovic greeting fans after a win with an easy and far from common conviviality. Martina Hingis going through her morning drills and looking like the happiest teenager in the world. Her mother, supervising the workout, wore a serious, parental demeanor.

The year I got to cover the tournament my wanderings took on a sense of purpose. I talked to a group of ball kids from Doral, all with parents from Venezuela.

“What’s Nadal like?” I asked one of the girls.  

“He’s nice,” she said shyly. “He says ‘thank you.’”

“And Federer?”  

“I haven’t worked his matches,” she said, then added: “I would give six Nadal matches for one of Federer’s.”

Around noon I’d climb the stadium stairs to the media box and watch matches with the writer and former commentator Bud Collins. One day he asked me if the men and women used the same balls. This question shocked me because Bud Collins was supposedly a one-man tennis encyclopedia, the author, actually, of Tennis Encyclopedia. I said I’d try to find out. (The men, I learned, and informed Bud later, played with extra-duty felt balls, the women with regular-duty ones.)

On weekdays especially I’d sit in the stands at some unpronounceable match, look up at the palms and the old-fashioned white clouds, and wonder what I had done to deserve this bliss.

In 2019, the tournament left its island home — because of a ban on expansion of the facilities — and moved to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. It quit paradise and moved into a dolled-up parking lot. The new arena was a patchwork of a football stadium (that sport again) and portable stands. Like at a bullfight, spectators could sit either in the sun or in the shade — which was an improvement over the full-exposure seats at Crandon Park. But the makeshift quality of the construction seemed to rob the matches of some import. It even affected the sound of the ball.

Happily for me, the real life of the tournament took place outside the stadium. The layout was more orderly and clean-cut than it had been on Key Biscayne, albeit with none of the island’s jumbled charm and native flora. But on the courts, one found the same parade of nations, the same Ripley-esque shot-making, the same wide-eyed phalanxes following the famous. Shipped-in trees and imported flower beds dotted the grounds, and umbrellaed furniture sets domesticated rugs of artificial turf.

Returning this year, I found an even more lived-in atmosphere. In mid-afternoon, watching Flavio Cobolli battle Yoshihito Nishioka on Court 5, I lifted my eyes up from the blue-and-aqua court to take in the three-story emporium behind them — fans sitting at tables in the Dobel Tequila Bar — the hulk of a franchise stadium in the background, the gondolas gliding over the grounds, and had to admit the scene had a certain grandeur. In a short time, a sumptuous facility had been created, giving the tournament the feel of a subtropical U.S. Open.

Though recently the Herald ran an overhead shot of the Miami Seaquarium, on Key Biscayne’s Rickenbacker Causeway. The accompanying article was about the attraction’s imminent closure. I couldn’t help but think: Wouldn’t that be a great place for a tennis tournament? Shouldn’t it go home?

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