Sony Open Returns to Key Biscayne
by robert andrew powell
After setting attendance records last year in its ultimate incarnation as the Sony Open, the greatest tennis tournament outside the big four majors returns with a streamlined name and a renewed sense of purpose. The Sony Open brings back to Key Biscayne a love affair between the best tennis players in the world and the city that loves to watch them play.
More than 315,000 people visited Crandon Park Tennis Center last year to watch reigning world No. 1, Novak Djokovic, edge out Andy Murray in the men’s final and see Maria Sharapova fall to rising Polish talent Agnieszka Radwanska on the women’s side. Although it was more people than had ever watched the tournament, organizers anticipate an even greater spectator turnout for this year’s edition. Among the top draws is the expected participation of Rafael Nadal, the Spanish superstar who pretty much disappeared from the game after last year’s Wimbledon Championships. Nadal even pulled out of the recent Australian Open, citing a stomach bug. While he was scheduled to play in a minor tournament in Mexico in February, the Sony should provide his first top-caliber test in more than half a year.
To win a title at Crandon Park for the first time, Nadal will have to knock off the players who are encroaching on him—and those who have overtaken him—in the world rankings. There’s Djokovic, of course, a six-time Grand Slam champion who most recently triumphed (again) over Andy Murray at the Australian Open—his third consecutive win at that tourney and his fourth overall‚—in an epic match that recalled last year’s battle royal here in Key Biscayne. The two have faced off several times over the last year—with Murray besting the Djoker at the London Olympics and the US Open. While they are longtime friends off the court, their ongoing rivalry on it makes them the top competitors to watch. Ranked No. 3 in the world, we can expect Murray to vigorously pursue victory at Crandon Park.
On the women’s side, expect to see No. 1-ranked Victoria Azarenka, bolstered by her Aussie Open win over Li Na, to chase after the trophy. Azarenka has won here twice before, and following last year’s loss in the quarterfinals against Marion Bartoli, she’ll want to reclaim her top spot in Key Biscayne.
When the tournament first started, up in Palm Beach County, it was known as the Lipton International Players Championship, dreamed up by former US Davis Cup player Butch Buchholz. The goal back then—a very ambitious one at that—was to knock the Australian Open down a peg, replacing it as the fourth “major” on the tennis circuit. (Buchholz promoted it by calling his tournament the “Winter Wimbledon.”) Alas, the Aussies upgraded their game, and the Lipton was left to orbit just outside the grand slam.
Though Lipton attendance always impressed—some 190,000 spectators watched in 1986—the tournament struggled to find a home base, drifting south until it ended up at Crandon Park in 1987.
This past November, Miami-Dade County voters contemplated $50 million in upgrades to the Crandon Park facility, and tennis’s biggest stars voiced their desire to keep the tournament here. “It is certainly one of the favorite stops on tour for the players,” says Roger Federer, speaking in support of the face-lift. “Miami is like a second home to me,” adds Nadal. Top names from Sharapova to Serena Williams campaigned for Crandon Park, too. It would have been heartbreaking, it seemed, to drop Miami from the tennis superstars’ annual schedules. Where else would they rather be in March?
And there’s no place else the fans would rather be, either. Miami loves the Sony Open. It really wasn’t a surprise that voters overwhelmingly endorsed the renovations, ensuring the stars of the game will stay on Key Biscayne for decades to come. As Sharapova put it: “The Sony Open and Miami are synonymous with each other.”
photography by matthew stockman/getty images (djokovic); Michael Regan/Getty Images (MURRAY)
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.