In My Opinion

Greg Cote: Key Biscayne tennis tournament is paradise found for players, fans

I might nominate these mid-March days as some of the best we have had for Miami sports if excitement, importance and variety all are weighed.

In a steady run since last weekend we have seen Tiger Woods reign across Doral’s Blue Monster, the Dolphins sign star free agent receiver Mike Wallace, the Heat march through the NBA with 22 consecutive victories, and the University of Miami men’s basketball team earn its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

To this we now add a change of pace that offers a welcome counterpoint to the frenzy of March Madness: the soft rhythmic thump of taut strings striking tennis balls amid the palms and breezes of Key Biscayne.

The pace here is not frenetic, the applause sounding like muffled politeness. The decorous nature and ambience of tennis — save the occasional tirade against the chair umpire or fans’ partisan calls between points — tends to be less like fireworks shot up into the sky than balloons let loose to softly rise.

Don’t let the relative quiet fool you, though.

Any menu of South Florida’s premier sporting events better include as a prominent entrée these two spring weeks every year when the best men’s and women’s pros in the world descend on the Tennis Center at Crandon Park.

This year’s event suffered a double blow when Roger Federer announced he would skip the tournament and then, on Sunday, Rafael Nadal surprisingly withdrew. They are top-five players with big local followings, so we won’t pretend their absence doesn’t somewhat diminish the overall event.

Nevertheless, this tournament has grown to a stature that it is bigger than any one player, and so more than 300,000 tennis fans will flock to the event over 14 days despite the absence of Federer’s Swiss cool and Nadal’s Spanish fire.

Every other big name player of any note is here, including world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and U.S. Open champ Andy Murray on the men’s side, and world No. 1 Serena Williams leading a strong women’s field that includes second-ranked Maria Sharapova and all but one of the top 75 in the rankings.

Serena or sister Venus Williams won eight Key Biscayne singles titles in an 11-year span between 1998 and 2008 and Serena will be favored to win yet again. Both sisters are from Palm Beach and are as familiar as family to this event. Each has played 62 career matches here, and only Andre Agassi (74) and Steffi Graf (65) played more.

The tournament’s roots have grown deep. The most well-versed in Miami sports may know that this event, born in 1985, spent a year in Delray Beach and then one in Boca Raton before settling down on Key Biscayne for what has become a 27-year run that has drawn almost 7 million spectators to that lush setting some 11 miles southeast of Miami proper.

Sponsor names have changed, but thankfully the locale has not. This is our only major sporting event where the location is as much the star as the athletes, where getting there, and being there, is half the fun.

You feel a transformation driving there, across the Rickenbacker Causeway. You are leaving the big-city clutter of downtown and the packaged trendiness of South Beach for something far different. It works on the psyche like exchanging honking horns for chirping birds. The view on the crest of the causeway is an advertisement no tourist would want to resist.

“You go over that bridge and it’s like leaving a city and entering a tropical paradise,” as tournament founder Butch Buchholz, the former pro, puts it. “It had that postcard feeling I was hoping for.”

It was a natural.

Tennis fans needed no other excuse but to integrate the tournament in their travel plans, and for players, too, the stop became a busman’s holiday — a place they would visit anyway, even if it didn’t offer a combined men’s and women’s prize purse of $10.4 million this year, a record.

Back in the mid-’80s the event was coined “the winter Wimbledon,” a phrase the promoter Buchholz embraced and encouraged. It has since come to be nicknamed tennis’ “fifth major,” because that is its stature and lure.

(Only that stature and lure make the absence of Federer and Nadal newsworthy … because it seems no one wants to miss Key Biscayne).

The men’s Association of Tennis Professionals tour has voted this its tournament of the year six times, and the Women’s Tennis Association tour has given it that honor twice. The WTA calls Key Biscayne “the largest tennis event in the world outside the four Grand Slams.”

The manicured grounds bounced back from Hurricane Andrew (“We’ve got nine lives,” Buchholz said then) and blossomed to its present 30 acres, that distinctive purple stadium court at the literal and figurative center of it all.

On that stage, annual greatness should be expected.

Men’s champions here have included Ivan Lendl, Agassi, Pete Sampras, Andy Roddick, Murray and Djokovic. Women’s winners have included Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert (those first two years), Graf, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis and Kim Clijsters — oh, and the ubiquitous Williams sisters, of course.

The No. 1 seeds offer quite a contrast, except in excellence. Djokovic, the 25-year-old Serb, has won five of the past nine majors and seems to be just coming into his prime. Serena, 31, won her first Grand Slam event in 1999 and her 14th and 15th last year. Her prime seems remarkably to go on and on and on.

“Can’t wait to hit the purple court for my opening match,” Serena Tweeted this past weekend. “Love Miami in March.”

By Miami she means that little gem of an island 11 miles to the southeast — the paradise capital of tennis for the next two weeks.

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