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.