You don’t have to be rich to enjoy the Sony Open tennis tournament, which began Monday and ends March 31, at the Crandon Park Tennis Center in Key Biscayne.
About $10 million in prize money attracts some of the best tennis players in the world. That means players like Serena and Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and Maria Sharapova will be mingling with the wealthy superstars and globetrotters who follow them.
While some will spend $5,000 per person for packages that include parking, dinner and a behind-the-scenes tour, others are finding ways to get similar perks for free.
“As volunteers for the tournament, we get to see tennis while we work and we get to see it from some very good vantage points,” said Rick Sant, 37, a 15-year volunteer. “You could be next to Serena Williams or Novak Djokovic. It’s really amazing when you are standing five or ten feet away from the world’s number one player.”
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Some of the celebrities that volunteers run into include Enrique Iglesias, Shakira and Paulina Rubio. Although it is the best way for tennis lovers on a budget to enjoy the tournament, it is not the only way. Sacrificing proximity to save money still gets you a social media check-in. And those who like to try their luck, can try to win free tickets at one of the tournament sponsors’ parties in Coconut Grove and Brickell.
Wanda Hewitt, a 15-year-volunteer at the tournament, is a retired Howard Drive Elementary school teacher from Little River. This year she will be working nine shifts of about four hours each checking patrons’ tickets. She said she learns something new about the sport every year.
“It’s all worth it. It’s exciting just to see the power behind their powerful swing and the enthusiasm of the fans,” Hewitt said. “Even if you are outside and you can’t see inside, you can hear the crowd roaring when the match is going on.”
Tournament Volunteer Manager Diane Thompson said that aside from being close to celebrities and tennis stars, volunteers get other perks such as entrance credentials, access to the main stadium in certain rows, 10 guest tickets, a free parking pass, two T-shirts, a jacket, a hat, a $5 Starbucks gift certificate, a discount at the Miami Seaquarium, and a bag of Lindt Lindor chocolate truffles.
Thompson, who has been volunteering for 28 years, said some volunteers receive training to retrieve balls and hand out towels during matches — which you have to be in good shape for — and others get to drive players and VIPs back and forth to the hotels. They are not allowed to ask for autographs.
There are also jobs as ushers, ticket checkers, greeters, and at the lost-and-found desk. The competitive application process began in November and closed Thursday. This year, about 200 aspiring volunteers did not make the cut, but 800 did.
For those who don’t have the time to volunteer, there are some helpful pricing rules. Paola Bustamante, 32, said she has been going since she moved to Key Biscayne from Venezuela five years ago.
“It can be really expensive and I remember I couldn’t believe they didn’t have discounts for students,” Bustamante said. “Eventually I found ways around it. I took protein bars and water in my purse so I wouldn’t end up spending money on food and watched some of the action from the screens outside.”
Avoiding the 100 and 300 sections of the 13,800-seat main stadium reduces tickets to the $9 to $82 range. The closer it gets to the finals of the single-elimination tournament, the more expensive the tickets are.
Also, not all the action at the Sony Open takes place in the stadium. The tennis center also has nine cushion-surface courts and a large Grandstand Court. Once the stadium tickets are sold out, the “ground tickets” go on sale, which allow patrons to watch matches on these courts.
“There are more matches in the morning sessions when the nine courts and the Grandstand Court are open,” Bustamante said. “There are only four courts open for the evening session. As the process of elimination progresses, there are less matches.”
Sony Open Manager Adam Barrett said he keeps in mind that the sport has gotten more inclusive and popular over the years.
“Years ago it used to be an elitist sport because it was a country-club sport,” Barrett said. “Over the last so many years public parks systems have increasingly offered more courts and so the diversity of the crowd has increased.”
Barrett suggests that those who want to save the $12 parking fee in Virginia Key use public transportation. Miami-Dade Transit Route B will serve the tennis center. The bus goes from the Brickell Metrorail station to Key Biscayne.
“We have things that appeal to different demographics,” Barrett said. “While we serve pizza and hot dogs, we also have a middle range restaurant and à la carte dining. There is something for everybody. We have some very high-end merchandise from Nike and Adidas and other top apparel and we also have inexpensive T-shirts.”
Barrett said the tournament offers a lot of tennis matches for your buck and plenty of affordable options.
“You have multiple courts of tennis, you have interactive displays, you have a lot to do over a long period of time,” Barrett said. “There are plenty of ways for fans to enjoy some tennis, while staying on budget.”