Greg Cote

Miami Open tennis beset by major withdrawals yet begins amid renewed hope for event’s future

A view of the men's final match between Andy Murray, of Great Britain, and Novak Djokovic of Serbia, at Miami Open tennis tournament at Crandon Park in Key Biscayne on Sun., April 5, 2015. Djokovic won 7 (7)-6(3), 4-6, 6-0.
A view of the men's final match between Andy Murray, of Great Britain, and Novak Djokovic of Serbia, at Miami Open tennis tournament at Crandon Park in Key Biscayne on Sun., April 5, 2015. Djokovic won 7 (7)-6(3), 4-6, 6-0. El Nuevo Herald

Punch, slap, kick.

If you run a major tennis tournament and your list of withdrawals starts with Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, you’ve been hit three ways. Hard. Your event has been staggered.

These are the body blows the Miami Open has endured as the event’s 33rd annual two-week run gets under way at Crandon Park Tennis Center on Key Biscayne. It is mindful of those years in golf when a tournament either soared or was deflated based solely on whether Tiger Woods was entered.

A Miami Open without Serena? She is the fan favorite who is an eight-time champion here. There is no overstating the crater caused by her absence, especially as we cherish however much time a 35-year-old all-time great can possibly have left at the top of her game.

A knee injury erased second-ranked Serena from Key Biscayne, then came the elbow issues that eliminated first Murray, the world’s No. 1-ranked man, and then Djokovic, the three-time reigning Miami Open champion.

This combined ATP/WTA event has plenty of firepower left, sure — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Venus Williams, new No. 1 Angelique Kerber — but it’s tough to get past who isn’t here.

The three heavyweight withdrawals have combined to win 16 Miami Open championships. If one includes Viktoria Azarenka, who is absent while on maternity leave, this Miami Open it missing its past 10 consecutive men’s and women’s champs.

And yet … and yet!

Despite suffering four notable losses before the first fuzzy yellow ball was ever put in play this week, it feels like the Miami Open has won.

It feels like — no matter who raises trophies the weekend of April 1-2 here — South Florida tennis fans and the tradition of this great event will have been the big winners.

That is because the long-term future of the tournament at its permanent home since 1987 will not end without a fight — because the folks running it aren’t about to surrender.

IMG, the global sports management group that owns and operates the Miami Open, is working to allay concerns the event might be leaving Key Biscayne for Orlando or anywhere else over legal wrangling that has prevented $50 million in facility improvements.

IMG president Mark Shapiro told the Miami Herald on Tuesday: “We’re not open for business [in terms of listening to offers to move the event]. We’re committed to staying in Miami. Our players love all that surrounds the tennis. Emphatically, we’re not moving the tournament anywhere outside of Miami.”

Shapiro turned metaphorical in adding, “The book has been written. We’ve lost some chapters, that’s for sure. More importantly, the city and fans of Miami have lost some chapters in [the courts] not letting us spend our own money to make the physical improvements we want to make. But I don’ think the story is over. I don’t think the book has closed. I know the mayor is going to continue working to try and get the Mathesons to play ball. But in the event they don’t we’re still going to each and every year deliver a great product.”

That’s musical if you are a tennis fan or a tourism official aware the Miami Open draws 300,000 spectators and funnels close to $400 million into the local economy. That’s also musical if you know the PGA Tour just ended its marriage to Doral after 55 years and don’t want to see yet another local sports institution die.

The legal issue that has threatened the Miami Open’s future is so silly, so unnecessary. IMG has committed to $50 million in upgrades — no taxpayer expense. A public referendum overwhelmingly approved the upgrades.

Yet litigation brought by Bruce Matheson has successfully stymied major construction upgrades, including the addition of a second stadium court.

“It is one person stopping all this good from happening in our community,” former longtime tournament director Butch Buchholz said of Matheson.

The Mathesons are a historic Miami-Dade family dating back generations to the late patriarch Hardy Matheson, a former Dade County mayor. The family owns the land on which the tennis facility was built and controls the right to limit its expansion.

But that same family has been split by feuding factions, and the Mathesons who oppose Bruce and favor tennis-center expansion want to make it known Bruce’s litigation does not represent the family as a whole.

“Many in the family want the tournament to proceed, but not Bruce,” said Tom Andersen, husband of Christine Matheson Andersen, daughter of Hardy.

With no indication Bruce Matheson’s litigation can be overcome, it is encouraging to hear IMG’s Shapiro pivot on the company’s public strategy.

From once threatening to leave because of the legal rulings, IMG now seems to be dealing with its reality and recommitting to find a way to stay. Major expansion may be prohibited, but it doesn’t mean myriad cosmetic enhancements can’t be made including improved player locker rooms and lounges.

No less than Serena herself has advocated, in a New York Times editorial, that her “home tournament” (she lives in Palm Beach Gardens) continue on Key Biscayne.

There isn’t a prettier postcard of South Florida than the panorama as one drives across the Rickenbacker Causeway into Key Biscayne.

The Miami Open is a local treasure worth keeping, worth saving, and it’s good to hear the people running the tournament leave no doubt that they agree.

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