Greg Cote

Serena Williams, Miami Open helped each other grow up

Serena Williams returns a shot against Christina McHale during a second-round match against the Miami Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on Thursday, March 24, 2016 in Key Biscayne, Florida.
Serena Williams returns a shot against Christina McHale during a second-round match against the Miami Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on Thursday, March 24, 2016 in Key Biscayne, Florida. El Nuevo Herald

It has been the perfect symbiosis: Serena Williams and the Miami Open.

This annual pro tennis tournament in Key Biscayne helped raise Serena — raised her from a 16-year-old in braids into a powerful woman, and raised her game from teenaged potential into all-time greatness.

Williams in turn has helped raise this event that graces the Tennis Center at Crandon Park every spring. From a humble start in the mid-1980s into the sport’s “fifth major,” a prestige at least in part owing to Serena being the face of the tournament.

She is the top-ranked tennis player in the world, still remarkably dominant at age 34. She is nearing the women’s all-time record for most majors won and surely will retire regarded as the greatest female to ever play the sport.

Serena has used the Miami Open as a launchpad in her career, winning here a record eight times, including the past three singles titles in a row. She was the first marquee player on stage Thursday evening, struggling but winning, beating 62nd-ranked Christina McHale 6-3, 5-7, 6-2.

We’ve seen it in the NCAA Tournament, right? Sometimes the No. 1 seed labors against the No. 16, but you know who wins.

“C’mon!” Serena screamed at herself in that third set. And then took over.

She clearly was dissatisfied afterward, the diva side of her coming out when she told a news conference crowd, “I really just don’t want to be here.”

Still, does anyone doubt Williams’ ninth Miami championship could be in store? Like Tiger Woods at the height of his halcyon days, you’d feel pretty good betting on Serena over the rest of the field in just about every tournament.

Miami always seems to bring out the best in Williams because this is her home tournament. She has lived in Palm Beach since age 9 when her family moved here from tough Compton, California, and every spring, father Richard would take his two young girls down to Key Biscayne to watch, and to see what they could become.

This tournament would give those same girls their start, their big break.

Venus was granted a wild-card entry to play in 1997. Serena debuted the next year in those braids with the multicolored plastic beads. By 1999, the sisters were playing in the championship match, their father holding high a hand-drawn sign that read, “Welcome to the Williams Show!”

(I was here that night in ’98 when Serena introduced herself to Miami, and to tennis. I recall those beads clicking as she ran. The sport would never be the same.)

Since Serena, almost 20 years later, considers the Miami Open her backyard tournament, that means Miami can consider her as ours when we assess who have been the greatest pro athletes in South Florida sports history. If so, then make room for Serena on the highest echelon, where Dan Marino and Dwyane Wade reside. If anything, it is Marino and Wade who might be flattered by the company, because she’ll retire closer to her sport’s “best ever” designation than either of those gentlemen.

What a shame it would be if the Miami Open, a staple of local sports, was forced to leave its Key Biscayne digs over the legal haranguing that threatens its future.

“Leaving Miami would be a blow to our sport, to the city of Miami and to me,” Serena wrote in a New York Times essay this week.

It must be noted Serena is represented by IMG, the same sports management company that owns the Miami Open. That gives her a vested interest in having written that plea for the event’s future. But it does not mean her sentiments are any less real.

IMG has pledged $50 million in needed improvements to the tennis center, which attracts more than 300,000 fans for the 12 days of the tournament and is open to the public the other 50 weeks of the year.

A public referendum in 2012 found 73 percent of voters support the improvements. This is divisive Miami-Dade County. I’m not sure if a referendum favoring sunshine over rain would get 73 percent.

Yet litigious Bruce Matheson, 70, one of the heirs of the Matheson family that helped found and develop Key Biscayne, has led a so-far successful legal battle to prevent the facility improvements. It makes little sense. Matheson shames his family name and will cloak it in local infamy if he succeeds in his obsession to see a South Florida sporting treasure driven elsewhere after more than 30 years.

Serena Williams has proved big enough and great enough to shape and largely own women’s tennis for so, so long.

If only she possessed the power to save the home tournament that introduced her to the world.

Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at MiamiHerald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.

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