Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Butch Buchholz says Sony Open ‘desperately needs an upgrade’

Butch Buchholz knows how to draw a crowd to a tennis match.

Back in 1964, when he was a young rebel on the fledgling pro circuit, he organized a barnstorming tour stop in his hometown of St. Louis by convincing a friend who ran a Volkswagen dealership to put up $10,000 in prize money. Ten years later, Buchholz created his first tournament.

“I played in it, served as head referee, made the schedule, hustled sponsorships, sold tickets and did commentary on NBC,” Buchholz said of the St. Louis Holton Tennis Classic. “I believed in the potential of tennis as entertainment.”

Now, Buchholz watches with a combination of anxiety and anticipation as the tournament he founded and nurtured, Miami’s Sony Open, stands at a crossroads. One of the gems of the sport faces the same challenge as its top players: Get better or get passed by.

Buchholz’s brainchild, nestled on a former garbage dump near the picturesque island town of Key Biscayne, is expected to draw more than 310,000 fans over two weeks to matches featuring Serena and Venus Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But the tournament, started as the Lipton in 1985 in Delray Beach, has not had a significant upgrade to its facilities since Stadium Court opened 20 years ago.

Plans for a $30 million renovation, approved by 72 percent of voters in a 2012 referendum, have been stalled by self-described Crandon Park protector Bruce Matheson, who has sued to prevent construction of two new permanent courts and other improvements. His suit was dismissed but he plans to appeal, and the tournament has countersued.

Buchholz has seen other major tournaments in Indian Wells, Calif., Cincinnati, Rome, Madrid and Shanghai copy some of Sony’s appealing elements, then up the ante with new show courts with retractable roofs and more amenities for players and fans.

“We have Miami, which sets us apart because it is such a popular destination,” Buchholz said during a conversation at the Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club in Boca Raton, where he lives. “But the tournament desperately needs an upgrade. It’s not winning the comparison game.”

Tournament director Adam Barrett agrees. Since IMG bought the tournament from Buchholz in 2010, plans to rebuild the grandstand court, refurbish the clubhouse, plant shade trees, add hospitality areas, enlarge the pro shop and improve drainage have been completed, but Matheson has opposed them.

“We want to make it a true tennis center in a park rather than tennis courts in a parking lot,” Barrett said. “Unfortunately, Bruce is an obstructionist. We’d like to see the park utilized more by the public. Everything he does restricts its use.”

Unlike other local sports franchises, the Sony Open would pay for its own improvements, which are crucial to its future. Tournaments have been fleeing the United States for greener pastures.

“We want to stay in South Florida but we don’t want to run a second-class or third-tier event,” Barrett said. “The option of going to the highest bidder — such as China, the Middle East or India, where money is growing on trees — is always an appealing option to a corporation.”

Around here, we call the Sony Open the “Fifth Grand Slam.” But worldwide, the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells is recognized as the fifth major. It attracts more fans — 420,000 in 2014 compared with 308,000 for Sony in 2013. The goal is 500,000 by 2017, which would be more than attend Wimbledon or the French Open. Tournament owner Larry Ellison, founder of computer giant Oracle, has poured millions into plush Indian Wells, which unveiled 8,000-seat Stadium 2 this year adjacent to its 16,100-seat main court. It is being touted as a site of the U.S. Open once every five years.

“Indian Wells has the best facility but we have the best fans,” Barrett said. “We have a city the players adore.”

Ask the players, and they confirm.

“The Sony is actually one of the nicest ones we have on tour,” Djokovic said. “It’s a lot of fun, a lot of entertainment, a very international crowd, nice weather. I always look forward to coming back to Miami.”

But complacency won’t do, Buchholz says. Look what’s happened to American tennis, once dominant, now reduced to two Americans in the men’s and women’s top 10 — No. 1 Serena Williams and No. 10 John Isner. The key to reviving it is finding and grooming talented kids from inner cities.

“Venus and Serena are a classic example of two great athletes who were hungry and willing to hit a lot of tennis balls,” he said. “We have to finance him or her all the way along the path. It is very hard these days to become a pro tennis player.”

As for the sport overall, Buchholz describes it as “relatively healthy.”

“The good news is that it’s so international, if one region is down, another will pick it up,” he said. “Players are celebrities. The women don’t have many household names. But there were years when we had eight women superstars.”

Tennis is too fragmented and needs a central office for more TV leverage, and players and tournament directors need a collective-bargaining agreement, he said.

Davis Cup is a “dinosaur” that has to be streamlined if it is to regain its past glory as “a trophy more prestigious than the Slams,” he said. Federations Cup? “Nobody wants to play it,” he said.

Buchholz, 73, is still pushing for change, as he has since he bucked the amateur system and turned pro at age 19 in 1960, when he signed a contract with Jack Kramer. Son of a public park instructor, he was junior Wimbledon and French Open champion and figured that Open tennis would be approved by 1963. It took eight years, and by then Buchholz’s elbow was starting to deteriorate. By sticking with the cause — in essence, fighting for free agency — he sacrificed his chance at a major title. One of his junior rivals, Chuck McKinley, won Wimbledon in 1963; Buchholz had defeated him in 66 of their 67 meetings. Until 1968, the Grand Slams were for amateurs only.

“We were the bad guys and we forced change,” he said. “Open tennis revolutionized the sport. I knew if we stayed together we could make it big.”

It was Buchholz’s belief in tennis as a spectator sport that kept him in it after he retired as a player. And after he retired as Sony director, he was asked to import his innovations to golf. He has been working with Donald Trump and the PGA Tour to enliven the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral resort.

At the tournament earlier this month, Buchholz added box seats at the 18th hole; the Escalade and Moet-Chandon lounges; a Michelob Ultra beach like the Bacardi beach at Sony; a fashion show and dining options.

“The first thing I told the PGA was Miami is an event town and we’re in the entertainment business,” he said. “Trump wants to make Doral the best resort in the world. And you’ve got so much more space in golf!”

Buchholz is bursting with ideas. Plus, because of that bad elbow, he’s playing golf rather than tennis. It’s a perfect match. But his first love is tennis. That’s why this week you’ll find him in his box at the Sony, 29 years after he started South Florida’s love affair with what was then called “Winter Wimbledon,” and fueled by lots of iced tea.

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