Diarrhea and groin pain replaced smashing serves and slashing backhands at the Sony Open on Friday.
Tennis players felt miserable. Fans felt frustrated. The purple Stadium Court felt neglected.
In an unprecedented turn of events at an ATP World Tour event, two of the men’s semifinalists withdrew about one hour before their matches were to start. Walkovers by Kei Nishikori and Tomas Berdych reduced what was to be a lively day to an abbreviated one featuring only two women’s doubles matches. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal never unsheathed their rackets to play a point.
Nishikori, on a hot streak after upsetting David Ferrer and Roger Federer, and scheduled to play Djokovic at 3 p.m., withdrew because of tenderness in his left groin.
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“Tried to warm up but I couldn’t move,” he said.
Then, before the evening session began, Tomas Berdych withdrew at 6 p.m., citing gastroenteritis in graphic detail.
“I just woke up with a pain in my stomach, just went for toilet and got really strong diarrhea,” Berdych said. “And since then, it starts to go on and on. More time, diarrhea, and then also throwing up and stuff like that. So I lost so much liquid and all the possible energy I could have.”
It was tough to tell who felt more sick, a wan Berdych or dejected, exhausted friends Atul Dhall and Faisal Ahmed Moinuddin, who had spent $130 each on both afternoon and evening session tickets in hopes of seeing at least one top-ranked player. The two University of Central Florida biotech grad students traveled to Miami on a five-hour Greyhound bus journey, arriving at 7 a.m. Friday, and scheduled to depart at 3 a.m. Saturday.
“After the Djokovic cancellation we were pretty shocked but figured we still had the Nadal match,” said Moinuddin, who was wearing a Nadal-style headband in honor of his favorite player. “When they canceled Nadal, we started laughing.”
As a consolation, the two India natives got to see India’s Sania Mirza play doubles, but she lost. They decided not to stay for the second women’s doubles semifinal, which was moved up to 7:30 p.m.
“We’ve lost enthusiasm,” said Dhall, a big Federer fan. “Maybe we’ll go to a pub to prepare for the bus ride home.”
More unhappy spectators lined up at the Guest Services Center, where they were reminded there were no refunds, only exchanges for 2015 tickets. Conversations in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese didn’t need a translator; anger is a universal language.
“I don’t know if I’ll be alive next year!” said Regina Soares of Brazil, who spent $500 on her two session tickets. “I want my money back.”
Another fan berated an official because she had taken the day off and wasted two hours driving to Key Biscayne in awful traffic. The official shrugged in sympathy. Muscles and stomachs can be fickle.
Even the players who benefited from the walkovers felt the sense of letdown that descended on the grounds like a giant sigh. People wearing the flags of Spain and Serbia as capes stood at the concession bars with frowns on their faces.
“It’s very unlucky, very unusual,” Nadal said. “Sorry for Kei, sorry for Tomas, sorry for the tournament and especially sorry for the fans.”
The Sony Open took a hit last year when Nadal and Federer did not play at all. The fizzle of what should have been a fantastic Friday was another blow.
“Unfortunately, we have been unlucky,” tournament director Adam Barrett said. “I ran into Cliff Buchholz, who was the tournament director before me for many, many years. He looked at me and said, ‘Adam, that’s never happened before. I think you just set a record.’ Also, not publicity that I really want. We’ve had a lot of great things happen this week, great action, great story lines. Sometimes, they take a turn.”
The tournament has survived strange and sad twists in the past. Austria's Thomas Muster had to withdraw from the 1989 final against Ivan Lendl after he was hit by a drunk driver at Bayside a few hours after winning his semifinal. Goran Ivanisevic retired with a stiff neck in the fourth game of the 1996 final against Andre Agassi.
About the only person who had a great Friday was local junior player Stefan Kozlov, who got to warm up with Nadal. For everyone else, heartburn.
The end result, however, was what spectators dreamed of — a Sunday men’s final pitting the world’s top-ranked superstars. No. 2 Djokovic will go for his fourth Sony title against Numero Uno Nadal, who is eager to win here for the first time where he has “a lot of friends, a lot of Latin crowd that support me, and that’s very important for me.”
On Saturday, No. 1 Serena Williams goes for her record seventh Sony title against No. 2 Li Na of China.
Those matches should make everyone feel much better.