Leave your heels at home and pack a pair of sandals with your sunscreen, because the South Florida event to see and at which to be seen now through April 5 has brought the beach to tennis fans — along with more entertainment, more style and more good eats.
The internationally renowned tennis tournament once known as The Lipton and now named the Miami Open presented by Itaú still has the best players in the world — Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova among them — but has undergone a facelift and added a new venue within the Crandon Park Tennis Center: the Miami Open Experience.
“It pops,” said tournament director Adam Barrett of the large area on the west side of the stadium that was expanded and will be converted from its previous use as a closed-in, private hospitality village to a 9,500-square-foot, fan-friendly public “beach.”
Tournament-goers can sink their toes in the sand — 320 tons of it, said Miami Open spokesman Sam Henderson — while lounging on Adirondack chairs and sipping colorful beverages from the Tiki bar. Or they can just chill out while watching tennis matches on the new giant videoboard, the third on the premises; or browsing through their computerized devices, as this year’s venue will provide free wireless capability and charging stations.
“There’s an energy and excitement on-site you don’t get in a lot of sporting events,” Henderson said. “Miami is such a diverse, multicultural city that no matter who’s out there playing, they have a fan base. I don’t want to say we’re all one big party, but there is something for everyone.”
The beach area has enough space for three additions the second week of the tournament.
The “Taste of the Open,” from April 1-5, will enable foodies to purchase entrée samples created by high-profile, award-winning chefs such as Tom Colicchio, Scott Conant, Josh Capon and Michelle Bernstein.
The Tori Praver Fashion Show, on April 3 and 4, will have swimsuit models donning the swimwear line from the former supermodel.
And Barrett’s favorite new addition, the pro beach volleyball exhibition tournament April 2-4, will bring elite men’s and women’s AVP Tour players, including three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings, 2012 Olympic silver medalist April Ross and 2008 Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser.
“I think that will get the largest reaction,” Barrett said. “People spot athletes and are captivated. Now you’ll have athletes prepared for the beach, and there’s a presence there.”
For those who head straight to the food court, there’s a cooler look and feel.
The tournament removed all the asphalt from the food court and replaced it with pavers. “It not only looks better, it’s also cooler,” Barrett said. “The issue with asphalt is it’s just like an oven. Over years of putting asphalt down, what we learned when we started digging it up is we had about eight inches of asphalt sitting in parts of that site.”
New silver-colored tables and orange chairs have replaced the aging ones at the food court, with massive shade structures replacing the individual umbrellas.
Most of the restaurants, with the exception of the new Pincho Factory, have remained the same. Some menu additions include a “sweet shop” at Ben and Jerry’s, which has moved closer to Stadium Court.
And for those who spend more time shopping than watching tennis, take note that Lacoste has replaced Fila as the apparel sponsor and has already begun selling tournament products in South Florida stores.
Add to that a general sprucing-up that includes repainting and refreshening, and Barrett believes there will be a whole new feel for the more than 300,000 fans who annually descend on Key Biscayne for the tournament.
“This is probably the most we’ve done in a single year in five or 10 years, and really the first major site changes in probably five, six, seven years that we’ve realigned and looked at differently,” Barrett said. “We have the world’s best tennis in what may be one of the best environments for an event — on a beautiful key with beautiful weather and winds coming off the ocean.”
Barrett and fellow organizers still hope to one day add permanent stadium structures for at least three courts outside the main stadium, part of a $50 million tennis center improvement project that was approved by nearly 73 percent of Miami-Dade voters in 2012. But the long legal battle between Bruce Matheson — a descendant of the family that deeded the park land to the county but maintains decision-making in its use — and tournament proponents continues after a Miami-Dade circuit judge last September dismissed a lawsuit that might have facilitated construction.
Barrett told the Miami Herald that the tournament’s “goal has always been the same: to make the event successful and keep it successful in Miami.
“This is our home, this is our family, this is our community.”
For now, organizers say they’ll keep doing what they can to ensure that the Miami Open continues as one of the top tournaments in the world, one that Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO Bill Talbert described as “#SoMiami.”
“This provides 10 days of global media coverage,” said Talbert, who is thrilled that the tournament coincides with the 100th anniversary celebration of Miami Beach. “It’s priceless.”
If you go
What: The Miami Open.
Where: Crandon Park Tennis Center, 7300 Crandon Boulevard, Key Biscayne.
When: Now through April 5. The main draw begins Tuesday for women and Wednesday for men.
Parking: General parking is $15 and located across the street from the Miami Seaquarium. Shuttles take you from the parking lot to the tournament site.
Gates open: 10 a.m.
Tolls: Note that drivers will no longer have to stop at the toll plaza leading to Key Biscayne as tolls will now be collected via SunPass or Toll-by-Plate.