Sony Open tennis tournament brings Latin flavor, where you can cheer, wave flags and buy a Maserati

The Sony Open is a special tournament for many reasons.

It’s the fifth-largest tennis tournament in the world, right behind the four Grand Slam events. It is one of the few two-week tournaments that include both the men’s ATP Tour and the women’s WTA Tour.

However, what makes the tournament unique is its Latin flair.

Entering the park, pavilions line the left side pitch the usual things like credit cards and tennis equipment. But right next door is the Argentina Ministry of Tourism, enticing you to visit the Southern Hemisphere. As you venture closer to the main stadium, there are purveyors with Latin foods bustling and screaming for attention. There’s a booth for the Ecuador Ministry of International Trade located next to a wind tunnel sponsored by Latin American airline company LATAM Airlines Group, which is giving away free round-trip tickets to South America in a contest.

Latin America clearly invades Key Biscayne for these two weeks.

Josefina Heslop, a secretary in the Argentina Ministry of Tourism’s Miami office, has seen these booths pay dividends in the past. Argentina has set up shop at the Sony Open since 2010, and she said she has met many people who have come back a year later and told stories about their trips to Argentina.

Heslop mentioned tennis was a major sport in Argentina, and many Argentines have come out to support their players, most notably Juan Martin Del Potro, who is seeded eighth in this year’s event. Other notable Latin players include Puerto Rican Monica Puig, who cruised in her first-round match Tuesday, Colombian Alejandro Falla and, of course, the six seeded Spanish men in the draw, led by top-seeded Rafael Nadal and No. 4 David Ferrer.

There are very few professional tournaments in South America and most of them only feature one or two of the top players in the world because they are not worth as many points in the rankings system. That is why so many South American fans elect to venture to the United States to attend tournaments. Miami is the closest location for these spectators, so thousands flock to Key Biscayne to catch a glimpse of their favorite players.

Last year’s tournament was the fourth in a row to eclipse 300,000 attendees for the event despite rain and the absences of Nadal and Roger Federer.

For this year’s tournament, the preliminary numbers re-enforce the trend. About 17 percent of all vacation packages came from Central and South America, including seven percent from Brazil, the most from a single country. In general ticket sales, the United States dominates at more than 83 percent, but eight of the next 10 countries are from Latin America, with Brazil the biggest delegation at 6.6 percent.

One of the many fans from South America is Alejandra Garavito from Caracas, Venezuela. The 45-year-old has been coming to the tournament for the past five years and this year came with a group of friends. There are no Venezuelans in the field, but that didn’t stop the group from showcasing its patriotism. Two members of her pack were draped in the vivid blue, red and yellow of the Venezuelan flag and most of them donned baseball caps with a pattern similar to the flag.

A tennis player herself, Garavito said her favorite player is Nadal, although she also likes Federer. She said she enjoys coming to this particular event to hang out with her friends in the area and watch some of the best tennis players in the world compete, a luxury she can’t get in her native country.

“I like it here,” Garavito said. “I have a lot of friends here and it’s the closest tournament to Venezuela. It’s either here, New York or Europe, and it’s easier to come here.”

The South American players certainly feel at home in Miami. Although no player from that continent has won the tournament since Marcelo Rios of Chile in 1998, the fans have certainly come out in droves to support the Latin American competitors. Ferrer made a run to the final last year before losing in three sets to Andy Murray and Nadal has been a three-time finalist, losing on all three occasions.

The players also notice the prevalence of Latin American fans in the stands. Tommy Haas said it is always difficult to play against a player from Central or South America because of the hometown support he receives thousands of miles away from home.

“You don’t necessarily want to play against a South American here,” the German said. “It’s like a Davis Cup match in some ways in my eyes.”

The atmosphere is only enhanced by the food vendors who sell ethnic cuisine to the masses.

Miguel Blanco is a manager at Novecento, an Argentinian bistro with three locations in the Miami area. After several unsuccessful attempts to obtain a vendor’s credential in previous years, the restaurant opened up shop last year for the first time and exceeded all internal expectations. He said this event is a melting pot, which is perfect for the restaurant to build its brand with the local population.

“It’s an interesting spot with different cultures and people from the Americas coming together,” Blanco said. “The Latin people know us and are happy to see us. [Others] don’t know our brand, but we get exposure.”

Blanco added there has been a notable effect in sales from last year with people who tried the food at this event and then elected to go to the actual brick and mortar locations around the area during the year. This year, they hope to increase sales by 30 percent as there is more brand recognition.

Brands that don’t need more recognition are the luxury automobiles littered across the park. Spectators young and old stop to ogle the glistening cars on display from such prestigious names as Aston Martin, Maserati and McLaren. The cars are for sale by The Collection dealership in Coral Gables, but few people are willing to fork over the money necessary to own the beautiful machines.

Instead, they just inspect the cars and walk away toward the rest of the Sony Open crowd and grab a more-affordable empanada or arepa.

Related stories from Miami Herald