Over the past 31 years, hundreds of thousands of tennis fans traversed the Rickenbacker Causeway — sometimes at a snail’s pace, snarled in traffic — and marveled at the picturesque views en route to watch the best players in the world at the Crandon Park Tennis Center.
That annual spring migration onto Key Biscayne is about to end.
The prestigious tournament, which changed names many times — from Lipton to Ericsson to NASDAQ-100 to Sony Ericsson to Miami Open — is moving to Hard Rock Stadium after this year. As the final Key Biscayne edition of the event gets underway this week, here’s a look back at the history and some memorable moments:
It all began as a conversation between two brothers in 1980. Butch Buchholz and his brother, Cliff, came up with the idea for a “Winter Wimbledon,” a Grand Slam-like tournament that would kick off the season (the Australian Open was played in December at the time). Butch was executive director of the Association of Tennis Professionals — the players’ union — and he got the green light after Lipton agreed to become a title sponsor.
The Lipton International Players Championships took its first steps in 1985 at Rod Laver’s tennis resort in Delray Beach, which unbeknownst to Buchholz, was about to go under.
From there, the tournament went to Boca West in Boca Raton. But the land got sold, so Buchholz was looking for a third home. He considered moving the fledgling event to Orlando or California.
Enter then-Dade County manager Merrett Stierheim, who insisted Buchholz look at Miami as a potential site. Buchholz was skeptical but agreed to listen. He was shown Flamingo Park, Tropical Park and Amelia Earhart Park. The last place Stierheim took him was Key Biscayne.
You go over that bridge, and it’s like leaving a city and entering tropical paradise. It had that postcard feeling I was hoping for, and then I saw those 5,000 parking spots [by Crandon Park beach], and I thought, `This is it.
Butch Buchholz, founder of the Miami Masters
Buchholz fell in love.
“You go over that bridge, and it’s like leaving a city and entering a tropical paradise,” Buchholz said. “It had that postcard feeling I was hoping for, and then I saw those 5,000 parking spots [by Crandon Park beach], and I thought, ‘This is it.’”
The parcel of land the county was offering was not so lovely. It had been a dump and gasoline filling station for county vehicles for 27 years.
We walked in there, and there was a water tower, a bunch of junk refrigerators, car seats, an old trailer that I joked would be my office, and a dead dog that stunk so bad I almost threw up. ‘I said, ‘Perfect!’
Butch Buchholz, founder of the Miami Masters on seeing the parcel of land for the first time
“We walked in there, and there was a water tower, a bunch of junk refrigerators, car seats, an old trailer that I joked would be my office, and a dead dog that stunk so bad I almost threw up,” Buchholz said. “I said, ‘Perfect!’”
He had no idea he was walking into a political minefield. Many Key Biscayne residents vehemently resisted the proposed tennis tournament, particularly the idea of a 14,000-seat stadium, assuming it would also be used for concerts and tractor pulls. There were loud city council meetings, petitions galore, protesters in canoes dumping tea into the bay, and even death threats.
But Buchholz pushed on.
In 1987, the tournament was held on the current Key Biscayne site for the first time. Seventeen-year-old Steffi Graf beat No. 1 Martina Navratilova in the semis and then toppled Chris Evert for the title. Miloslav Mecir won the men’s final.
The tournament grew bigger and better each year. In 1994, the 14,000-seat permanent stadium was completed. The first match there was between Kathy Rinaldi-Stunkel and Karin Kschwendt.
In recent years, tournament owners have been under pressure from players to upgrade facilities to keep up with swankier tournaments around the world. Owners offered to fund the $50 million project with private money. A countywide ballot item passed with 73 percent of the vote. However, the project was opposed by Bruce Matheson, whose family made a deal with the county to give up the land in the 1940s. But, under the deal, the family still has a say in how the land is used.
A lengthy legal battle followed, Matheson won, and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross proposed moving the event to Hard Rock Stadium rather than have it leave Miami altogether.
As the tennis world prepares to bid farewell to Key Biscayne, here are some memories (in no particular order):
▪ 1. April 1, 1989: Hours after winning his semifinal over Yannick Noah, men’s finalist Thomas Muster is struck by a drunk driver as he removed bags from the trunk of a tournament courtesy car outside Bayside Marketplace in downtown Miami. He is rushed to Mercy Hospital and learns two ligaments in his left knee are severed.
Ivan Lendl wins the final by walkover and plays an exhibition against Jakob Hlasek in the tournament’s effort to entertain disappointed fans, who had paid $40 for nonrefundable tickets. Muster, his career in jeopardy, flies back to Austria, where he has surgery and rehabilitates for six months.
Though Muster returned to the tour and won the bulk of his titles and money after the accident, he sued the Lipton tournament, Buchholz and General Motors for damages in the millions. He reportedly settled for $700,000.
▪ 2. Eight years after the accident, in 1997, Muster wins an emotional final over Sergi Bruguera 7-6 (8-6), 6-3, 6-1. “This is great justice for me,” Muster says upon accepting his trophy.
▪ 3. Muster vs. Lendl was not the only men’s final called off. In 1996, Goran Ivanisevic woke up with a stiff neck the morning of his final against Andre Agassi. He tried to loosen up but was still very sore when the match began. After 10 minutes, he was down 0-3 and 0-40, and he threw up his hands and quit.
Fans, unaware of the injury, booed and hissed. Buchholz and Agassi tried to quiet the crowd. Buchholz ran inside and called Jim Courier, who had a home on Fisher Island. “Jim, Goran just pulled out, we need you to come play an exhibition against Andre. I’ll send a helicopter to pick you up, can you do it?” Courier agreed. They played one set, and a torrential downpour began. “A tournament director’s nightmare,” Buchholz said.
▪ 4. The head nun at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls school in Coconut Grove, excuses the students early to attend the 1988 semifinal between their schoolmate, 16-year-old junior Mary Joe Fernandez, and world No. 2 Chris Evert.
More than 80 Carrollton girls show up with hand-painted posters and screech, “Mary-Joe! Mary-Joe!” throughout the match. Evert wins 6-2, 6-1, but Fernandez gets the memory of a lifetime.
▪ 5. Stephanie Flaherty becomes the most famous ballgirl in tournament history on March 20, 1994, when during a third-round loss to Andre Agassi, a frustrated Boris Becker hands his racket to the 17-year-old and tells her to play a point in his place. Flaherty, a member of the Hialeah Miami-Lakes tennis team, returns Agassi’s serve and wins the point.
“I won a point against Agassi!” she proclaims, incredulously. Agassi wins the match 6-2, 7-5, and later joked: “She intimidated me out there. I didn’t want any part of her.”
▪ 6. Sister Act, Part I. Venus and Serena Williams meet in the 1999 final, the first all-sister final since 1884, when Maud Watson beat her sister, Lillian, in the Wimbledon final. The siblings enter the court with “We Are Family” blaring through the loudspeakers. Venus, 18, wins her second straight title by defeating her 17-year-old sister 6-1, 4-6, 6-4. Their father, Richard, holds up a sign that says “It’s Venus’ House!”
▪ 7. Sister Act, Part II. Serena finally beats Venus in the 2002 semifinals and goes on to beat Jennifer Capriati in the final. The victory launches an unbelievable run, during which the younger Williams wins the French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open (the self-described “Serena Slam”). She sits atop the rankings for 57 weeks and only falls after knee surgery in August 2003.
▪ 8. American and Chilean flags are distributed to fans for the 1998 final between Agassi and Marcelo Rios, who needs the win to propel him to No. 1. The Chilean fans — many of whom flew in from Santiago for the match — chant “Chi-Chi-Chi, Le-Le-Le! Viva Chile!” as Rios defeats Agassi 7-5, 6-3, 6-4. Rios becomes the first South American to reach No. 1, breaking Pete Sampras’ 102-week reign.
▪ 9. April 2, 2000. Sampras needs seven match points to defeat Brazil’s Gustavo Kuerten in a four-set epic final 6-1, 6-7, 7-6, 7-6. The spirited Brazilian fans waved flags and sang songs as if it were a soccer match. “I got chills up my spine,” said Sampras.
▪ 10. Venus Williams survives eight match points to beat Jennifer Capriati 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 in the 2001 final. Tennis Magazine called it the best women’s match of the year.
▪ 11. Sixteen-year-old Anna Kournikova, the 23rd seed, makes a splash in 1998, beating four top 10 players — Conchita Martinez, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario — en route to her first WTA final. She loses to fellow teen Venus Williams but becomes the sport’s pinup girl nonetheless.
▪ 12. In 2001, upstart 18-year-old Andy Roddick stuns Pete Sampras in the third round 7-6, 6-3, and an ESPN audience takes note of his powerful serve. One of his 140-mph aces hits Sampras in the groin area and leaves him doubled over in pain. Asked how it feels to be a hero after the match, Roddick replied: “I’m not a hero. I’m a tennis player. I’m not the president or anything. Pete and Andre are still my heroes.”
▪ 13. On March 24, 1991, a flotilla of seven canoes filled with environmentalists dumps fake Lipton tea bags into the bay to protest the building of the stadium. They fished the bags out of the water later, to avoid littering.
▪ 14. In 1994, Sampras suffers food poisoning the night before his final with Agassi. He considers pulling out. Agassi agrees to postpone the match for a few hours to give Sampras time to get better. Sampras winds up winning 5-7, 6-3, 6-3, but Agassi earned a lot of respect for his sportsmanship. “Andre could have just taken the money, but he said he didn’t want to win that way,” Buchholz said. “He’s a true pro.”
▪ 15. Speaking of pros, Steffi Graf (Agassi’s wife) wins her fifth and final Lipton title in 1996.
▪ 16. In 1990, a pair of soon-to-be-star teenagers win titles. Agassi, 19, takes the first of a record six men’s titles while Monica Seles, 16, wins the women’s.
▪ 17. In 2002, Sampras plays his final match on Key Biscayne, losing in the third round to Fernando Gonzalez. Serena Williams beats Capriati to win her first of eight Key Biscayne titles.
▪ 18. Rafael Nadal, a 17-year-old swashbuckling Spaniard in a muscle shirt and capri pants, bursts onto the tennis scene on Key Biscayne in 2004. He stuns top-ranked Roger Federer in the fourth round, and a rivalry for the ages was born. A year later, Federer avenges the loss with a victory over Nadal in the final.
▪ 19. In 2007, a 19-year-old 10th seed named Novak Djokovic makes his breakthrough by beating Rafael Nadal in the semifinal and then Guillermo Canas in the final. The charismatic Serb rips off his bright yellow shirt, throws it into the crowd, and Buchholz declares: “A star is born.”
▪ 20. Federer’s Magical Comeback Tour continues at the 2017 Miami Open with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Nadal in the final. Defying his age, 35-year-old Federer becomes the oldest champion in tournament history. Nadal, meanwhile, goes home empty-handed again after five finals on Key Biscayne.
“I’m happy we’re both here together, and I enjoy playing against you,” Federer says. “This is where it all started, in 2004, when you were a little boy that grew into a big man and strong man. We’ve had some epic matches over the years, which I didn’t always enjoy, but mostly we had some great battles.”
BONUS: Finally, in a truly Only In Miami moment … in 2017, Tommy Haas was tied at 3-3 in the third set against Jiri Vesely and about to serve when a giant iguana climbed atop the baseline scoreboard.
Officials tried to make the iguana move by waving a towel at it. Haas took a selfie with it. The iguana jumped onto the court and ran around, delaying the match while the crowd and players laughed. The court crew was finally able to capture the reptile and escort it off the court.