Evert, McEnroe hope Miami Open doesn’t leave Key Biscayne

Patrick McEnroe plays in an exhibition doubles match at the International Tennis Hall of Fame Championship in Newport, R.I., Sunday, July 19, 2015.
Patrick McEnroe plays in an exhibition doubles match at the International Tennis Hall of Fame Championship in Newport, R.I., Sunday, July 19, 2015. AP

Nearly 300,000 tennis fans are expected to converge on Key Biscayne beginning next week for the Miami Open, as they have for the past three decades. But the future of the event is up in the air because of a legal battle restricting improvements.

Tennis legend Chris Evert and ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe said they would be disappointed if the tournament winds up relocating.

“I mean, Key Biscayne, it’s just like paradise for the players … the beaches, the weather, near South Beach,” Evert said.

The facilities are not as swanky as some of the other tournaments on tour, such as the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, which was bought in 2009 for $100 million by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who then invested another $100 million on the grounds. The upgraded Indian Wells event, which drew 456,000 fans last year, raised the bar for the rest of the tour.

“It isn’t Indian Wells,” Evert said of the Miami Open. “I went to Key Biscayne the year before last, and they didn’t have a lot of the luxuries that Indian Wells has. But it still has a lot of heart and a lot of history and it has a lot of fans. So, I, for one, am going to be really disappointed if it would move.”

Said McEnroe: “Miami is still a heck of a great event.”

Miami Open officials say they have to upgrade in order to keep up and plan to fund the $50 million project with private money. A countywide ballot item passed with 73 percent of the vote.

But the plan is opposed by Bruce Matheson, whose family donated the land to the county in the 1940s and still has a say in how the land is used.

“At some point, it’s going to be gone. The only question is when,” said Eugene Stearns, the Miami lawyer who represented the tournament in its recent appeal.

The event has eight years left on its lease, but it is possible it could move out of the country or to another U.S. city. The U.S. Tennis Association is building its new headquarters and training facility in Orlando, and there might be enough land to someday accommodate a tournament.

McEnroe said Orlando “certainly could be a likely landing point” for the event if it moves.

“[Miami Open officials] are trying to leverage this because they want to make improvements, because let’s be honest, Larry Ellison, what he’s done out in the desert is simply off the charts,” McEnroe said. “But Miami was way ahead of Indian Wells for many, many years as far how it was perceived by the public, by the press, by the players … that’s a great venue for people from Europe and from South America and, obviously, Americans that go there that time of year.

“They were always ahead of the game when it came to the entertainment on the grounds, making it fan-friendly, the food from all different places in the world, having places for kids to play. So all those things I think are still there.”