Picassos, DJs and a football stadium — Inside the new Miami Open


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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — On opening day of the Miami Open, John Smith quickly walked through the West Lawn area as he explored his options. Smith passed a stand operated by one of Miami’s most popular steakhouses and strolled by a champagne lounge before settling into the cushioned seats outside a fancy establishment offering wine and sushi.

“This is fantastic,” said Smith, who lives in nearby Fort Lauderdale. “I think this new home for the tournament is going to be great.”

For 32 years, Crandon Park in Key Biscayne hosted the Miami Open, and — from the scenic drive over the Rickenbacker Causeway to the spectacular setting just off Biscayne Bay — there was much to love about the venue.

The Miami Open at Crandon Park felt like home.

This week the tournament begins its two-week run at its new home in and around Hard Rock Stadium, where a 13,800-seat main stadium court has been retrofitted within a cavernous 65,000-seat football stadium. The grandstand and outdoor matches will be played on a “tennis campus” that used to be a stadium parking lot.

The Miami Open at Hard Rock Stadium feels like a massive transfiguration.

And the people behind the change are convinced the fans will love it.

“A big part of the success of this is that this is a beautifully well thought out campus,” said Jeremy Walls, a senior vice president of the Miami Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium. “When you arrive here you’ll find world-class tennis, and a food, wine and art festival.

“Imagine this as an adult Disneyland.”

This year’s Miami Open will be bigger: an increase in onsite courts (21 to 30), practice courts (nine to 18), tour-standard lighted courts (six to nine) and onsite seating (25,062 to 30,185). The 90-foot-by-40-foot video board just above the VIP entrance is the largest in tennis, providing great visibility to matches for people who can’t get into the main stadium court, which at a capacity of nearly 14,000 seats about the same number of fans as the main court at Crandon Park. (For comparison, Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open has a capacity of 23,771 and Wimbledon Centre Court seats 14,979.)

This year’s Miami Open will be glitzier: from the Art Open tent that will house between $15 million and $20 million worth of works featuring artists ranging from Warhol to Picasso; to the international dining options featuring local restaurants; to the live bands and disc jockeys that will entertain the crowd. The well-to-do will get their own private entrance, complete with an all-inclusive experience that, for some, will include electric recliner chairs with television monitors just above their feet.

But to the fans who were happy with the previous venue at Key Biscayne, will replacing an experience by the bay with an event in a parking lot be better?

Phyllis Webb-Williams and Eddie Williams of Miramar, a married couple who showed up to Monday’s opening day, still need to be convinced.

“We know it’s early, but we just don’t think it compares to Key Biscayne,” Phyllis said. “It seems to me that Key Biscayne had more of an international appeal, and the sushi they had down there was wonderful. This doesn’t have the feel of a full tennis facility. But it’s early, and we’ll be back for the semifinals to see what it’s like then.”

For Martin Najzr, the setting was perfect. With wife, Hana, by his side, Najzr watched his 6-year-old daughter, Emma, scream with joy as she played in an area filled with orange balls.

“I’m impressed because it’s such a family-friendly place,” said Najzr, who’s from the Czech Republic. “The fact that we can enjoy a family day and see some great tennis makes this great.”

Andy Thompson, a Florida resident by way of Georgia, also enjoyed what he saw on the first day.

“I’ve been to the US Open and other venues, and I just think this is a great space for tennis,” Thompson said. “The physical plan is phenomenal. I am pleasantly surprised that the venue is as tennis-oriented as it is.”

The Miami Open tournament director, former pro James Blake, said he was met with a bit of skepticism from players when he revealed plans for the new venue, which includes a permanent 5,000-seat grandstand stadium. The event was forced to move from Crandon Park after the family that once owned the land — the Matheson family donated the land to the county in 1992, but under the agreement the land could only contain a single stadium — opposed the tournament’s push to spend $50 million on a site upgrade that would have included building permanent stadiums.

Instead of fighting the family in court, the tournament opted to find a new home.

“The players liked what was comfortable, what they were used to and what they knew,” Blake said of the Key Biscayne location. “And a lot of them couldn’t wrap their head around a tennis court in a football stadium.”

A tennis tournament in a massive venue is not completely unheard of — the famous “Battle of the Sexes” match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs was played at the Houston Astrodome and Toronto’s SkyDome hosted an ATP tournament in 1990 — but it’s certainly not the norm, especially as the home for a tournament. And as many of the world’s top players got a chance to hit on the courts during practice sessions over the weekend, the reaction has been positive.

Naomi Osaka looked around in awe during her hitting session Saturday afternoon in the main stadium; Madison Keys called it “absolutely amazing” in a social video; and Grigor Dimitrov described the site as “tremendous” after walking the grounds.

Frances Tiafoe was one of those players who didn’t know what to expect. He got a chance to hit on center court Sunday and came away impressed.

“This is unbelievable,” Tiafoe said. “I had a lot of doubts. I didn’t like the area too much and I loved Crandon Park, but this blows it out of the water. The facilities are insane.”

While the facilities and luxury touches will appeal to the rich and famous, the event will also have a positive financial impact on a Miami Gardens community that has a median household income of $39,012 and a 23.4 percent poverty rate.

“Having the Super Bowl here is great, but that’s a one-day event, and this is people coming here on a more sustained basis,” said Oliver Gilbert, the mayor of Miami Gardens. “Before the two-week event there’s weeks of training. And before the training, there’s the people who come here to activate the site. This is pretty big for our community and creates a new entertainment venue for Miami Gardens.”

Providing a two-week entertainment venue that goes beyond tennis was the intent of the site developers, who envision Miami Open attendees as having an entertainment experience.

As Cameron Mofid relaxed in the East Terrace area, seated on a comfortable sofa sectional surrounded by three walls covered with tennis balls, he was anxious for his experience to begin.

“Last year’s tournament was special because there was a lot of history behind the old place, and I’ll miss it,” Mofid said. “But this is beautiful. It’s different. It’s Miami.”

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