Counter Punch

by: Steve Tignor | March 28, 2013

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How does a big spring event in the U.S. do without Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the draw? For the first time in a decade, we’ve had a chance to find out at the Sony Open this week. Before the tournament began, its director, Adam Barrett, admitted that ticket sales were down, and multiple sessions over the past week have fallen short of past attendance highs. Wednesday’s Order of Play was an even more telling, and disturbing, sign of what life without those two Hall of Fame players might be like. The only men’s match of the day was between David Ferrer and Jurgen Melzer, while the evening session pitted Tommy Haas against Gilles Simon. For the last decade, a fan at most Masters tournaments would have had a very good chance of seeing either Federer or Nadal on a day like yesterday. Two weeks ago, evening session fans saw both of them at Indian Wells. 

Is this a changing of the guard moment for these two top-level U.S. tournaments? The Sony Open, a pioneering dual-gender tournament, was routinely labeled the “Fifth Grand Slam” back when it was the Lipton Championships in the 1980s and 1990s. Until recently, it remained, outside of the U.S. Open, the most prestigious and richly sponsored tournament in the States. During much of that time, Indian Wells struggled financially, and it was nearly sold and moved overseas seven years ago. While the two events had the same-sized draws and offered the same number of ranking points, Indian Wells felt like the warm-up to the main event on the “island paradise” of Key Biscayne.

This year it feels like the roles have been reversed, that Indian Wells is the premier competition and Miami something of an afterthought. That’s due in part to Nadal’s and Federer’s absence, but there are other, longer-term trends working in favor of the California tournament at the moment. The biggest and most obvious is that four years ago it was bought by Larry Ellison. This means that there’s now no limit to what organizers can do when it comes to site improvements, new arenas, more cash for players, or 24-hour Nobu service in the press room. (OK, there are some limits.) As the tennis world left Indian Wells two weeks ago, we could hear construction crews in a neighboring field getting to work on a new second stadium that will open in 2014. Meanwhile, little has been done or added to cramped, creaky Crandon Park in Miami for nearly two decades.

Still, the Sony Open is hardly a fly-by-night concern. It’s owned by sports powerhouse IMG, the company that invented the professional tennis industry in the 1970s. Now, though, the instability at the top can be found in Key Biscayne rather than Indian Wells. It’s hard to gauge what IMG’s future commitment to tennis will be. The firm has been through the private equity wringer, and the man who took it over in 2004, leveraged-buyout specialist Ted Forstmann, died two years ago. Forstmann was not unlike an East Coast Larry Ellison, a billionaire who liked tennis, liked to make big bets on Roger Federer, and liked hanging out with the players in the Hamptons the week before the U.S. Open each year. 

IMG is reportedly up for sale, and there has been talk for years that it wants out of tennis. The company’s relationship with the sport is part of the reason that neither Nadal nor Federer felt the need to show up in Miami this year. Each player severed his ties with IMG over the last 12 months. At the same time, though, the firm has added Novak Djokovic to its roster, and some of its top executives, including Chuck Bennett and Gavin Forbes, come from the tennis trenches. Under its current ownership, IMG still has tennis in its DNA.

There’s also a commitment from the Sony Open itself to at least try to keep up with its nouveau rival out west. On Wednesday morning tournament organizers held a press conference to announce their long-term “tournament improvement plan.” Last November, voters in Miami-Dade County approved a proposal to expand the tennis facilities farther into surrounding Crandon Park and extend the tournament’s lease on the land for 30 years. This was done over the vociferous complaints of a man named Bruce Matheson, whose family gave the land to the city in 1940, and who sits on a committee that must approve any changes to the park.

But the voters have spoken, and they’ll get a $50 million revamp—none of it from taxpayer funds—that will include three new permanent stadiums and an acre of added green space, ready for the 2015 edition of the tournament. There’s also a commitment to eliminate as many tents on the grounds as possible, by moving the shops and displays and bars that currently occupy them inside the new arenas. Good idea: An island paradise shouldn’t by overrun by giant white merchandise tents.  

Game on, Larry? We’ll see: With the space that Ellison has to work with around the Indian Wells site—he owns the adjacent land—I still like his upside. It’s a smaller point, but according to many pros there’s a history of European players pulling the plug quickly when they fall behind in Miami. Most of them have been in the U.S. for nearly a month by that time; thoughts of the trip home, and the clay season, are hard to resist. The more the game is dominated by Europeans, the less the Sony Open becomes a priority in general. (One thing it will always have on Indian Wells is the presence of Venus and Serena Williams, for as long as they decide to play.)

There was some of that European prioritizing from Nadal this year, as he flew out of Indian Wells and straight back to Spain. You wonder, with his skittishness about playing on hard courts, how often he’ll commit to both U.S. spring events. Some would like to see Miami go to green clay; it’s a tempting, and logical, idea. Har-Tru is a native surface to Florida; the style of play would go well with the tournament’s Latin vibe; and you would almost surely have Nadal in your draw. Best of all, from the Sony standpoint, it could be a way of turning the tables and isolating Indian Wells. With green dirt, Key Biscayne would be the new kick-off to the clay season, and IW would be the odd tournament out, surface-wise.

The point, however, may be moot. When he was asked about that topic on Wednesday, tournament director Barrett said, “This is a hard-court tournament, and it will continue to be a hard-court tournament.” There’s no question that it would make for an abrupt transition from the asphalt at Indian Wells, and who knows if the WTA and ATP would approve it. But I think the green clay idea should be kept in mind as the new arenas are built in Miami. It’s an appealing surface on television, and the switch could even fire the dirt-ball ambitions of young American players in the future.

In truth, Miami is facing what every tennis tournament, no matter its surface, will be facing within the next decade—no Roger or Rafa. It has come to this event a little sooner; but it’s possible, with Federer cutting his schedule back and Nadal cutting back on hard courts, that neither will play the Sony Open again. Nadal is the bigger problem, as he will likely be around for longer than Federer. If this March is any guide to the future, the Sony and IMG boys have their work cut out for them. In Miami, Rafa was nowhere to be found. In Indian Wells, the first place he could be found after winning the title was smiling up at a first-row seat, shaking hands with Larry Ellison.

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