MIAMI—As the four pointy corners of Hard Rock Stadium come into view over the horizon, you can forgive a tennis fan for dreaming.
“Are we really going to see our favorite little niche sport in there? In a 65,000-seat steel behemoth, with a canopy that weighs 17,000 tons? In the same arena where the Rolling Stones are going to play next month, and where the 2020 Super Bowl will be held?”
The answer, as you likely know by now, is yes and no. For the last week and a half, tennis has indeed been played in a condensed version of the Dolphins’ home stadium, as well as a beautifully landscaped version of the former parking lot just to its north. It’s all part of the Miami Open’s ambitious move from the “island paradise” of Key Biscayne into the hard heart of the city.
It was a move that came as a shock to most longtime fans in the States. Since the 1980s, tennis has mostly retreated from major-sports arenas in this country, and taken up residence in high-end vacation spots like Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. In the ’70s, the pro game in Texas was staged at monster multi-purpose venues like the Astrodome, and Dallas’s 17,000-seat Reunion Arena; today the state’s ATP event, the U.S. Clay Courts, is held at tiny River Oaks Country Club in Houston. The assumption seemed to be that, outside of the US Open, tennis fans didn’t have much in common with team-sports fans.
Intentionally or not, the Miami Open has challenged that notion in 2019. Unable to expand or upgrade its facilities in Crandon Park, the tournament has been threatening to move out of town, and maybe out of the country altogether. Instead, the Dolphins’ billionaire owner, Steve Ross, swooped in and brought it to Hard Rock. During the NFL season, the team encouraged its fans to give tennis a try, and many have. Ticket sales are up.
Has the experiment worked? So far, the answer has mostly been yes. Perhaps because the thought of watching tennis in a parking lot was inherently unappetizing, the tournament went all-out to hide that fact. The grounds are filled with fountains, flowers, restaurants, and bars at every turn, and even an art gallery. If you have trouble finding your way around, there are people holding big orange signs that say, “How can I assist you?”
Even better are the outer courts themselves, which were filled to overflowing through the first week. The Grandstand—the second-largest court—is an especially good venue, intimately-scaled and open to everyone. If I were buying tickets to the Miami Open, I’d get whatever reserved seats they have in the Grandstand during the first weekend—over the course of a day and night, you’ll see a lot of big names from up close.
Whatever you do here, though, will come at a higher price than it did on Key Biscayne. Tickets are more expensive, and so is the food—a bottle of water is up to $5. The Miami Herald was particularly incensed by the “rip-off” parking price of $40. I guess it’s a sign that I’ve lived in New York for too long that I didn’t find that number all that surprising, or egregious. From the oversized stadium to the super-sized prices, it can feel as if the US Open has been transplanted to Miami.
Which brings us to the new facility’s problematic puzzle, the main arena. Constructed inside Hard Rock itself, right on the gridiron, it has three temporary sets of stands that rise straight up from the court and offer a decent view even near the top. The fourth side, though, utilizes the permanent football bleachers, which slope at a low angle away from the court, and quickly take you away from the action. Would it be possible to build a fourth temporary bleacher closer to the court, and not use the football seats? If so, it would improve the atmosphere in the building immensely. While the grounds have been busy, the stadium has rarely been filled with fans, or with the old Key Biscayne energy.
Has the Miami Open shown that tennis can still make it in the big city, and still appeal to team-sports fans? The short answer would seem to be yes; the tournament has been much more appealing than most of us thought possible a year ago. But we won’t know until we see next year’s crowds, and how many first-timers return.
While the attempt to implant tennis inside Hard Rock Stadium has come with flaws, it has also given the sport a grander sense of scale than it’s had virtually anywhere else. Sitting in the football seats, far from the court, I still liked looking up and seeing the towering walls, and thousands of pounds of steel and concrete all around me. For a minute, I could imagine that tennis really did belong there. A fan can dream.