When the Miami Open moved up the road from Key Biscayne to Hard Rock Stadium in 2019, most of the pre-tournament speculation centered around what it would be like to play and watch tennis on a court that was situated in one of the end zones of a 65,000-seat football arena. Not surprisingly, the atmosphere lacked the intimacy that tennis fans value, and that adds so much immediacy and excitement to any match.
For that, you had to walk a few hundred feet to the facility’s second-largest court, the Grandstand. This compact space didn’t come with any bells or whistles, or a funky design, or, thankfully, any luxury suites. But the bleachers were close to the court, and every one of its 5,000 seats was a good one. That should turn out to be handy in 2021. With ticket sales limited due to Covid, the tournament has turned the Hard Rock into a workout field for the players, and made the Grandstand into its main stadium. Even with social distancing, it should create at least a semblance of that old, lively Miami tennis vibe.
Tuesday was the first day of main-draw play on the women’s side, and there was something fitting about the lineup. Venus Williams, who was on third, was the big draw; with her sister Serena absent this year, the 40-year-old Venus was the sole Williams representative. Pandemic or no pandemic, prize-money reductions or no prize-money reductions, twisted ankle in Australia or no twisted ankle in Australia, you knew Venus, one of the great tennis lovers of all time, would be here.
Preceding Venus in the Grandstand were two African-American women who had grown up watching her. In fact, by the time Katrina Scott and Robin Montgomery, both now 16, were born in 2004, Venus was already a 10-year tour veteran with four major titles and three Miami Opens to her name. Scott and Montgomery were granted wild cards in Miami this year, and they made their main-draw debuts on Tuesday. While Montgomery would lose in three sets to Magda Linette, and Scott would lose to Sorana Cirstea in straights, each showed a lot of shot-making potential. Montgomery, from Washington, D.C., is a lefty who hits a heavy topspin forehand and a flatly lethal two-handed backhand. Scott, from Los Angeles, is a righty who can control rallies with her forehand, and has the speed to move around and take it inside-out. In the future, it won’t hurt that Scott and Montgomery are both nearly six-feet tall.
That still leaves them a couple inches short of Venus’s 6’1”, and about 800 matches short of her career win total. Venus was going for No. 815 against Zarina Diyas today, and her aqua-tinted hair was a perfect match for the courts in Miami. Venus is ranked 79th right now, and she had won one match at each of the two tournaments she had played so far in 2021, both in Melbourne. The 27-year-old Diyas is ranked 89th, but she has been as high as No. 31, and made the fourth round in Miami in 2018.
In the first set, Diyas started smoothly and steadily, while Venus struggled to shake off a month’s worth of match-play rust. When the second set rolled around, though, Venus did what she has done after so many slow starts in the past: She stopped, put her hands on her hips, stared down at the court for a few seconds, took a deep breath, and gathered herself. She has always had that rarest of gifts, the ability to will herself to play better, and she did it again today.
Smacking forehand returns and marching forward to knock off swing volleys into the corners, Venus took a 4-2 lead. Diyas came back to serve for the match at 6-5, but Venus broke with a forehand winner to send it to a tie-break. There Venus saved three match points, and held a couple set points of her own, before Diyas closed it out, 12-10, to complete a 6-2, 7-6 (10) victory.
Walking off, Venus smiled and waved to the scattered fans who stood and cheered her. Knowing her, this probably won’t be her last trip to Miami. The fans will miss her for the rest of 2021, but if there’s anyone who should have christened this newly-minted main stadium, it was Venus.