From Paradise to a Parking Lot: A Personal Tennis Loss

One afternoon in late March 2001 (or March 2002; not sure which) my wife was walking with my son, who was then 4 (or 5), past the tennis courts of Key Colony condominium in Key Biscayne, Florida, on their way to his swimming lesson. Pete Sampras, then regarded as the greatest male player of all time, was leaving the courts after a practice session. He was warming up for a match at the Key Biscayne tournament, which is held a mile away.

My wife wanted an autograph, but didn’t have any paper. So Sampras signed the yellow foam kickboard that my son was taking to the pool. I believe we still have it in storage somewhere.

That’s just one of dozens of fun memories I have from the tournament (now called the Miami Open), which has been played on Key Biscayne since 1987 but is leaving after this year for a parking lot sandwiched between a football stadium and Florida’s Turnpike. I lived on the Key during two periods of my life, from 1987 to 1990 and again from 2000 to 2007 — and attended the tournament several years in between. I’m planning to be back again this coming week for one last nostalgic visit.

The tournament runs through the bloodstream of Key Biscayne village. For tennis fanatics who live on the island, it’s their Wimbledon. Though it may be an exaggeration, they feel the same attachment to the tournament as residents of Wimbledon village feel toward theirs.

I don’t want to over-dramatize the tournament leaving Key Biscayne. No one is dying because of this. But it does feel personal. (I still call it “The Lipton,” a shortened version of its original name, I guess the way Joe Frazier stubbornly or spitefully forever called Muhammad Ali by his birth name, Cassius Clay.)

For a while when I was living on the Key in the late 1980s I rented a room in my apartment to a friend of mine. On the weekends we played tennis, and his two young sons, about 7 and 8 years old, were always in tow. We’d load up on Gatorade and snacks at the 7-Eleven. They were a part of my weekend life. So you can imagine how cool it was when, almost two decades later in 2006, I watched the oldest of the kids, Luis Fernando Manrique, partner with his friend Guillermo Coria in a doubles match on stadium court against Andy Roddick and Robby Ginepri. (Manrique-Coria lost, but still…)

When you live near a big tournament, the fondest memories aren’t necessarily of watching the matches — though there are many of those, too. To me it’s more about how the tournament and players interact with the village.

Watching practice sessions at Key Colony’s 12 hard courts was an event in itself. In the early years, the condo didn’t have a formal set-up for tournament players to practice there. They would get in through a teaching pro or someone they knew who lived there and just show up. I didn’t witness it personally, but I was told that when Chris Evert was practicing at the condo courts the morning of her 1989 final against Gabriela Sabatini, her session was cut short by residents who had that court reserved for their regular doubles game. I guess they felt she should take her 18 Grand Slam singles titles and try the public courts down the road at Calusa Park.

(Sabatini won that match, boosted by Argentine supporters who made far more noise than Evert’s many fans. Evert never hid her annoyance that Sabatini got more, or at least louder, backing than an American who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, a 45-minute drive away. Sabatini was a part-time Key Biscayne resident, and you would see her around between tournament stops. Her coach’s father strung my rackets. She went to my gym. Shoulders as broad as the Key. I remember the day after she beat Evert, I saw her going for a run. I shouted, “Felicitaciones, Gabi!” She waved back.)

By the time I moved back to the Key from South America in 2000, Key Colony had worked out a deal with the tournament allowing players to practice there in exchange for a bunch of free tickets that were given to condo residents via a lottery.

But the connection with the players wasn’t only about watching them practice. It was also the random encounters. It was turning to my right in traffic and seeing Patrick Rafter behind the wheel of the car stopped next to mine. It was seeing Amelie Mauresmo jogging by as I was walking down Crandon Boulevard. I once learned that Kim Clijsters’ sense of direction wasn’t nearly as good as her forehand. Several hours after she won the 2005 final, beating Maria Sharapova, my daughter and I were walking down Crandon — the only road entering and leaving the island — and saw Clijsters in a car, turning onto Crandon with a confused look on her face. She was driving deeper into the island, not leaving it. My daughter and I commented to each other that Clijsters was probably lost. Sure enough, a few minutes later we saw her zooming back by us, heading off the island.

In 1988, the tournament’s second year on the Key, I was volunteer co-chair of the press tent, before there was a proper, air-conditioned press center. Though I was young, they gave me the job because I was a foreign desk copy editor at the Miami Herald and had some idea of reporters’ needs. (Perhaps not coincidentally, within a couple of years the tournament professionalized that position somewhat and put tournament employees in charge.)

I’m not around the tennis tour at all these days, but I feel safe saying that the players were more unguarded around the press and fans back then. It was before the Monica Seles stabbing, the Internet and social media. The word troll had a different meaning. Back then, you might see Yannick Noah in the press tent puffing on a cigarette. There was a bulletin board (a literal cork bulletin board, not the virtual kind) where newspaper articles were posted with thumbtacks. The players would wander by to check out the clippings. I remember once I was reading a Miami Herald column that was fawning over Sabatini. When I looked up, there was Evert standing next to me reading it on the board. She made a comment aloud about how the piece was over the top. She wasn’t totally wrong, but I’m not sure that these days a double-digit Grand Slam winner would, in front of a total stranger in an area swarming with press, make a remark that could be twisted to sound critical of a rival.

I remember that a young German woman who volunteered in the press tent but had no affiliation to any media outlet got an interview with Steffi Graf. The two of them were sitting in folding chairs outside the tent talking for about an hour, with everyone walking by like no big deal. Just the two of them. No press handler, no agent. Keep in mind that was the year Graf won everything. The calendar year Grand Slam, the Olympic Gold, and of course Key Biscayne.

The press conferences were held in a steamy makeshift room within the tent. The presser that stood out to me most in 1988 was with Jimmy Connors. After one of his wins, a reporter asked him about a rough patch of play he had during the match. Connors’ reply: “You think you could do better?” Connors played well that year but lost the final to Mats Wilander, who won three of the four Slams in ‘88.

In 1989-90 and 2004-07 I had press credentials, which allowed great access. A handful of memories from those years and many others when I attended as a fan:

  • Seeing Andre Agassi’s two young children run to greet him as he entered the tunnel attached to the stadium court after losing to Roger Federer, 6-4, 6-3, in the 2005 semifinals. At the time, Agassi was a month shy of his 35th birthday but generally playing well enough to beat anyone on a hard court — except Federer. And he knew it. The look on Agassi’s face was of resignation. In the post-match presser he described Federer as “somebody playing a level above.”
  • Serena Williams, uttering one of my favorite lines of all time. She was on the Grandstand court in 2001 against bullet-serving Uzbek Iroda Tulyaganova. This was when Williams had one Slam title and was a star, but not yet the megastar she is today. Her father, Richard, was yapping at her the entire match. The court is small enough that everyone could hear him. Finally, the chair umpire had enough and issued Serena a warning for coaching. “Coaching?” Serena exclaimed. “I’m trying to ignore him!”
  • There’s something about the Grandstand and coaching. In 2005 I sat a couple of rows behind Toni Nadal, who was coaching his nephew during a match against Ivan Ljubicic and wasn’t trying to hide it. That didn’t sit well with Ljubicic, who mentioned it in at least one interview as much as a year later. Though Toni was speaking in the Majorcan dialect, you could tell he was giving instructions because of the similarities of some directional words with Spanish.
  • I watched Nadal play Federer at Key Biscayne twice, in 2004 and 2005. The 2004 match was their first, and a huge upset for the 17-year-old Nadal. Federer had just won the Australian Open and Indian Wells. But the word was that Federer was struggling to recover from a fever when he got to Key Biscayne. The 2005 tournament was Nadal’s breakthrough and totally legit. He reached the final, and went up two sets to love and 4-1 in the third before he ran out of gas and Federer caught him in five. It was the first time Nadal got into Federer’s head, and the first time most of us had seen Federer slam his racket to the ground. If I recall correctly, during the on-court ceremony after the match, Federer remarked that he’d better beat Nadal while he can because the kid is going to keep getting better. People thought Federer was being modest. He was more right than anyone could have imagined.
  • One of the neatest things about having press credentials was getting to talk with Bud Collins. He was famous for being generous to newbies to the press center, and from my experience, that reputation was understated. I recall sitting next to him for a 2006 quarterfinal between Federer and James Blake. We discussed how they were two of the only players who would just get on with it and not take much time between points. During that 2005 Federer-Nadal final, a few of the Spanish journalists in the press seats were cheering boisterously for Nadal. At one point Collins admonished them: “No cheering in the press box.” The man had spoken, and there was not another peep from those journalists.
  • I saw Roddick, then 18, defeat Sampras in 2001. Some weeks later, I believe in mid-May, I happened to be in the food court of Boca Town Center mall in Boca Raton, about an hour north of Key Biscayne. My wife poked me and said, “Hey, it’s the guy who beat Sampras.” Sure enough, there was Roddick, who lived and trained in Boca, seated at a table conversing with a girl/young lady. Nobody there knew who he was. Based on his schedule, Roddick would have left within days for Europe ahead of the French Open, where he had a memorable five-set win that year over Michael Chang. It has occurred to me that there were probably few if any times after that when Roddick could hang out in a shopping mall virtually unrecognized and not be approached by anyone. Some years later, I heard Brad Gilbert on ESPN saying that when he coached Roddick they referred to the serve down the T as the “BTC,” for Boca Town Center, because “you can hit it all day.” 
  • As a spectator, probably the most dramatic match I’ve ever seen in person was the 2001 women’s final, when Venus Williams saved eight — yes eight — match points to beat Jennifer Capriati. (And kudos to Capriati for being able to clear that from her head and win the French Open two months later, 12-10 in the third set in the final over Clijsters.) 
  • In a separate essay I wrote about being blown away by the play of young Monica Seles and the great spirit of her parents. But there were many other up-and-comers I saw early in their careers. If I recall right, I saw Jim Courier’s first match at the tournament, when he was 17 and beat Glenn Michibata in 1988. I was also there for the last match win of Courier’s career, 12 years later, when he beat an 18-year-year ranked No. 473 named David Nalbandian. I saw Victoria Azarenka’s debut on an outside court when she was just 16.
  • Some years there was a small junior invitational tournament held concurrently, called the Luxilon Cup. I went to the 2002 girls final and saw 14-year-old Sharapova beat 17-year-old Gisela Dulko.
  • If you went the weekend before the tournament started or the first couple of days, before seeds were playing, you could find top players beating each other’s brains out in practice sets. One time I saw Agassi hitting wicked kick serves that bounced over Tim Henman’s head in the ad court. I remember watching Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt burn each other in volley drills, and Nalbandian — by then No. 3 — whipping Juan Carlos Ferrero, who was desperately trying to regain his No. 1 form of a few years earlier. He never did.

And so, like Ferrero, the tournament moves on to another chapter. Maybe the new site will be better for corporate sponsors, or maybe even for players. But for anyone who has a connection to Key Biscayne, the new location will surely be a sad reminder of what once was.