So it’s March again and the Sony Open is less than two weeks away.
Truth be told, it’s my favorite time of the year. It’s the best time of the year. Indian Wells and Miami, two quasi Majors lined up back to back, star studded fields (notable exceptions being Serena and Venus Williams at Indian Wells, of course), beautiful venues, and huge, enthusiastic crowds. Monster crowds. Record crowds.
It’s what professional tennis should be all year long, but unfortunately isn’t. At least not for the women on the WTA Tour, who continue to play to empty stadiums in destinations far off the beaten path and with no tennis traditions to speak of. Successful, long term WTA tournaments at places like Amelia Island and San Diego have been dumped in favor of expanding the Tour’s bloated hardcourt schedule at the expense of its claycourt events and as a result of its ever increasing expansion into Asia. Unfortunately, attendance at most of these new international events has been dismal, and the WTA is not doing itself any favors showcasing its product in front of tiny, and in many cases, largely non-existent crowds.
This is sad. Women’s tennis deserves better. The women pros are exceptional athletes. They play high quality matches. Why the Tour continues to insist on exhibiting them in places where interest in women’s tennis appears to be almost nil, keyed to one player’s success or failure, or tied to large amounts of sponsor money is perplexing. The growth of the sport, and interest in women’s professional tennis, isn’t going to be fostered by disposing of the long term consumers it has cultivated. Yes, women’s tennis has come a long way baby, but it is in real peril of throwing all of that progress away in an instant.
Staging tournaments at better, newer facilities, and in countries and at venues with lucrative sponsors is enticing, and certainly players need to be paid well so that they can earn a living. But when the crowds are not coming out to watch what has traditionally been and still remains a great selling product in other places, it’s a pretty good bet the problem is in the location of the new venues on the WTA roadmap. The “new directions’ are failing the growth of the sport. That’s got to change, or women’s tennis will remain a sport forever striving for legitimacy, respect and parity in the world’s eyes.
I will be in Miami for the Sony Open for the entire first week again in 2014, from the first day of qualies on Monday March 17 through Sunday March 23. My annual Miami road trip begins the 16th of March, and I should be pulling into the parking lot at Crandon Park on beautiful sunbaked Key Biscayne just about the time the main gates open for the start of play on Monday. For those who’ve never gotten the chance to attend a pro tournament, I can only hope that someday you can. The excitement in the build-up is palpable, and there is nothing–absolutely nothing–like being there in person. Watching a tennis match on television is a completely different experience than seeing one in person. Being part of the energy of a match, seeing the players respond and react to your cheers, involves and immerses you in a way you can never possibly feel watching a tennis match on television from the comfort of home.
When I think about it, I honestly believe that Miami is the perfect place to watch a tennis tournament. The city is completely cosmopolitan, and the Sony Open itself is a microcosm of the city’s cosmopolitan nature. Whenever I go at the Sony, I feel like I am in a foreign country. You can meet people from any and every corner of the globe at the Open. Each match can seem like a friendly little war between neighboring states, fans from their players’ countries shouting rhythmic cheers or singing songs they’ve made up to show their unabashed support.
Yes, it is exciting. Truly, truly exciting. This is why the anticipation builds each year around this time, and why, though I enjoy watching Indian Wells, I can’t wait for Larry Ellison’s ‘Baby Slam’ to be over!
Yes, I’ll be blogging here daily from the Sony Open, trying, at least, to post some match reports and thoughts about each day’s most notable events from Crandon Park. And as usual, for those interested, I’ll be posting daily photos on my Flickr, which you can find at:
Thought I would offer a few handy dandy tips for anyone out there interested in going to the Sony Open, based on several years of attending the tournament.
The tournament is a 96 draw for men and women, and a mandatory event, so it is US Open-like in terms of quality. In other words, you really can’t go wrong in picking a day or days to attend. There will be great tennis every day. Generally speaking, the top 75 ranked men and women get direct entries, and the next 50 or so play the qualifying tournaments for 12 spots in each draw, with a few wildcards awarded.
The way the tournament schedule works is that the men and women qualify on Monday and Tuesday, with main draw play starting for the women on Tuesday and the men on Wednesday. There are 32 seeds for the men and the women, but the seeds won’t start playing until Thursday for the women and Friday for the men. So bear that in mind if you are wanting to see the top stars playing. You still see great matches and great players because it is a mandatory event so it is like a grand slam with everyone playing unless they are injured. Even the first round and qualifying matches are good, with fairly well known players.
Even from Monday and Tuesday, the qualifying days, you can still catch the top ranked players like Serena Williams, Vika Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, etc. practicing throughout the day. To me, this is one of the best parts of the Sony Open–wandering the grounds and watching the players up close.
Here is the schedule for daily ticket prices:
The “400” level ticket prices (the top level of the stadium) are the cheapest. If you want a lower, and better seat, the prices go up dramatically. I think the viewing is fine from up there though. But really, I prefer the matches on the outer courts where you can get much much closer and the viewing is a lot more intimate. Any stadium ticket will get you a seat on any court on the grounds, on a first come, first served basis. You cannot purchase a separate “grounds pass” unless and until the stadium sells out.
Unless there is a rainout, historically, they have generally played the qualifying matches M-Tu, women’s 1st round matches on Tu-We-Th, women’s 2nd round on Fr-Sa, and women’s third round on Sun. Men’s 1st round on We-Th, 2nd round on Fri-Sat, and 3rd round on Su-Mon. And of course, there are lots of doubles matches starting about Thursday or so.
If you don’t want a ticket in the stadium, you can get a reserved ticket in the grandstand, the second largest court, which is a nice deal, and also gives you access to every other outside court except the stadium (otherwise, seating in the grandstand is on a first come, first serve basis). I’ve been tempted to just buy grandstand tix instead of stadium tix some year as the matches are much more intimate and enjoyable to watch there, but the only advantage of the stadium is the night matches. You can still watch matches in the grandstand if you have a stadium ticket, just not from the side with the chair backs.
Parking for the tournament is just over the Rickenbacker causeway from Miami to Virginia Key and across from the Seaquarium at the main entrance to the wastewater treatment plant, where you park for the shuttle that takes you to the main gate. Parking has been $12 a day the last two years. The first two days (Monday and Tuesday) you can park at the main gate at Crandon Park, but after Tuesday they set up the shuttle system on Virginia Key and you have to use that.
The public parking on Virginia Key works quite well, if you get there early and plan strategically. They use buses and generally do a great job keeping them running constantly to keep people moving into the tournament site once people start showing up, and then at the end of the day, back to the parking area from the tournament. But if you wait around until 10 or 11 or Noon you will find LONG lines, especially on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Get there early and you should have no problem.
The tourney info says you aren’t supposed to bring food, racquets, horns, banners or commercial recording devices. Or weapons (duh). I’ve seen people bring food. I think you can bring “snacks” as long as you don’t bring in “meals”. The food there is good but not cheap. Waters are $3.25 or 3.50 each, a hamburger is close to 10 bucks, so is a salad…like I said, it isn’t cheap.
The weather is nice there–usually about 78-82F on any given day and very breezy, only an occasional shower or two, but we’ve been lucky with rain the past few years. March is a good month for that. It can get warm up in the stands, especially on a court with stands/seats facing into the sun, so bring lots of sunscreen and a hat, and this may sound odd, but at night, on that island, it gets very chilly because it is so windy. If you stay for night matches you will freeze your butt off if you are not a Yankee–I can’t deal with cold so I have to get a latte and buy a sweatshirt from the Fila shop if I am going to sit up in the stands on stadium court at night down there.
As far as the “best days” to go, that’s a tough call. Everyone has their preferences about what they want to see and what they like. Here is my best objective breakdown on it. As far as the action goes, I will say this–Monday and Tuesday are qualifying days for men and women and are fairly lightly attended–for Miami–but still, in comparison to a regular ATP/WTA event, there are plenty of people, and IMHO it’s the best time to see the big name players on the practice courts. If you don’t want to get run over trying to see Fed or Rafa, or Serena or Maria, this is the time to do it. Also, Tuesday the women play some 1st round matches (no seeds though). On Wednesday, the 1st round starts for the men, and continues for the women, and Wednesday-Thursday are probably the most fun days, as the crowds are still not that bad, good players are playing and everyone is practicing. Plus, doubles is starting. So every court is being used, all day. They even often use practice courts 9 and 10 to play matches when the schedule backs up late in the day–I’ve watched many faves on those courts standing by the fence just feet away from them as they played 1st round matches before. On these nights, actually from Wednesday through Sunday, there is usually tennis going on at night on several courts, not just the stadium, so day ticket holders can stay into the night to watch tennis on outer courts plus night ticket holders can watch anything. Plus, before it gets busy for the weekend, for the night matches, on nights when the women play the last match in the stadium, they will often invite us commoners with 400 level tickets in the nosebleed seats to come down and sit in the box seats down on the court level. So to me, those are the ideal days. A lot of tennis value for the dollar.
The weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) are great days because the quality of the tennis goes up (Friday-Saturday is the womens’ second round, Sunday is womens’ round 3, doubles all weekend, seeds start playing) but it gets brutally crowded. You can immediately tell–traffic picks up, it takes longer to get to the stadium parking, to get on the bus, to get to the gate, and you run into people scalping tickets and trying to buy tickets outside the gate. Finding tables to sit down to eat and trying to find an empty restroom can be a pain as well. On the other hand, the crowds are huge and fun you can usually spot Mary Joe Fernandez or one of the Jensens or Jim Courier or Bud Collins’ pants. And everywhere you look you see players, bump into them walking around, sit next to them during matches, etc. It’s very exciting being in that environment.
After a day of it, you’ll be a pro at spotting players, umpires and celebrities!