All On The Surface: What’s Happened To Miami?

From my current vantage in Melbourne – which is either an ocean and a continent away or fifteen hours in the future, depending on the direction – the Sony Open Tennis in Miami has lost some of its erstwhile burnish. There was a time when it was, if not necessarily the most polished of the non-Slam events, certainly the biggest. It was a shining highlight on both the men’s and women’s tours. Now though, its lustre has dulled. Attendance figures are down, which is borne out visually by the dollops of empty seats dotting the strangely canted Stadium.

Even the players don’t seem that into it. It isn’t merely that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal skipped the men’s tournament, or that Victoria Azarenka pulled out of the women’s. There have been retirements galore at all levels – something like 13,050 at last count – of a volume that one associates with warm-up events staged the week before a Major. We expect players to pull out peremptorily for niggles when they have a more important event coming up, but that’s not the case in Miami. It’s supposed to be an end in itself, but people are pulling out with sore throats. Sergiy Stakhovsky quipped on Twitter that if Crandon Park began its renovations now the players would have an excuse to skip it next year. Jonas Bjorkman responded that the venue hasn’t seen an upgrade in 19 years, and that the revenues aren’t being reinvested into the event, or words to that effect.

As has been widely reported, Paul McNamee last week suggested that Miami should consider switching to clay, which sparked some debate. McNamee’s suggestion spoke directly to the specific issue of the tournament’s hardcourt surface, which has grown painfully slow in recent years, but also more generally to the tournament’s ongoing relevance to both respective tours. It’s well worth a read.

I’m not convinced that ‘relevance’ is a quality to which any tennis tournament should necessarily aspire, or be judged by. But it is a quality that Miami itself aims for: what are the tedious proclamations of its status as the unofficial ‘Fifth Slam’, iterated endlessly, if not a grasping towards relevance? If nothing else, we’re invited to judge. There was a time when it might have felt like a Fifth Slam, but they’ve now passed. Stakhovsky said that, too.

A move to clay would reposition Miami at the beginning of the mostly European clay swing. The current drive on both tours is to consolidate the many disparate events into coherent ‘swings’ (though this is a term I dislike). Thus the lead up to the US Open rebranded as the ‘US Open Summer Series’. The lead up to the French Open is called the ‘Road to Roland Garros’. The ATP has been more determined in this than the WTA: even September’s three week Asian swing has a clear shape, as it escalates from a pair of 250 level events (Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur), though a pair of 500s (Tokyo and Beijing), culminating in the Shanghai Masters. In a similar spirit, the two combined US Spring events are intended to complete the February hardcourt events staged throughout North America  and elsewhere.

As much as we (rightly) ridicule the idiotic bickering between Indian Wells and Miami as to which constitutes the ‘Fifth Slam’, there are reasons why the debate persists, and real ramifications for the winner and loser. As I say, back in the 1980s and 1990s Miami was the official unofficial fifth Slam; in the glory days of the Lipton International, players would themselves use the term. Indian Wells in those days still felt very much like an entrée to the main course. In fact it had a 64-strong draw in those years, and had yet to match Miami’s extravagant generosity towards the Bye family (the move to a ridiculous 96-draw came in 2004).

Two factors have significantly diminished Miami’s cachet. Firstly, there is the severe reduction of the number of American February events, which has been gone over exhaustively, and shows no sign of being reversed. Indeed, the WTA this year only staged one modest event in North America before Indian Wells (Memphis). Any culmination feels lessened when no one cares about the build-up. Secondly, Indian Wells has now overtaken Miami in terms of sheer interest and excitement. Beyond the issue of prize money and an expanding facility in Southern California, it feels – I realise I’m being subjective here – as though the players can’t wait to get to Indian Wells, yet are keen to skip Miami given half a chance. (Serena Williams is of course the exception here, and I don’t mean to downplay the value she represents for  the US market in particular.) Indian Wells is now such a spectacle that replicating the excitement would be difficult for Miami, even if it was possible, or desirable. I don’t think this part of the season can sustain back-to-back week-and-a-half mini-Majors. Consequently, Key Biscayne has started to feel like a hangover. There are even fewer celebrities in attendance. Kevin Spacey is nowhere to be seen.

Nor has Miami helped its own cause with the surface. The Miami hardcourt is among the slowest on the tours (perhaps only Valencia is its equal on the ATP tour).  This is a quality that is only enhanced by the dense swampy atmosphere. Indian Wells has a fairly slow court as well, but this is offset by thin desert air. Miami’s courts are notoriously difficult to penetrate, and grant a fairly decisive edge to defensive players (which of course is not to say that attacking players cannot do well). Indeed the joke that Miami doesn’t need to move to clay since it already has, is one worth making. I can’t recall that I’ve ever heard a single player praise the Miami surface.

Converting Miami to clay might even help US tennis. Dirt has for some time been the weakest surface for American players. Indeed, José Higueras has pointed out for some time that the lack of clay courts in the States has contributed significantly to the nation falling away on all surfaces, believing that early development on clay provides a much better foundation, in terms of stroke production and footwork, but also through patience and the capacity to structure a rally. Having an important clay court event right near many of the United States top training facilities would certainly help. As McNamee says in his article, Florida already has the highest concentration of clay (Har-Tru) courts in the States. Given that the Orange Bowl is also staged there –the official Fifth Junior Slam – this would directly incentivice clay for the youngsters.

But switching to clay wouldn’t solve the issue of identity, or relevance, or answer the increasingly vexed question of why there are two big joint events in March at all. Running back-to-back events only makes sense when there’s a Major to follow; the sheer size of the Major seems to subsume the discrepancies among putatively similar lead-up events. I disagree with McNamee that it would function as ‘the grand opening of the major clay court season’. It would be far too far out from the French Open to constitute a meaningful warm-up. Indeed, even Monte Carlo’s value is questionable in this respect. It seems to be a structural requirement that these ‘swings’ start small, and gather steam as they go. I also don’t think the ATP tour needs a fourth Masters on clay, although it desperately needs one on grass.

If I was a dictator – as we all pray I one day will be – or at least granted executive powers in the matter of tennis scheduling, I wouldn’t convert Miami to clay. Until I could figure out a way to move it to Europe and play it on grass, I think the easiest solution would be to switch Miami and Indian Wells, since the current disparity between them is only going to grow as long as Larry Ellison has his way, or more accurately his wealth and energy. You might as well play the biggest one second. I’d also ban any more talk of ‘Fifth Slams’. Perhaps these measures would free Miami up to be whatever it wants to be. If players still skip it, or indulge in perfunctory retirements, it won’t seem so crippling.

I’d also speed up the courts. It’s getting painful to watch.