Where else can you climb to the top of a tennis stadium and see blue waters and an awe-inspiring skyline? Where else can you see a large iguana interrupt a tennis match?
By Chris Umpierre
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — The Miami Open fan experience doesn’t begin at the stadium or even at one of the complex’s outer tennis courts.
It begins on the Rickenbacker Causeway, the bridge that connects Miami to Key Biscayne.
As you drive the causeway’s first bridge, you can’t help but look to your side and see Key Biscayne’s wondrous bluish-green waters. Yachts, boats and jet skis abound. Residents are running, fishing and biking. Miami’s skyscrapers frame the view.
Driving over the Rickenbacker Causeway on the way to the Crandon
Park Tennis Center sets the tone for your tennis day. You are not just going to watch world-class tennis; you are going to watch the sport in the most tropical setting.
Where else can you climb to the top of a stadium and see Key Biscayne’s blue waters and Miami’s skyline? Where else can you see a large iguana interrupt a tennis match? Where else can you take in the Florida sun in one minute and pouring rain in the next?
The Miami Open, known as tennis’s Fifth Grand Slam or the Winter Wimbledon, averages 300,000 fans each spring. The tournament is at a flash point as organizers want to expand but can’t because of a 1995 lawsuit that forbids additional construction. Here’s hoping the tournament can stay in Key Biscayne because it’s a perfect location for an international gathering.
The 2017 Miami Open had players from 44 different countries (no misprint!). Players come from countries such as Korea, Tunisia, Serbia, Argentina, Japan, Latvia, Portugal, Bulgaria, Sweden, Slovakia, Spain and more. Miami, meanwhile, is America’s most international city with 51 percent of residents foreign born, according to the U.S. Census.
Thousands of fans come to Miami, the “Capital of Latin America.” On our trip to the tournament, we saw fans from Spain, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. They bring flags, bandannas, passion and Roger Federer caps.
Iguana Creates a Racket
Iguana are not unusual in South Florida, but when they run onto a court during a major tournament then, well, that’s news. A large green iguana made global headlines last month when it interrupted a 2017 Miami Open match between Tommy Haas and Jiri Vesely.
The iguana, which is an invasive species in South Florida, crawled on top of a match scoreboard as the crowd gasped. Everybody in the crowd grabbed their smartphone to snap pictures, and so did Haas.
Haas took a selfie with the iguana, and was even admonished for the chair umpire for taking out his cell phone during play!
Tournament officials tried to catch the iguana but it got away. Iggy sprinted across the court as fans moaned. The iguana jumped on top of another scoreboard, presumably enjoying its warmth. Finally, tournament officials wrangled the wildlife.
Albeit noteworthy, iguanas have long made appearances here. In fact, another iguana showed up the following day and clung to a gate as players practiced on a side court.
One of the best parts of the Miami Open is the player access. Players not playing on stadium court must walk through the complex to their assigned court. They are escorted by one to three tournament officials.
A couple of years ago, I remember seeing Juan Del Potro be swarmed with fans as he was working his way back to the stadium locker room after a match. There must have been dozens of smartphones in the air as fans attempted to take pictures and videos of the tennis superstar.
On our recent trip to the Open, my uncle Robert Cepero spotted Nick Bollettieri as he stopped to speak to someone nearby. The founder of the tennis academy chatted with fans as my uncle tried to get a selfie with the American coach.
Many fans also wait outside the player’s lounge area at the stadium for autographs, but a lot of times you can see them walking around.
In our 2017 visit, we decided to go to a late-night doubles match featuring Coco Vandeweghe on Court 8. The match had been postponed for two hours because of rain which came out of nowhere (not a surprise for Miami). When we returned to the court, we found former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki warming up.
Take a look at her warmup shirt: Kiss my Adidas.
The Mónica Puig Fan Club
Some of the Crandon Park Tennis Center’s outer courts are small — one of the reasons why tournament officials want to expand and modernize the facility.
On Saturday, Olympic gold medalist Mónica Puig of Puerto Rico was assigned to one of those small courts. More than a hundred fans, many wearing Puerto Rican flags and shirts, tried to get into the small bleachers on the court. We waited in line for 20 minutes or so.
Many fans made the trip to Key Biscayne to see Puig. We saw a mother and baby dressed in the same outfit: a shirt adorned with the Puerto Rican flag.
“Mónica! Mónica!” the crowd chanted, presumably forgetting this was a doubles match.
The energy and commitment of the fans was not unique. My uncle Robert Cepero and his girlfriend Tere talked with a family from Guatemala who came to the tournament with the sole purpose of seeing arguably the most-decorated player in history. Yes, they had their Federer caps and shirts.
The Latin Flair
The passion and Latin flair these fans bring to the tournament creates a unique experience. It’s not uncommon to see fans chanting and singing in Spanish.
Some of the best matches happen at night.
I can recall a match between a Venezuelan and Spaniard on the grandstand a couple years ago that sounded like a soccer match. Fans from the respective countries took turns cheering for their players. The chair umpire had to admonish the fans because there can’t be any noise in tennis (insert sarcasm here).
The most memorable match of our recent trip to the Open occurred late at night. The match pitted John Isner and Steve Johnson of the U.S.A. vs. Feliciano López and Marc López of Spain.
Several fans chanted in Spanish for the Lópezes. Another fan held up a Spanish flag adorned with a bull.
Isner and Johnson won, but we probably won’t remember that. We’ll remember the passion of Johnson, whose facial expressions, behind-the-back shots and high lobs were worth the price of admission.
The same could be said of superstar Rafa Nadal, who has won 14 Grand Slams and 69 titles over his career but none in Key Biscayne.
Rafa is loved in Miami. “Vamos, Rafa!” echoed so much during his match you felt you were in Spain. Rafa’s intensity is next to none. We had always seen Nadal’s fist pumps on TV, but to see them in person up close was something we won’t forget.
Afterward, Nadal talked about Key Biscayne.
“Key Biscayne is a gorgeous place, and I hope it stays here; but if it has to move, the most important thing is that the tournament stays in Miami because Miami is a city well known all around the world, and it’s important we have our most important tournaments in important cities,” Nadal said.