04 April 2014

A close look at the Sony Open - my 9 days in Miami

I grew up watching an amazing tournament referred to as "The Lipton." In 1990, as I started to follow professional tennis, the two players I was keeping a close eye on both prospered at tournament in a place called Key Biscayne, Florida: Monica Seles and Andre Agassi.

Throughout my tennis watching days, the Miami tourney is one I'd always hoped to visit (I tagged it as my fave non-slam event in a past blog post). And in 2014, 24 (gulp) years after I first followed the tourney, I went.

When this great tournament first began in 1985, it was called the Lipton International Players Championships, which it was known as until 2000. It was always referred to as the 'fifth slam' during my early tennis watching days. But in recent years, the Miami tournament has become increasingly overshadowed by the two-week tournament which precedes it: Indian Wells.

In all the years that Indian Wells has been receiving raves by media, tennis players and fans I always felt protective of Miami. I didn't want to hear that it was anything less than the amazing tournament I grew up watching. My faves loved Miami: Seles won it twice, Andre six times. And the Williams Sisters have won it a combined 10 times (Serena 7, Venus 3). Surely it must be amazing.

So I went to the Sony Open. I bought a full package, booked into one of the official hotels and my tennis loving mom and I arrived on the first Saturday of the tournament. We attended every day and night session through the finals. Nine days of tennis glory.

In addition to having attended all the Grand Slams (12 slams all up so far), I've also been to the Beijing Olympics, Fed Cup, Davis Cup, both ATP and WTA tourneys in Auckland, Charleston, Queens Club, Eastbourne, Cincinnati, Newport, Washington DC and the ATP World Tour Finals. So I know what I like and don't like about attending pro tourneys.

I did a comparison of the four Grand Slams after I attended all four in 2011. Click here to read my thoughts, and I want to rate the Sony Open based on the same criteria I rated the slams on.

Venue location and access:

I had heard (and seen player tweets) about the traffic in and out of the Sony Open, such as...

There's only one road in and out of Key Biscayne, and factor in it was spring break, plus it's Miami so the weather's great, and the site was tricky to get in and out. There's a lot of traffic to deal with getting in and out of Key Biscayne but anytime one leaves a big sporting event there's traffic to deal with so I didn't think it was that out of hand.

On our first day, we got to the site on the hotel shuttle in time for Serena's 1pm match against Caroline Garcia. This was a long day on the Stadium - all the matches went three sets and there was  a rain delay during Serena's match, so by the time Maria Sharapova's match was on it was dark. The tourney, for better or worse, decided to let in the night session ticket holders even tho the day session was still going on. Usually they empty out the stadium in between day and night sessions but this was a nice gesture that backfired later. Who was going to leave when Rafa Nadal was about to play Lleyton Hewitt? Not many, that's who. So the stadium and grounds were packed, meaning get out of the site was difficult. Door to door took us about 1.5 hours, including standing and waiting for car traffic as the police/security managed the vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Then waiting again for the shuttle bus. It was a long first day.

No matter how you arrive to the site, you'll have to walk a bit to get to the main gate. I can't imagine having to drive over in traffic then park and walk to the gate. Pass. The hotel shuttle was the best option, and here are some details:

Shuttle: The hotel shuttle to the site left every hour during the week, but on the half hour on the weekends. It returned at various times throughout the day but I was surprised to learn that once the night session started (usually 7.30pm), the only option was the bus that left an hour after the last match finished. So that meant you couldn't, for instance, watch the first night session match and then leave. So that wasn't ideal, but when I did some asking I found out they will, on demand, run some people back but I didn't like the uncertainly of that response. The hotel shuttle costs $40 per person for a 4-day pass, or $15 each day. As we were staying in a hotel on the route (the Hyatt Regency) there was a table with the daily program and schedules with someone selling the shuttle passes, so that was handy. But once we got to the site, it was a bit of a walk to the gate - as I was traveling with my mother who's had many knee and hip surgeries it was too far. I didn't see how anyone with a cane or wheelchair actually got into the site.

Handicap access:  I talked to Guest Services three times to find a way to make life easier for my mom. It seemed no one really knew how to answer the question. I was told there was a special credential, asked to call Transportation to find out about a golf cart, etc. In the end, I wasn't satisfied with the answers I was getting but luckily I'd been speaking with a tourney volunteer who actually brought up the issue at one of her meetings and that helped us a lot. We were given a special credential which allowed us to take the credentialled bus to and from the site (we could get the shuttle inside the grounds, where the players came in and out). This really saved us, especially mom. So we shared our ride to the site with chair umpires such as Mohamed Lahyani, Marija Cicak  and Kader Nouni as well as media (nice chatting with you @crosscourt1). It was a lifesaver for us, and we were most grateful. But seriously, this is Florida - how does this tourney not cater better for the elder generation of tennis fans? Another couple was on the bus with us on men's final day and they had also been given the special credential. It should be easier.

Ticketing process:
No issues here - we bought our package in mid-January. After considering buying multiple day and night sessions to start us out and then buying other as the tournament progressed I decided to just buy the whole thing. Even tho we missed the first Monday to Friday it was still a better value to buy them all. I realize this isn't an option for everyone, but we did sell a few sessions of tickets on Stubhub and earned back about 10% of our total package costs so that was nice. I think the ticket prices were pretty affordable, but as I have been to many tournaments I will always pay to see live tennis!

Food:
The rules for entrance say you are not allowed to bring in food. Well, we brought in snacks (fruit, pretzels, bagels, etc) and had no issues. I was told they just don't want you to bring in big items so we were good. But in our nine days we tried the majority of the food stalls, frequented the Starbucks nearly daily and overall were pleased with the price, quality and variety of foods. We ate at the Latin Cafe, had crepes, pizza, Mexican, burgers and far too many sandwiches from Starbucks. There was an amazing salad place where you could add dozens of toppings and that was popular and very well priced. Drink options - there were frozen lemonades (and vodka somehow got into mine a few times),   lots of cocktails bars, etc. Usually when I attend a tourney I try to be frugal and bring in food but we more or less ate lunch and dinner on site every day. I estimate it cost us $25 a day per person - most meals for two plus a drink or two was about $20-25. I'm sure we could have done cheaper but we we didn't make it a priority this time.

Crowd:

I....struggled a bit with the crowd. They were loud, sometimes obnoxious (case in point the loser who kept yelling out 'do that again' after Rafa missed first serves in the final) and very much into drinking. I knew I was in Miami but was not at all prepared to be nearly completely surrounded by Spanish speakers. But the crowd seemed to really enjoy tennis and were pretty supportive of doubles and the late nights of tennis. 

One of the main issues I had was that the stand control staff (not volunteers - I asked) was awful about only letting the crowd in during changeovers. They usually let them in after every game - terrible! I asked a staff member and he said they were getting mixed signals about when to do it, but it never got better. People were constantly standing in front of me while play began again - so did not enjoy this. When I asked staff about it, I was told the crowd was being so belligerent and disrespectful that it was just the easiest way to handle it. 



In terms of the size of the crowd and how crowded the tournament was, it was pretty manageable for a joint event. The queues for bathrooms, food stalls and entrance were all decent so it didn't seem like a madhouse like other tournaments can feel like - I think there's a nice amount of space for people to move around in. And loved the amount of outdoor seatings areas - much appreciated.

So what does Indian Wells do better than Miami? I'm not sure, as I've never been (will do so after the Williams Sisters retire perhaps). But compared with other tournaments I've been to, Miami is still a wonderful experience. I thought the stadium was in decent shape - the seats were much more comfortable than others I've sat in for 10-12 hours of tennis per day (at least in the 300 section where we were). And I didn't think anything looked particularly out of date - though I learned today from Ben on the No Challenges Remaining podcast that the stadium looked in better shape than it did a few years ago. I know the site is trying to upgrade and I hope that eventually gets done as it's a well supported event in a great part of the country. It would be a shame to lose it.

A few tennis-related fan ramblings:
Serena:
I am a massive Serena Williams fan, and given she'd won this tournament 6 times before I really wanted to see her play her 'home' tourney at least once before she retires (SOB!). I've seen Serena play at three of the grand slams (only the French Open has eluded me), the Olympics (Beijing), Eastbourne, Charleston, Cincinnati and now Miami. I was elated to watch her play five matches and see her win the final, her 59th title.

Seeing a "Serena comeback" in person was also fantastic - Li Na was not playing a bad final but Serena just upped her level and you could feel her intensity increase. Amazing. Also, my first Serena/Maria match, and even though Serena's commanding 14-2 record over Maria is hard to ignore, there's something amazing about watching the WTA's top two superstars play each other. 

Semifinal-less Friday:
Did that really happen? How did this happen? Okay, so Kei is often-injured so that wasn't a huge surprise though it was disappointing. But, when I first hear Tomas Berdych pulled out of his match with Rafa I was shocked. Shocked! What - no semifinals at all? What a disappointment. As we bought a full package we couldn't get any replacement tickets for next year and I heard a lot of people complaining about the lack of refunds. Tough spot for a tournament, and just disappointing for everyone.

Practices:
Being able to see player practices is a great aspect of attending tennis tournament, and it was pretty easy to see them in Miami. The courts where Rafa, Serena and Novak practiced at (assume Fed too) had ample seating to watch and get pics. New this year was a published practice schedule on the tourney website - very useful though of course it could always change. 

A few practice pics:








What did I miss? If you want more info about attending the Sony Open just ask, or tweet me on Twitter at @stephintheus.


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