By Steve Keating
MIAMI (Reuters) – As a player James Blake endured many a rain delay but on Tuesday the Miami Open tournament director was forced to sit through a painful day-long drizzle, delaying what was expected to be a record-smashing move from Crandon Park to Hard Rock Stadium.
Even for a man once ranked in the world’s top five, these are nervy days for American Blake, now 39, as he watches over the transformation of one of tennis’s biggest events.
Moving the Miami Open from upscale Key Biscayne’s leafy Crandon Park, with its swaying palms and ocean breezes, to the baked pavement of Hard Rock Stadium, home of the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins and better suited to tailgating than tennis, was a risky but necessary one.
After 33 years the tournament had outgrown the cramped quarters of Crandon Park and, unable to secure the necessary approvals to renovate and expand, was in danger of leaving Miami until Dolphins’ billionaire owner Stephen Ross stepped up with a bold solution – plunk a court in the middle of his stadium.
When Blake retired from competitive tennis in 2013, like many elite level athletes who spend most of their young lives criss-crossing the globe fuelled by the adrenalin rush of competition earning as much as they might need in a lifetime (in Blake’s case close to $8 million), the future seemed unclear.
What comes next after the thrill of battling Roger Federer or Rafa Nadal or leading the United States to a Davis Cup title?
After a couple of years at Harvard there was the possibility of diving into the business and banking world.
Articulate and attentive with a world view, there was speculation that politics or activism might be the career path for the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year award winner.
But talk to Blake and it is not long before the word “challenge” enters the conversation.
The competitiveness that marked his athletic career has not faded and the position of Miami Open tournament director and managing the move from Crandon Park to Hard Rock Stadium provided him with the challenge he needed.
“Ticket sales being up 25 percent, that shows us there is great trust in us doing a good job,” Blake told Reuters as he anticipated presiding over a record attendance at the event.
“That’s something I am proud of and it puts a little more pressure on us but that is one of the few things I have missed about being on Tour — that you are doing something that makes a difference when you have that pressure.”
While the suburban Miami Garden area of the city lacks the charm of Key Biscayne, the Hard Rock Stadium complex has plenty of what Crandon Park did not have — space that will provide the canvas for an ambitious transformation.
Along with a 14,000-seat temporary show court inside Hard Rock, which has undergone major renovations itself ahead of hosting next February’s Super Bowl, 12 permanent match courts and 18 temporary practice courts have been constructed outside.
Blake acknowledges the word “temporary” often brings a shabby setup to mind but is certain that fans and players will find everything about the Hard Rock first class.
“I think most people associate temporary with throwing up a couple of tent poles and slapping down a few lines and calling it a tennis court but that is definitely not going to be the case,” said Blake. “I think anyone who knows Stephen Ross will know he wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t really first class.
“It is a bold idea but I think it is one that is going to pay dividends. We’re keeping it (the tournament) in Miami.
“I wasn’t involved in those discussions (about moving the tournament) but from all the rumours I heard it seemed pretty close, it was not a sure thing it was going to stay in Miami.”
Players have grumbled about the move but fans have indicated they are prepared to give it a chance with ticket sales jumping.
The tournament’s two major sponsors, Lacoste and Itau, showed their confidence by renewing deals without seeing how the new-look tournament would work.
The second half of what is known as the Sunshine Double, the Miami Open has lived in the shadow of Indian Wells, which behind the considerable investment of billionaire Larry Ellison has grown into the biggest tournament outside the four Grand Slams.
That mantle once belonged to Miami which will now try to reclaim some of that lost stature with the move to Hard Rock.
“As a lot of people know, new events that first year can be difficult because you don’t have that familiarity,” said Blake. “But we are going to do everything we can to make sure we knock it out of the park and keep it in Miami.”
(Editing by Ken Ferris)