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Miami should aim for clay target

Paul McNamee

Paul McNamee

Written on Wednesday, 20 March 2013 08:01

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As the Sony Open Tennis got underway in Miami today, a thought occurred to me: what if this grand old tournament underwent a revolutionary change of surface, from hardcourt to clay?

It's almost 20 years since I began my tenure as Tournament Director of the Australian Open and, being quite upfront, there had been a concern in prior years that Miami (originally called the Lipton International) may challenge our status as one of the world's four big events. Of course, the Australian Open had Grand Slam status, and this was no longer under pressure, but Miami had been boasting arguably a better field, and Australia had been struggling to put daylight between itself and Miami in terms of prize money. After all, in 1985, Miami, with its 96 draw for both men and women, became the first event other than the majors to creep into two calendar weeks, so it had special status.

Miami was always player-friendly, being called the International Players' Championships at one time, and indeed was a massive event, befitting a city of its size and stature. I remember Chilean Marcelo Rios beating Andre Agassi in the final in 1998, with the victory propelling him to the world No.1 ranking, the first South American to do so. This had resonated not only in Chile, but right throughout Central and South America, given Rios had created history right on their doorstep.

As for the Australian Open, it was able to sustain a strong growth spurt, seeing off any perceived threats, and when I returned to Miami in 2005, I found it was still a most welcoming and big event. However, with the greatest of respect, I felt there was something missing. It was hard for me to put my finger on it, as it ticked all the boxes.

By this time, Indian Wells was also a two-week event, as well, so perhaps its slight lack of differentiation from Indian Wells was a factor. Then something jolted me. I was reading a match report in, I assume, the Miami Herald, and the journalist was critical of a Hispanic player's lack of fluency in English in his post-match interview. I thought "You've got to be kidding!" Miami is the Hispanic capital of the USA, so surely if there's an event in USA that's not Anglo-centric, isn't it this one?

A light bulb went off in my head, which is where the surface bit - and my original question - kicks in. It occurred to me "Miami needs to be on clay". This is perhaps an audacious statement, I know, but it is perhaps deserving of at least some discussion.

Miami in my view has a slight challenge of identity. It can never be as big as the US Open (on a similar hardcourt surface in New York) and, as I said, has been somewhat imitated by Indian Wells. I see Miami as the 'Pan American Championships', played in the city which is the gateway from South to North America.

Let's look at the calendar. Indian Wells follows on from the hard court season, with an early major at the Australian Open, with other high points mainly in the Middle East, before everyone reassembles again in Indian Wells. For clay-court players, they now have a mini season in South America, big news this year because Rafa Nadal, after seven months out, chose to make his return to competitive play there.

I see Indian Wells being the grand finale to the first hard court season, and Miami being the grand opening of the major clay court season, which culminates of course at the French Open at Roland Garros. I'm not saying that Rafa in the end would have played Miami this week, as his body obviously deserves a break, but I suspect a clay-court Miami would see his juices flow a little more, and have made his decision on the weekend to pull out just that little bit harder.

Miami on clay would not be out of character, as there are probably more clay courts in Florida than any other region in the world. It's green clay, or Har-Tru, a wonderful surface which was used at the US Open in the late 70's before Flushing Meadows was built and, again, is a point of difference to the red clay in Europe. Furthermore, clay court players, many of whom hail from South America as well as from Europe, have been yearning for another big event.

This would position Miami as a pre-eminent event embracing the entire American continent. It would inspire the Hispanic community in that great city, provide a point of difference to Indian Wells and the US Open and, this time, if a major is looking over its shoulder, it will not be the Australian Open.

Paul McNamee,
Former CEO and Tournament Director,
Australian Open

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