Miami Open preview, fan guide, schedule, players to watch

The Miami Open, known for three decades as the tropical carnival of the tennis tour, will have a more genteel ambiance this time around.

Instead of 300,000 fans packing the courts and dining plazas over the two-week event, only a limited number of fans with reserved seats at the three biggest outdoor courts will be admitted to the tournament grounds. Attendance will be capped at 800 to 1,000 per session, most courts will be fan-free, and there will be no center court inside Hard Rock Stadium as there was in 2019 (the event was canceled last year because of the pandemic).

Chic pop-up restaurants like Kiki on the River, Casa Tua Cucina, and Novecento will be replaced by cash-only food trucks with pre-packaged cutlery.

The familiar scene of Latin American fans in soccer jerseys waving flags and swarming players for autographs at the practice courts will be replaced by socially distanced fans in masks getting nowhere near the players.

All players will be staying at two hotels that have been taken over by the tournament. They will travel to and from the venue in dedicated shuttle buses. Everyone will be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival and be required to quarantine in their rooms until they get their results, expected to take 12 to 24 hours. Each player is permitted a maximum of three guests or coaches, which is more than most tournaments have allowed, and they cannot mingle with anyone outside the protective bubble.

Players will not even have face to face contact with reporters. All interviews are virtual. Media attendance has also been greatly reduced. In a normal year, the Miami Open draws 200 media members per day. This year, only 20 credentials per day are being issued.

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who won the inaugural event over Chris Evert in 1985, said the players will have an easier time adjusting to the COVID version of the Miami Open than the tournament staff and fans.

“It will be a shock maybe to the people that are there, the spectators, the ushers, but the players have been dealing with this different atmosphere for almost a year now,” said Navratilova, a commentator for Tennis Channel, which is broadcasting matches live from the start of the main draw on Tuesday to the final weekend April 3-4. Qualifying rounds begin Monday.

“It’s such a more spacious area than Key Biscayne was, so it will be really weird to have that much space and so few people,” Navratilova said. “At the same time, these days you want the space, so you can do the social distancing stuff.”

Tournament director James Blake, whose playing career spanned 13 years, is not worried about players adapting to the new environment because tennis players are conditioned to be flexible.

“Tennis players lend themselves to being adaptable,” Blake said. “Our schedules are not set like basketball players or baseball players where you have written in stone when you have a game, what time it will start, what time you warm up, what time the team buses go. With tennis, you’re changing flights on a daily basis. If you win, you’re still at the event. If you lose, you go home or somewhere else, maybe a different country, different time zone. You deal with rain delays. There’s so much more adaptability in general in tennis and this is another adaptation they’re getting used to.”

Blaked joked that players can’t be out at night clubs on South Beach this year, “and maybe that will be good for some of the players. They’ll be well-rested.”

At the Australian Open last month, the COVID protocols changed almost daily. Some days fans were allowed, other days they were not.

Although tennis is always a quieter sport than most, players are accustomed to getting energy from the crowd. Nowadays, especially on courts with no fans, that atmosphere is missing.

“The players aren’t expressive during a match,” Navratilova said. “When there’s a great point, they win an important point, you may get a fist pump, but not a `C’mon!’ You actually have more energy for the actual match physically speaking, but emotionally speaking you’re not getting anything back from the crowd. It’s a bit of a wash.

“The players are kind of used to it at this point in time. I think we can see the end of the road where hopefully there will be a vaccine passport and people will be able to come in if they’re vaccinated. We’ll see larger and larger crowds throughout the year. Right now, the players just have to bring their own energy.”

Despite the smaller crowds and restrictions, and the withdrawals of Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, Blake said fans and players should expect a world-class experience. Most of the top 70 players in the world are entered. On the women’s side, favorites include reigning Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka and top-ranked defending Miami Open champion Ash Barty. The men’s draw features No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, German star Alexander Zverev, and former No. 1 Andy Murray, coming back from hip surgery.

“I still think there will be energy because players are happy just to be playing in front of any fans,” Blake said. “They’re realizing how much they’re missing that interaction, that feedback from fans after big points, even if it is a smaller number. It will still be special for those fans. It will be a unique atmosphere, different from other years, but we have an amazing field and fans will get great tennis.”

2021 Miami Open

When: March 22-April 4.

Where: Hard Rock Stadium

Who: 72 of world’s top 77 men, 72 of top 77 women.

Defending Champions (from 2019, as 2020 event canceled due to pandemic): Ash Barty, Roger Federer

T.V.: All matches live on Tennis Channel, streamed on Tennis Channel Plus

Tickets: Information at miamiopen.com

COVID-19 spectator protocols:

• There is no general admission seating this year. All seats are reserved to properly maintain social distancing.

• 100% cashless points of sale to reduce contact; fans who don’t have credit cards can exchange cash for gift cards

• Individually packaged flatware

• Social distance markings to encourage and promote distancing guidelines in common areas

• Fans will be required to wear mask while on-site

• Hand Sanitizing stations placed throughout the site

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Men…

Daniil Medvedev: Moved up to No. 2 this week, first man not named Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray to reach No. 2 in 15 years. Coming off title at Open 13 tournament in France.

Stefanos Tsitsipas: Charismatic Greek player coming off good run in Acapulco.

Alexander Zverev: Has reached Grand Slam final and semifinal, always dangerous on hard courts.

Diego Schwartzman: Even with smaller crowds, the upstart Argentine will have big fan support.

Andrey Rublev: Eighth-ranked Russian could take advantage of the missing marquee players and make a deep run.

Women…

Naomi Osaka: Coming off Australian Open title, knocked out Serena Williams in the semis in straight sets, and is strongest on hard courts.

Ash Barty: Ranked No. 1, took most of last year off due to Australian COVID quarantine rules, won Miami Open in 2019.

Jennifer Brady: Surprise Australian Open finalist grew up training at Evert Academy in Boca Raton. First former college player (UCLA) to reach major final since 1983.

Sofia Kenin: Pembroke Pines resident is ranked No. 4, won 2020 Australian Open, was runner up at 2020 French Open, named 2020 WTA Player of the Year.

Miami Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman has covered 14 Olympics, six World Cups, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, NCAA Basketball Tournaments, NBA Playoffs, and has been the University of Miami basketball beat writer for 20 years. She was born in Frederick, Md., and grew up in Miami.