Tim Mayotte, Lipton Open 1985

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Miami Open. Over the past three decades, the tournament has grown into one of the biggest tournaments of the season, but the beginnings were quite chaotic. Let’s have a look at the early days of the Miami Open (then called the Lipton Open):

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

The second meeting of the tennis world takes place each year on the site of a former garbage dump. The formal title of the tournament held where Floridians once dumped their trash is the Lipton International Players championship. To everyone in tennis it is just the Lipton.

The Lipton is the creation of Butch Buchholz, a former pro who, after his playing days, became executive director of the ATP. Buchholz had always dreamed of starting a tournament – modeled after the Grand Slams – that would be the players’ favorite tournament of the year.

“I felt, having been a player myself, that I could put together an event that the players would enjoy, want to take part in, and look forward to,”

said Buchholz, a friendly, outgoing man of fifty, whose younger brother Cliff also played professionally.

“Back in 1961, a year after I had turned pro, open tennis missed being passed in the ITF by five votes That meant, as it turned out, that we had to wait seven more years before we could play in the Grand Slams again. We used to sit on the buses, back in the sixties, and talk about the day we would run ou own tournament. I never forgot that.”

While he was with the ATP, Buchholz got the Men’s Tennis Council to agree to clear two weeks on the calendar if he could put together the sponsorship of the tournament. In all, it took him three years to put the pieces together. In order to hold the tournament in 1985, Buchholz had to have his site and sponsorship in place by March 1, 1984. He signed the final two contracts on February 29, 1984. “Thank God for leap year,” he said, laughing.

From the beginning, the tournament had excellent fields. It was sort of a mini-Grand Slam, with 128 player draws in singles, the men playing best-of-five sets But in spite of Philippe Chatrier‘s fears that Buchholz might attempt to usurp Australia’s role as the traditional fourth Grand Slam, Buchholz never saw it that way.

“I’d like us to be right below the Grand Slams,” he said. “We aren’t going to be a Grand Slam, and that’s not what we’re trying to do. The problem we have, the problem we’ve always had, is establishing a place to play this tournament, one that we’ll be in for the next fifty years. You can’t build tradition without that.”

In three years, the Lipton was played in three different Florida cities. Buchholz agreed to move it to Key Biscayne in 1987, because he decided that going to a place whee there was nothing that trying to be part of a resort. At the resorts where the tournament had been played – Delray Beach, Boca West – the residents had complained that the influx of players, fans, and tourists for two weeks a year was a hassle and a nuisance. Why not go, Buchholz reasoned, someplace where there were no residents to be hassled?

“I can remember driving across the bridge from Miami to Key Biscayne and looking at the dump that was there,” he said. “I thought, This is the place.”

Only it wasn’t that simple. While Buchholz was putting up a temporary stadium in 1987, environmentalists were objecting to his plans to build a permanent one. Where Buchholz saw a garbage dump, they saw park land. Where Buchholz saw the opportunity to build his tournament, they saw more unneeded development. And so, the battle was on.
Three years later, it was still on. On the first morning of the 1990 tournament, Buchholz sat at breakfast with an exasperated look on his face.

“It just won’t go away,” he said. “Right now, if I were a betting man I would say we won’t be here in two years, perhaps not even next year. We’re talking to other people very aggressively now about moving.”

Specifically, Buchholz was talking to Scottsdale, Arizona, about taking the tournament there. He really didn’t want to move, but felt he might have to.

“Until we get established somewhere and build a permanent stadium, we’re nothing more than just another tour stop with a lot of prize money. That isn’t what I want.”

The tournament had already undergone several changes amid all the site problems. The men had been complaining about playing best-of-five matches in the Florida heat. As a result, the draw for both men and women had been cut to ninety-six, meaning the top thirty-two players drew first-round byes. The only match in the tournament that would be best of five would be the final. All of that meant a lot less work for the men. Of course, as the work went down, the prize money had gone up.

The tournament had lost $726,000 in 1989, not bad considering all the site problems and growing pains any new event must experience. But with the economic recession becoming more and more of a factor in tennis, Buchholz was looking at more and more headaches. Fortunately, his title sponsor, Lipton, was locked into a thirty-year deal through the year 2018. […]

The Lipton has always had strong fields – even though it does not pay guarantees.

“I told the Lipton people right from the start that guarantees are a cancer,” Buchholz said. “We’re all getting to be like the baseball owners. We push salaries higher and higher and the players have less and less reason to perform. If we failed, we failed, but we weren’t going to pay guarantees.”

The players came anyway because of the unique nature of the tournament, because the prize money was high, and because of corporate tie-ins. The women got their big names through to the final: Chris Evert, for years a Lipton spokeswoman, played in the first five finals: Steffi Graf, an adidas client just as the Lipton was, won the tournament twice.

But strange things always seemed to happen to the men. Tim Mayotte was the first winner of the tournament, in 1985, his first tournament victory ever. His victim in the final? McEnroe? Connors? Lendl? Wilander? Edberg? Ty Scott Davis.

In 1986, Connors and Lendl met in one semifinal, but the match ended when Connors walked off the court after a raging argument with chair umpire Jeremy Shales. He was suspended from the tour for ten weeks. Lendl then lost the final to Miloslav Mecir in straight sets.

In 1989, Thomas Muster, a rising star, reached the final with a dramatic five-set victory over Yannick Noah. En route back to the hotel on the Key Biscayne causeway, Muster’s car was struck by a drunk driver. His knee was shattered. He needed major surgery and didn’t play tennis for almost six months. Needless to say, there was no men’s final.

Maybe the garbage dump was haunted. There were stories that it once was an Indian burial ground.