The first ATP 1000 tournament of 2021 and the first WTA 1000 tournament in North America will be defined by three notable absences, yet is still shaping up as a must-see event on the tennis calendar.
The most glaring absence is the first 1000-level tournament in the U.S., which traditionally is the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. Often called the fifth major, it was postponed due to the pandemic (and has yet to be rescheduled)—which confers an extra dose of grandeur on the Miami Open, which stood its ground on the schedule and begins play this week.
“It is great for Miami to be showcased as the first 1000 of 2021, and we anticipate that people from all around the world will want to watch,” says James Blake, a former quarterfinalist there and, since 2018, the tournament director, in an email interview.
While Blake said last year’s cancellation was necessary and inevitable, the tide has turned.
“We have worked really hard to hold the event,” he says, giving credit to the Miami Dolphins, who play in Hard Rock Stadium, normally the centerpiece of the tournament, for showing that socially distanced and limited-capacity events could be safely held there.
“Naturally we will still see the impact of Covid, but the ability to pull this off is a great testament to the team [here] and the players. We felt it was important, in order to keep the sport of tennis relevant, for the event to take place this year.”
The second missing piece is the presence of a recent ATP Grand Slam champion, with the biggest names in men’s tennis staying home. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have each captured six of the last 17 Slams, Roger Federer added three to his trophy case in that time, while Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem each earned a US Open crown. All are skipping Miami to heal, spend time with family or to prepare for the clay-court season. Andy Murray—the 2016 Wimbledon champion—was to have been the most recent Slam winner in the field, but withdrew on Tuesday with a left groin injury. Marin Cilic, who won the US Open in 2014, is the only men’s major champion entered.
Some have criticized players for skipping the Masters-level event, but others have defended absences in general and specifically at Miami. Gilles Simon recently wrote on social media that he was skipping tournaments because of pandemic fatigue stemming from the restrictive travel and playing conditions. And David Goffin said in the press that without Indian Wells on the calendar, flying to the U.S. one tournament (not counting players who participated in the Mexican Open) seemed draining, especially for players battling injuries.
“I understand their decision,” Goffin was quoted in press. “A 19-hour flight for just one tournament? It’s complicated.”
That said, Goffin added, “I will play in Miami, it’s still the Masters 1000, and you have to be there.”
While the WTA suffered a similar level of withdrawals at a recent 500-level tournament in Doha—Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep, Sofia Kenin, Bianca Andreescu and Iga Swiatek all pulled out—nearly all the top stars are competing in Miami. The exception is the biggest name, eight-time champion Serena Williams, who hasn’t played since losing to Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open.
Top players like Andrey Rublev and Alexander Zverev don’t see what’s missing in Miami, but instead see what exists: a highly competitive tournament and a timely opening. Rublev, who in 2019 had to qualify for the Miami Open, struggled badly in three 1000-level tournaments last year.
“I have no points there,” he said,” so I can gain a lot of points just by winning a couple of matches, and if I go further it’s a really great chance.”
Shortly before besting fifth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Mexican Open finals, seventh-ranked Alexander Zverev predicted a tough fight for all the top players coming to Miami.
“The world No. 2 in Daniil Medvedev will be there and the other new guys are playing incredible tennis,” said Zverev, including Tsitsipas, and Rublev in that list.
Medvedev, who recently became the first person outside of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray to be ranked No. 2 since 2005, can strengthen his hold on that spot in Miami. Under pre-pandemic ranking rules, Medvedev would be close enough to catch Djokovic in Miami (which might have lured the Serb Stateside).
The third missing piece in Miami is the Stadium Court, typically built inside Hard Rock Stadium. Blake says they would have had to start building the main court in December or January, before there was certainty that the tournament would take place. The tournament will be held with the Grandstand as the main court, and Court One as the secondary court.
There will be no general admission to the Miami Open, only limited seating, and not every outer court match will be held with fans due to safety restrictions. Capacity at the tournament, which normally draws 300,000 fans over two weeks, will be limited to 800 to 1,000 fans per session.
But again, the players see the positive. Zverev says that the lack of the Stadium Court helps the underdogs.
“This will help the lower-ranked guys,” he says, “because the top-ranked guys get used to playing inside the big stadium and it has a different feeling, but now everything is even.”
Rublev doesn’t care what court he and his colleagues on, only that they get to play in front of fans.
“Having fans there is a lot in my opinion,” he said. “That makes it special. “I would rather have spectators in the Grandstand then no spectators on the main court. So I’m happy.”
Those in attendance are paying a premium for their tickets compared to previous years, though amenities will also be limited, with concessions replaced by food trucks with pre-packaged cutlery.
Players and their teams—as many as three guests or coaches, more than most other tournaments—are required to stay in two tournament-selected bubble hotels in Miami, traveling in specific shuttle buses. Approximately one-tenth the number of media credentials are being issued, and all interviews will be done virtually to enhance safety.
Viewers at home, however, will be getting more this year, with comprehensive coverage on Tennis Channel. For the first time in its history, the network is the exclusive home of the tournament, adding the championship weekend for a total of 125 hours of live coverage. That coverage will include some high profile showdowns in the early rounds.
Top seed Barty’s quarter of the draw features two former Grand Slam champions, Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber, who could each other in the third round. (The 2019 Miami Open champion could face the winner.) Halep could face two of the toughest youngsters on the tour, Coco Gauff and Swiatek, in the third and fourth rounds respectively. Swiatek routed Halep in last year’s French Open and extended her to three sets at this year’s Australian Open.
Osaka ostensibly has the tougher path of the women’s favorites, potentially facing two Top 10 players, Kiki Bertens and Karolina Pliskova, in the early going. But obstacles are a relative term for Osaka. She has been the most dominant player in the sport since play resumed, winning 21 of 22 matches since the pandemic, and capturing both Grand Slam tournaments she played in.
Of the top men’s seeds, Zverev has perhaps the most difficult draws, with potential early matchups against fast-rising Jannik Sinner, Nikoloz Basilashvili (who recently beat Federer, Taylor Fritz and Bautista Agut to win in Doha) and the dangerous Karen Khachanov. Tsitsipas could face veterans like Kevin Anderson and Kei Nishikori in the early rounds.