Though its unofficial title as the “Fifth Slam” is still debated, the Sony Open Tennis tournament is officially one of the season’s biggest stops on tour. From its early days as one of the first combined men’s and women’s tournaments, the annual event in Miami continues to make history as it enters its 28th year.
Butch Buchholz, a former player and executive director of the ATP, started the event in 1985 with the idea of having the biggest combined tennis tournament outside of the four Majors. Buchholz made a deal with both the ATP and WTA tours who both got a percentage of the ticket sales and worldwide television rights so long as Buchholz got to keep the rights to the event for 15 years.
Buchholz found a title sponsor in Lipton and thus the inaugural Lipton Championships was held at Laver’s International Tennis Resort in Delray Beach, Florida. The first-time tourney included men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles and a mixed doubles event. The singles champions were Tim Mayotte and Martina Navratilova.
With international television coverage and record attendance for any golf or tennis event held in Florida, the future looked bright for the event. But financial troubles, player skepticism and lack of a permanent home all threatened the nascent tournament and its existence for the next few years. A permanent base for the event was finally found in Miami’s Dade County where a new stadium was built in Crandon Park. The tournament has remained there ever since.
Television continued to play a big role in shaping the event when it entered the 1990′s. That year saw the introduction of a 10-day, 96 player field for both men and women, making it the largest entry field for an event outside of the Majors. Until 1990, the men’s singles event, like the Majors it was trying to emulate, had best three out of five matches throughout the tournament from start to finish. That changed in 1990 when best two of three matches were introduced for the men except for the final that remained best three out of five.
But in 1991, due to some resistance from players who didn’t like the best three out of five format and pressure from American television networks who wanted a shorter match to fit into their time schedule, the men’s final was changed to a best two out of three format.
The best three out of five set men’s final format was brought back in 1996. But in 2008, the best two out of three format for the finals became the norm as it is today.
In later years, the event had several name changes due to various title sponsors with Sony now the official title sponsor this year. Once ignored by some players, now Miami is one of the players’ favorite stops all season due to its mixture of tennis and entertainment throughout the two weeks.
Andre Agassi holds the record for the most men’s titles with six while Steffi Graf and Serena Williams are tied at five each for the record of most women’s titles.
Miami, both on-court and off-court, has been the site of some of the sport’s biggest headline making moments.
Marcelo Rios in 1998, became the first Latin American man to reach No. 1 in the world after he beat Agassi in the finals that year.
It was here that Federer Rafael Nadal began their storied rivalry in the third round of the 2004 event. Nadal, then only 17 years old, beat Federer in straight sets. Federer avenged that loss a year later by beating Nadal in the Miami finals in 2005.
2006 marked the debut of the Hawk-Eye line calling system for the first time ever at either an ATP or WTA event in Miami.
2007 saw a then No. 10 seed Serbian Djokovic win his first ever Miami title over Guillermo Canas.
Last year, American player Roddick beat the Swiss maestro Federer in a memorable early round match that would later be Roddick’s final appearance at the event. Agnieszka Radwanska and Djokovic would claim the respective singles titles.
Despite its high profile status on the tennis calendar, the Miami event has felt increasing competition to its unofficial title as the “Fifth Slam” from the Indian Wells event held two weeks earlier in California. With the 17 time Grand Slam champion Federer surprising some by announcing he would not compete in Miami this year, the event continues to battle the growing perception that it is not a rival to the Majors as it was during its early days.
But with Miami’s mix of celebrity, technology, music and serving as year-round base for many players including Andy Murray, the Sony Open is once again one of the must-attend stops for tennis fans this year.