Serena Williams in a press conference after defeating Flavia Pennetta. (photo by Kristen Spillane).
Twenty-eight years ago, the dream of a major professional tennis tournament in Miami was born. From Delray Beach to Boca Raton, the Miami Masters tournament had called many locations home before finally settling at the Tennis Center at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne. Dubbed the “fifth Grand Slam,” the tournament attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors and fans each year to the tropical paradise just beyond the Miami skyline.
The Sony Open Tennis tournament is considered one of the most prestigious titles in professional tennis and has been awarded “Tournament of the Year” by the ATP in nine of the last 11 years and claimed the title in 2004 as declared by the WTA.
Since 1985, attendance has more than doubled from almost 126 thousand to over 300 thousand fans.
2013 marks an exciting year for the Sony Open and for the Women’s Tennis Association as the WTA celebrates its fortieth anniversary. Since its establishment in 1973 by Billie Jean King, the WTA has provided an international stage for some of the most famous names in sports including Steffi Graf, Venus and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
To commemorate the milestone, the WTA has launched a year-long, multi-platform campaign, 40 LOVE, showcasing the biggest names in women’s tennis and celebrating history through TV, print and digital media.
The impact that both the Sony Open and the WTA have had on South Florida’s tennis culture, especially that of young women, is increasingly impressive.
“Women tennis players like Serena and Venus Williams have played a vital part in promoting the sport. There are so many young girls playing tennis around the country, in the state of Florida, and they have a lot to do with that,” said University of Miami men’s tennis coach Mario Rincon.
“The Sony Open is always fun to watch. It is highly competitive, there are always good matches and the women provide a great example for young girls to pattern their games after.”
From the Junior Orange Bowl held annually in Coral Gables to local tennis leagues and clinics, South Florida youth play witness and also an active part in the development of the sport in both competitive and recreational realms.
Through the Sony Open, young tennis players from the Miami area have the opportunity to get up-close and personal with their role models.
“The way the professionals react on the court- if they keep fighting, or they just give up, or have a bad attitude – that shows to us, and they’re role models to us, so if they behave bad, we think probably its okay to react bad,” said Kristine Garcia, 17, a Miami Beach tennis player at Immaculata La Salle High School.
For some, the tournament has had a major impact on their young tennis careers.
“I remember coming here since it was the NASDAQ and watching Venus and Serena play and it was a big influence for me and my sister, we both play tennis together. It’s cool seeing how it really is to be on the court with them, and seeing how much they react, and you’d be surprised, they’re a lot more relaxed than you think, it takes a lot for them to get really frustrated to say something,” said Coral Reef High School tennis player Valeria Velasco, 15, of Homestead.
The tournament allows local Miamians like Rincon to share a unique experience with their own children and budding tennis players.
“My little girls love to watch the professional women players compete. Hopefully this week we will have an opportunity to get out there and watch them. I got a chance to go to the Open a couple nights ago to watch some women’s matches and they were incredible,” said Rincon, “It’s just a good feeling to see tennis become so popular amongst girls growing up in the United States.”
Top-ranked player in the world, Serena Williams, a Palm Beach Gardens native, feels the spotlight as a role model and icon in the sporting community, especially among young female athletes.
“I embrace it. I feel good. I feel like I play tennis because I have a lot of fun. And, you know, like I was saying, it’s such a great sport. You can play it professionally, on a college level, or recreationally. It’s a great way to stay fit,” said Williams, “So it’s a great sport, and I feel that a lot of girls can definitely be involved and feel good about themselves by playing any sport, really, but namely tennis. “
At the conclusion of her match on Thursday, a fan told Williams she was a hero.
“It was so inspirational. I felt amazing at that point. … I had a moment where I had to stop and think to myself that that is the ultimate compliment someone could give. I just never ‑‑ when I was growing up, I never dreamt of being ‑‑ someone saying that to me,” said Williams.
“I hope I can encourage whoever that was and who’s ever out there that feels that way, because that’s what I’m here to do.”
From the top player in the world to the young girl taking her first swing, the Sony Open and the Women’s Tennis Association are setting the bar high for Florida’s future tennis stars of tomorrow.
words and photo_kristen spillane.