Self-proclaimed "fifth Grand Slam" in the mid 1980s, the Miami tournament, popularized under the name of Key Biscayne, occupies a special place among the Masters 1000 listings, a place that the tournament owes to a few memorable stories. Here are ten of them, recalling the storm of the century, the first charges of an edgy young bull, an innocent man on death row and an Austrian lumberjack, victim of Miami vices.
1- A dirty April 1st
April 1st 1989. A very bad joke for Thomas Muster. The 22 year old Austrian was on the rise: recent semi-finalist at the Australian Open, he had just qualified for the final in Key Biscayne, where Ivan Lendl was waiting for him. But in the evening after his victory over Yannick Noah, his car was hit by a drunk driver. The three passengers in the vehicle were taken to hospital. All of them would survive, but the Austrian was seriously injured and his left knee was crushed. Beyond the spectacular photo showing him hitting forehands tied to a bench - a shot he orchestrated himself to show his fighting spirit - it took Muster a long time to regain the level he was on the verge of reaching on hard surfaces. And he finally got his revenge by becoming the Musterminator of clay courts (40 of his 44 titles!).
2- Into the storm
Wind gusting over 70 mph, torrential rains, uprooted trees and flying tarps in the Crandon Park arena, stands upturned and, last but not least, the Centre court surface cracked in places and unplayable... The "storm of century" that struck from Cuba to Quebec in March 1993 seriously disrupted the tournament on the Key Biscayne peninsula. The event started two days late, and would be regularly disrupted by adverse weather for the following eight days. All the art of Pete Sampras was required to glide between storms... and start his inexorable rise to the number one spot.
3- Serena “Eye of the Tiger” Williams
A champion never gives up. Even more so when it's Serena Williams, and she's playing against the woman who probably was the biggest rival of her career: Justine Henin. Their final in 2007 was about to go out with a whimper when Hénin, World No. 1, was leading 6/0 5-4 40-15 on her service against the Australian Open champion. But a furious smash and a devastating acceleration of forehand later the American made it to deuce. More proactive, more aggressive, the momentum had switched. To rapturous applause from a patriotic crowd, Serena finally won the match (0/6 7/5 6/3). And said "Definitely, I'm not a person who tends to feel fear. When I feel bad, a part of me always says, 'Okay, it's not over, I can do better.' I think all champions have that." Hénin wouldn’t say any different, as she would take a brilliant revenge in the quarter-final of each of the three following Grand Slam tournaments. 2007 saw the peak of the rivalry between the two most outstanding female champions of the decade.
4- “Open the eye you have left!”
In 1988, Jimmy Connors was 35, but he’d lost none of his fire. In the semi-finals, at the stage where the matches were played that year as a best of five sets, he even roared loud enough to attract the ATP supervisor Alan Mills to the umpire’s chair. At 5-3 in the second set, Connors accused the latter, a certain Richard Kaufman, of having granted his opponent Miloslav Mecir an ace outside the limits of the service box according to him "Open the eye you still have!" He roared towards the referee, referring to other contested decisions since the beginning of the game. The official sent him a warning and then a penalty point. Connors went mad, kicked his chair and shared all the evil he thought of the referee via the atmosphere microphone of the channel ESPN. The match eventually resumed, in a tense atmosphere. And as it often happens in such circumstances, Connors drew on his proverbial fighting spirit to prevail (6/3 3/6 7/5 6/1).
5- Clay court player, you’re nothing
Thomas Muster against Sergi Bruguera. The logical final at Roland Garros between two 1990s clay court masters? No, the final of the third most important meeting of the year on outdoor hard courts in Key Biscayne. In 1997, the two former winners of the "French" claim to extend their skills beyond their usual courts. Evil takes them: trying too hard to diversify, they would never win anywhere anymore. For Muster, this last title obtained at the expense of Bruguera sounds like a sweet revenge on Fate after his accident in 1989. As for the Spaniard, soon reduced to the status of relic of the past by Gustavo Kuerten in Paris, he consoled himself after his victorious semi-final against Pete Sampras (5/7 7/6 6/4) made him a member, alongside Michael Stich and Richard Krajicek, of the small circle of his contemporaries to have a positive win-loss record against the dominant player of the 90s (3-2).
6- Malisse and death row
"I paid for my bad reputation. It's like someone was sent to Death Row when he didn’t do anything." Miami 2005. Known for his strong character, Xavier Malisse proved that, no, the time of the spiteful outbursts hadn’t gone with the change of millennium. Annoyed after a linesman had already called two foot-faults against him in the second round against David Ferrer, the Flemish Floridian - he was based not far away in Bradenton - mumbled something very poetic in his direction. The young woman and the referee, Cedric Mourier, heard an insult, whereas Malisse said in his defence that "this is a misunderstanding: I said something, and she understood other words that sound similar." Disqualified, Malisse lost control. He screamed in the face of the ATP supervisor, lay down on the court hands on his face, broke his racquet, and kicked the fence bordering the court... He was punished with the loss of his prize money, about £7000. A very expensive insult or “misunderstanding”.
7- Kournikova, (good) tennis player
Anna Kournikova is far from having fulfilled all her promise on a tennis court. In singles especially, her track record remained notably free of any trophy. The original Russian doll has however some significant feats to her name, such as reaching the final of Key Biscayne in 1998, at only 16 years old. After a semi-final at Wimbledon eight months earlier, it was her first WTA final. Her path to final was impressive: Monica Seles (World No. 4), Conchita Martinez (No. 9), Lindsay Davenport (No. 2) and Arantxa Sanchez (No. 8) dispatched in a row. Only Venus Williams managed to stop her, taking three sets in the final (2/6 6/4 6/1). She would never be so close to winning a title on the circuit, thereby lending, despite her best efforts, her name to a poker hand: Ace of Hearts and King of Diamonds with the letters A and K, her initials. A hand described as "very pretty but very rarely winning.”
8- Ivanisevic put to rest the show made in USA
"I fully understood that everyone dreamed of a Sampras against Agassi final. TVs, fans, organizers... I just smiled and, ok, good luck guys." Goran Ivanisevic was very pleased with himself after taking out Pete Sampras in the semi-finals of Key Biscayne in 1996. What he didn't expect is that, during the following night, he was to get a stiff neck in his sleep. Panic in Miami: Andre Agassi agreed for the final to be postponed for one hour so that the Croatian could be treated with injections in his bottom. Without success. On the court, "Aceman" saw the points fly by, unable to hit the ball correctly. A 3-0 40-0 in favour of Agassi, he left. TV channels, fans and organizers were delighted: to the end, Ivanisevic disrupted the mechanics of the American show.
9- Doctor Youzhny and Mister Mikhaïl
After seeing him brutally open his skull on the court in 2008, it's difficult to imagine that Mikhail Youzhny is both a great athlete and an intellectual, holder of a Ph.D. in philosophy. Although when you know that his thesis was based on attitudes and behaviours in tennis, he made his own case-study... and Nicolas Almagro an excellent control: completely destabilized by the mutilation of Russian, the Spanish player - who was two points away from winning the match on his service - finally lost the game. The Art of War by Mikhail Youzhny.
10- Baby face killer
Late winter, 2004. Roger Federer was firmly established as world number one, claiming the year-ending Masters, Australian Open and Indian Wells. In Miami, however, he bowed out in the third round against a little-known, 17-year-old Spaniard. The result was clear (6/3 6/3), but fatigue and a bad cold were invoked to explain what was, after all, only the second defeat of the year for the Swiss. He himself didn't really know what to think: "It's always difficult to play against someone for the first time. He plays aggressively with a lot of topspin. He's still young. We'll see where he will be in two years, but in any case his early career is remarkable." Two years? Not even. Just over a year later, Rafael Nadal would start to make Federer his favourite bunny at Roland Garros.
By Guillaume Willecoq