A deluge, sulking stars, and…a terrible final between two opponents who didn’t even feature among the top 25. The first edition of the Florida Masters 1000, which nowadays is almost considered like a fifth Grand Slam along with its cousin, the BNP Paribas Indian Wells Open, had been an absolute disaster at Delray Beach.
The tournament was born in February 1985, a few months before the release of the first Back to the Future film…Thinking of which, what would the creator of the tournament, Butch Buchholz, would have thought if Marty McFly had offered him a ride in the DeLorean to go to October 2015 ? Arriving in the 2000s, Buchholz would have probably enjoyed watching his baby having become such an unmissable event. A fifth Grand Slam, which finally settled down after having moved places four times in its first five editions, taking place in March since 1988, and which has been won by almost only Grand Slam winners. Except in four cases, including the first edition, won by Tim Mayotte, who, in the end, is the less famous winner of them all. A symbol of a first edition which was a disaster…from the start to the finish.
« After having been a player myself, I wanted to create an event which the players would enjoy going to, and would even be looking forward to ». On February, 29th, 1984, Buch Buchholz, an ex-semi-finalist at Forrest Hills, who became a member of the ATP’s executive committee, narrowly received the guarantees and the fundings to realize his project of setting up a big tournament under the Florida sun : the brand Lipton accepted to give 1,5 million dollars over five years. « Thankfully, it was leap year, as we needed everything settled for March, 1st ! ». The tournament received an incredible privilege for a new competition, as the « Lipton International Players Championships » was organized with the format of a Grand Slam tournament (128 players, and 3 winning sets starting from the quarter-finals), and managed to get two full weeks in the calendar (from February 4th, to February 18th), including an interesting cover from the channel ABC…without forgetting the 1,8 million dollars of prize money, and the little golf carts to move the players around on the enormous 18 courts complex. But…
Gusts and drunk fan
However, starting the year by earning as many dollars as possible under the palm trees wasn’t the best of ideas, according the Arthur Ashe, the star pundit of ABC for the tournament. « In a nice setting like this, you don’t have the same pressure as in the other big tournaments…players feel a little bit like they’re on holidays. » A nice setting ? « Toilets are in caravans, the stands are risers, and the public areas, notably the food courts, are too small for the crowd », said Tennis Magazine’s correspondant. That might be the reason why Jimmy Connors (world number 3) didn’t even want to think about going there. Andres Gomez (number 5) and Pat Cash (world number 8) also chose not to go. But the most difficult withdrawal to deal with was John McEnroe’s, then the world number 1, who was pretty brutal when it came to explaining his decision : « It’s stupid to organize this event in the middle of the indoor season and moreover, there’s way too much wind at this time of the year in Florida ! » Boom !
John McEnroe didn’t even know how right he was. Until the middle of the second week, the weather was absolutely awful : the gusts forced the organizers to cancel the two night sessions. « I’ve never played in such bad conditions », said the American Chris Evert. « It looked like the end of the world. The tents for the press, the officials or the ball boys were blown away by the wind. You could see the seals cracking, and the lights swinging from left to right », we could read in the French daily L’Equipe. There weren’t many journalists around in the first rounds of the tournament. Tim Mayotte, on his side, remembers having started his tournament « after midnight, in the wind, and in front of a tiny crowd, including a very drunk fan. » In these conditions, the stars were falling one after another, like on a battlefield. Only 7 of the top 16 seeds went through the third round. For Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander, the tournament ended at the fourth round. « In this very strong wind, good players can’t release their shots well », analyzed Yannick Noah, the only star, along with Vitas Gerulaitis and Stefan Edberg to hold on until the quarter finals ! A complete fiasco. Unless…
« Look, that’s my son ! »
On Sunday, February 18th, 1985, the final, although 100% American, is almost laughable : Scott Davis (world number 27) against Tim Mayotte (world number 45). For the first time in tennis history, two unseeded players are facing each other in a tournament which started with 128 players…But under a calm sky this time, and in front of an actual crowd. Tim Mayotte managed to achieve a nice « remontada » against his fellow countryman (4/6 4/6 6/3 6/2 6/4). But he mainly found out during the post-match ceremony that both his parents were in the stadium. « They came with their car from Bradenton. Usually, they never watched me as they were too nervous ! My father even left the stadium when I was losing two sets to none, to go to watch the match in a bar, pretty close from the stadium. After a few drinks, he started to tell everyone : ‘Look, that’s my son !’. » This beautiful happy ending saved this 1985 editions from being a complete fiasco. But it was only the start of four cursed years. In 1986, while the tournament had moved to Boca West, Jimmy Connors evicted himself during the fifth set of his semi-final against Ivan Lendl…The curse then carried on in Key Biscayne, at least for the first three years, the ones when the tournament had settled on an ancient indian graveyard, and when all the matches were played out of three winning sets : in 1989, Thomas Muster had to withdraw from the final after seeing his leg crushed by a reckless driver. Buchholz could then apply for the title of the unluckiest tournament director of all times. But just like the tournament, the Austrian came back from his accident to be an even better player than he was. Two of the most amazing miracles in the history of modern tennis.