Everything you need to know as Miami Open tennis tournament gets under way Sunday

David Santiago/dsantiago@miamiherald.com

When Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz arrived at the Miami Open last March, he was known to tennis aficionados as the fearless kid with the blistering groundstrokes and audacious drop shot. But he was still a relative unknown to the casual fan.

By the time he left, he had become the youngest Miami Open champion in history, won the hearts of South Florida’s Hispanic tennis community and received a congratulatory call from Felipe VI King of Spain.

Alcaraz was anointed “The Next Rafa” and went on to win the U.S. Open at age 19, becoming the youngest world No. 1 in history.

South Florida fans are expected to turn out to Hard Rock Stadium in big numbers again this week as Alcaraz aims to defend his title. A men’s final record crowd of 21,393 chanted “Vamos, Al-ca-raz!” and “Ole, Ole!” throughout his Miami Open final win last year over Norwegian Casper Ruud.

“I love Miami,” Alcaraz said at the time. “I felt like I was playing at home from the first minute of the tournament.”

Alcaraz will be one of the event’s main attractions, as the field is missing retired Roger Federer and Serena Williams, injured Rafael Nadal, and top-ranked Novak Djokovic, who was barred from entering the country due to U.S. COVID vaccination border restrictions.

Djokovic, a five-time Miami Open champion, remains unvaccinated and until mid-May, foreign travelers who have not been vaccinated are not allowed to fly into the United States.

Miami Open tournament director James Blake filed a petition for an exemption, but it was denied.

“Obviously, we’re one of the premier tournaments in the world, we’d like to have the best players that can play,” Blake said Friday on Tennis Channel. “We did all that we could. We tried to talk to the government, but that’s out of our hands.

“Same result that he had in Indian Wells, where I know [fellow tournament director] Tommy Haas did as much as he could. “We’d love to have him, and he’s our greatest champion. Unfortunately, that’s way above my pay grade.”

Djokovic won Miami five times between 2011 and 2016, but since then has never advanced beyond the fourth round. He withdrew from the event in 2017; it wasn’t held in 2020, due to the pandemic, and he hasn’t been allowed to play the tournament each of the past three years due to his unvaccinated status.

Even without Djokovic and Nadal, the Miami Open field is loaded with top players. In addition to Alcaraz, the men’s field includes No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 4 Ruud, No. 5 Taylor Fritz and No. 6 Daniil Medvedev, who is riding a 19-match win streak and won three titles in the span of three weeks in Rotterdam, Doha and Dubai.

On the women’s side, top players include No. 1 Iga Swiatek, No .2 Aryna Sabalenka, No. 3 Jessica Pegula, No. 4 Ons Jabeur, No. 5 Caroline Garcia and No. 6 Coco Gauff.

Swiatek, the defending French Open and U.S. Open champion, is coming off a 6-2, 6-2 loss to reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina on Friday in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California.

Swiatek revealed after the match that she has been dealing with a nagging rib injury and “not feeling 100 percent physically.”

Asked if she still planned to play the Miami Open, she said: “For now, I’m preparing to play, but we’ll see what the next days are going to tell us. I don’t know yet.”

Rybakina is having a breakout year and will be a player to watch at the Miami Open. Her win over Swiatek was her second in a few months, as she knocked the top-ranked Pole out of the Australian Open in the fourth round. She was scheduled to play Sabalenka in the Indian Wells final on Sunday, a rematch of the Australian Open final, which Sabalenka won.

Pegula has emerged as one of the best players in the world the past two seasons as a five-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist. The 29-year-old Buffalo native is the daughter of Buffalo Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula. She reached the semifinal of the 2022 Miami Open before losing to eventual champion Swiatek. She has lived and trained in Boca Raton since 2009.

On the men’s side, Alcaraz was poised to reclaim the world No. 1 ranking with a victory over Daniil Medvedev in the Indian Wells final on Sunday night. If he beats Medvedev, Alcaraz would be the youngest man to win both legs of the “Sunshine Double” (Indian Wells, Miami Open).

Alcaraz edged Jannik Sinner 7-6 (7-4), 6-3 in the semifinals, and saved a set point in the opening set. Alcaraz was looking forward to the final against Medvedev, who has been on a phenomenal run of late.

“I really want to play against the best player in the world,” Alcaraz said. “I always say if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best, and I would say that Daniil is the best player right now. Amazing win streak.”

Another story line to watch at the Miami Open is the rise of Americans Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe. Fritz, the 2022 Indian Wells champion, climbed to No. 5 in the world two weeks ago, the highest ranking for an American male since Andy Roddick in September 2009. Tiafoe is ranked No. 16.

They are among 10 American men in the Top 50. Fritz said he hoped his rise to No. 5 had given hope to other Americans.

Fritz lost to Sinner in the Indian Wells quarterfinals last Thursday and Tiafoe reached the semi, before being eliminated by Medvedev, 7-5, 7-6 (7-4). Tiafoe had not dropped a set in his run to the semis.

“The more and more you put yourself in positions like these, the more and more you have chances to win these events and cross the line, right?” Tiafoe said. “To get to that top echelon of the game, you need to win tournaments like these. Being in semis is great. I’m very happy to be here. It’s just semifinals. There’s more to do. It only gets tougher. Beating quality guys only gets tougher.

“Take it for what is. I’m happy for every milestone, humbled, and very, you know, very thankful for the opportunity, but gotta keep the head down and keep going.”


When: Through April 2 (main draw begins March 21).

Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens.

Defending Champions: Singles — Carlos Alcaraz, Iga Swiatek. Doubles — Hubert Hurkacz/John Isner, Laura Siegemund/Vera Zvonareva.

Players to Watch: No. 2 Carlos Alcaraz, No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 4 Casper Ruud, No. 5 Taylor Fritz, and No. 6 Daniil Medvedev. On the women’s side, No. 1 Iga Swiatek, No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, No. 3 Jessica Pegula, No.4 Ons Jabeur, No. 5 Caroline Garcia, No. 6 Coco Gauff. Previous winners in the field include Sloane Stephens (2018) and Victoria Azarenka (2016, 2011, 2009).

Missing: Rafael Nadal (injured), Novak Djokovic (unable to enter country due to COVID vaccination border rules), Roger Federer (retired), Serena Williams (retired).

Prize money: Singles winners $1.26 million. Singles runners-up $662,360. Doubles winners — $436,730. Doubles runners up - $231,660.

Surface: Hard courts.

TV: TennisTV.com.

Tickets: www.MiamiOpen.com, starting at $18. Single-session tickets and full-tournament passes are available.