Miami Open back to full capacity this year, here’s hoping Novak Djokovic gets to play | Opinion

David Santiago / El Nuevo Herald
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Good news for South Florida tennis fans: The Miami Open will be back to full capacity this March for the first time in three years, and the tournament grounds will be bustling like they were in 2019.

The 13,800-seat Center Court will be back inside Hard Rock Stadium. Seating at the outdoor courts has been expanded. And the picturesque outdoor food court returns with popular pop-ups Kiki on the River, Casa Tua Cucina, Novacento and many others.

It’s still not Key Biscayne — sorry, it’s hard to match the drive over that bridge and the lush, tropical feel of the former tournament site — but it’s great to hear the Miami Open will be back to almost normal.

In 2020, the tournament was canceled due to the pandemic.

Last year, the event was at 20 percent capacity and while the tennis was exciting, the festival atmosphere that makes the Miami Open special was missing. At times it felt like a ghost town.

“Night and day,” said tournament director James Blake, when asked how this year’s tournament will compare to a year ago. “Last year people were nervous to come out, we were at 20 percent and it didn’t have the same atmosphere. We did the best we could. This year will be completely different, and we’re thrilled. The Dolphins have shown that we can hold safe events here.”

Blake said tickets are selling at pre-pandemic pace.

All we need now is for Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to show up.

Yes, Djokovic. Lots of people are down on Novak these days after the visa and deportation fiasco at the Australian Open. No question he deserves a share of the blame. But so do Tennis Australia and the Australian government for their mishandling of a situation that got out of control.

It was sad to see TV cameras and paparazzi surrounding Djokovic’s car as he headed to immigration hearings, getting shadowy photos of him in the back seat as if he were a criminal.

Look, I strongly disagree with Djokovic’s stance on the COVID vaccine, and his decision to be one of three of the top 100 players to remain unvaccinated deservedly comes with a heavy cost. The once beloved “Djoker,” known for his You Tube Karaoke videos and hilarious spot-on impersonations of fellow players, has tarnished his image in the eyes of many.

But he is not a criminal. He is a smart man, one of the most thoughtful interviews on tour, and he must have his reasons.

His unvaccinated status was not an issue last year. Nobody made a fuss when he won the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon and lost in the U.S. Open final. But once national borders tightened, he ran into problems.

As it stands now, he would not be allowed to enter the United States for the tournaments at Indian Wells, California, and Miami because non-citizens are required to be vaccinated. But if the border rules relax and Djokovic agrees to follow all the local and tournament protocols, the Miami Open will be better if he is in the field.

Not only is he tied with Federer and Nadal with a record 20 Grand Slam men’s titles, but Djokovic is also a six-time winner of the Miami Open. Only Andre Agassi has taken home that many men’s trophies from Miami.

This is also where Djokovic got his start. Anybody who was in that Crandon Park Stadium Court on April 1, 2007, surely remembers the 19-year-old Serb in the yellow shirt knocking off Guillermo Canas to win his first major tournament without dropping a single set. He was the first man to do that since Ivan Lendl in 1989. Djokovic also became the youngest ever Miami winner.

“Tennis has a new star today,” tournament founder Butch Buchholz said, as he handed Djokovic the biggest paycheck of his young career.

Within a year, commentators were predicting that Djokovic could one day surpass Federer and Nadal.

He is on the verge. Djokovic has won the Australian Open nine times and was favored to win it again this month, which would have given him the record-breaking 21st Grand Slam.

Instead, his quest for history is on hold.

So is his status for the Miami Open.

“We’d love to have him, he’s one of the greatest champions we’ve ever had in the sport,” Blake said. “I believe he will go down as the greatest champion. He still got quite a few more years of being at or near the top of the game. It’s a matter of him figuring out how to navigate this time, the protocols, what’s safe, what isn’t safe?”

Blake agreed the situation in Australia was “poorly handled on all fronts” and said he hopes there’s a lot more transparency and communication between federal and local governments and tennis officials leading up to the Miami Open.

If Djokovic is welcome to fly into the country, and the ATP allows unvaccinated players to compete, he will be welcome to play at the Miami Open, Blake said. As an unvaccinated player he would have to follow stricter rules and more testing, but he would be welcome.

Tens of thousands of fans have attended football games at Hard Rock Stadium over the past year. Hundreds of football players have played on that field. Djokovic should play, too, so long as he plays by the rules.

Miami Open Dates, Tickets

Dates: March 21 - April 3, 2022

Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens

Tickets: Available at www.miamiopen.com or call (305) 943-OPEN. Full tournament packages, mini packages, individual sessions on sale.

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