Miami Open begins at Dolphins complex Tuesday

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              The stadium court in the middle of the field at Hard Rock Stadium at the 2019 Miami Open in Miami Gardens, Florida, Monday, March, 18, 2019.  (Charles Trainor, Jr./Miami Herald via AP)
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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — At the main entrance to the Miami Dolphins‘ stadium stands a statue of Dan Marino as a witness to a game-changing completion.

A remarkable transformation is done, and the complex is ready for tennis.

The Miami Open has moved 18 miles north from its location since 1987, the picturesque island of Key Biscayne, and will begin Tuesday at the home of the Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes. Matches showcasing tennis’ best players will be held in the stadium, with a temporary hardcourt covering the field and the net hanging above the 50-yard line.

“I wouldn’t say it’s better than a football team, but it’s something that’s very exciting,” said Stephen Ross, who owns the Dolphins and the stadium. “I’m excited to see people’s reaction. There are so many skeptics out there.”

That includes some players wary of the atmosphere in a cavernous building where more seats will be empty than full, even for the finals at the end of the month.

But as players trickle in, early reviews are favorable. Fabric screens and temporary stands on three sides obscure most of the unused seats, creating a surprisingly cozy feel in the 65,000-seat stadium, where the capacity for tennis will be 13,800.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” said tournament director James Blake, a former top-five player. “To put a tennis court inside a football stadium is something a lot of players didn’t really wrap their heads around. Now that they’re here and see it, I think they’re very positive.”

There has also been a major makeover in the parking lot south of the stadium, where a spacious, modern tournament setting will include the outer courts, handsome hospitality areas, music, an art tent and the largest video board in tennis, along with the slightly incongruous Marino statue.

There are more lighted courts, practice courts and parking spaces than on Key Biscayne, and better player facilities. Even so, a sentimental attachment to the old location lingers.

“Key Biscayne was always, like, the traditional drive over the bridge, and you are on the water,” reigning Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber said. “So I will miss it, for sure.”

The former site was across the street from the beach, and the scenic setting helped the tournament become the largest in tennis aside from the Grand Slams, before it began to lose luster. IMG, which owns the Miami Open, decided to move after a 2015 court decision prevented badly needed upgrades to the complex.

“It was a great event, a lot of history,” said Roger Federer, a three-time tournament champion who first played on Key Biscayne as a junior in 1998. “You know, it was considered the fifth slam back in the day.

“So I have clearly mixed feelings about the change. I hope it’s all for the better, and I understand the logic behind it. But of course I will miss the place.”

He’ll be in Miami this week to check out the new digs, as will most of the sport’s other champions, from Serena Williams to Naomi Osaka to Novak Djokovic. Sponsors are enthusiastic, according to IMG, and ticket sales are up 25 percent over last year.

“The future of this event is incredible to think about,” Blake said. “The only limit is our imagination.”

When the tournament began considering a new home, speculation about potential sites ranged from South America to China. Fears rose that South Florida might lose the Miami Open, and Ross proposed the Dolphins’ suburban setting.

Williams, an eight-time Key Biscayne champion who owns a small share of the Dolphins, thought the idea was crazy. So did IMG. But the company eventually agreed to partner with the persuasive Ross, and construction began a year ago.

“For anyone who has ever built a house, to think this could be built in just one year is absolutely amazing,” Blake said.

“In Miami, we know how to put on a great event,” Ross said. “And this will be a great home for the Miami Open.”

Much of the makeover is Ross’ handiwork — he even picked out bathroom tile. For the upscale tennis crowd, the site should hold plenty of appeal, from luxury stadium seats and suites to newly planted $35,000 palm trees ushering spectators to the outer courts.

For fans on a budget, grounds passes start at $15. The cost is higher for admission to the multisport mashup that will take place on center court.

Billie Jean King’s celebrated 1973 victory over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes packed the Houston Astrodome. An ATP Tour tournament was held in Toronto’s SkyDome in 1990. The soccer stadium in Lille, France, recently hosted the Davis Cup.

But for this generation of players, tennis in an NFL stadium is something different.

“Never played in one,” Federer said with a smile. “I’m sure it’s going to be exciting, though.”