Key Biscayne spreads message as contender for a fifth Grand Slam

Rare combination of leading men and women competing together enhances attraction of Florida's main event
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The Independent Online

In the days of temporary grandstands on the Centre Court at Key Biscayne, Florida, your correspondent was watching a tennis match with Hamilton Jordan, who masterminded Jimmy Carter's Presidential election, when a messenger told Jordan there was an emergency.

"When I was in the White House I used to worry about the world blowing up - and now they tell me the Squirtmobile has blown up," Jordan said with a resigned smile.

The Squirtmobile was a customised Volkswagen van, and visitors to the Lipton Championships were offered free sun lotion from a spray gun as part of a sponsorship deal between Coppertone and the Association of Tennis Professionals, the male players' union, of which Jordan was the chief executive.

Somebody had neglected to check the pressure gauge in the van. When it reached 140lb, 14 gallons of lotion exploded. There were no casualties, and fewer cases of sunburn were recorded in south Florida that day.

Jordan, formerly President Carter's chief of staff and one of the people responsible for the Iran hostages negotiations, said to the messenger: "Well, a Squirtmobile blowing up is not the worst damned thing that can happen. You know, working in Washington tends to give you a sense of perspective."

Were Jordan involved in tennis today, he would find his seat at Crandon Park among 14,000 others in a splendid octagonal stadium, opened in 1994 at a cost of $20m (£12.5m), and would notice that the title sponsorship, Lipton's cup of tea since 1985, has been taken over by Ericsson this year. Presumably any message would be transmitted by the ubiquitous mobile phone, a device capable of building pressure faster than a Squirtmobile.

In an attempt to intercept the notion that one of the world's finest tournaments is about to be turned into a glorified chat-line, Ericsson and the organisers are promoting cellular etiquette on site. This would seem to be an ambitious project, especially in a nation where polite requests such as, "Quiet please, ladies and gentlemen", are likely to be greeted with, "You cannot be serious", or words to that effect.

Nevertheless, the mobile phone manners campaign will go ahead, with posters displayed at the entrance to the site and throughout the grounds, messages shown on video walls and PA announcements made on the courts during the 11 days of the $5.725m (£3.578m) combined tournament for men and women, which starts on Thursday.

Not many sponsors try to be a turn-off, and Ericsson are bound to attract valuable publicity in the process. Perhaps others elsewhere will make similar pleas for silence - at the Italian Open in Rome, for example, where the mobile phone has long been a fashion accessory and spectators phone friends seated a couple of rows away from them at the Foro Italico, embellishing their words with hand signals.

Players tend to react to distractions. "If it's for me, I'm out," was Martina Navratilova's response when a public phone rang at the back of the old stand at Devonshire Park, Eastbourne. Ivan Lendl once complained about cigarette smoke while competing in the Benson and Hedges Championships at Wembley. John McEnroe turned on the charm at Key Biscayne after being irritated by a noisy spectator. "Do you have any other problems," McEnroe asked, "apart from being unemployed and a moron and a dork?"

Venus Williams, who defeated her younger sister, Serena, in last year's women's singles final at Key Biscayne, will be remembered for her incredulous response after being told why spectators were leaping out of their seats during her first-round match there one evening in 1997. "A rat? A full-blown rat? Did they put it in a box or something?"

They did. A visitor to the site had brought a rat trap (he shrugged when asked why), the wonder of it being that he had not been recruited as a precautionary measure by the Buchholz brothers, Butch and Cliff, who have overlooked little else in running the tournament.

Although they have sold the event to Mark McCormack's International Management Group, the Buchholz brothers and their staff have been hired to continue their stewardship for a further five years, Butch as the tournament chairman, Cliff as its director.

That is reassuring, considering how the Buchholz brothers nursed the 15-year-old tournament through a series of crises, from a hurricane to lawsuits involving 16 court judges, to give the event a permanent home on Key Biscayne, an island haven only a Dan Marino throw from Miami.

Edwin Pope, the sports editor of the Miami Herald, a Key Biscayne resident who did not campaign against the building of the stadium, is of the opinion that the tennis tournament has achieved more for South Florida in terms of international recognition than any other sports event.

Tennis in the United States is said to be in a state of dilapidation. If so, the cracks are not covered over with paper but with the finest building materials, as evidenced at the arena in Key Biscayne and at Charlie Pasarell's acclaimed new $75m (£46.8m) complex in Indian Wells, California, and with the development of the US Open site at Flushing Meadows, New York, albeit with a gargantuan stadium court that tends to prove that biggest is not necessarily best.

The promise of sunshine is fundamental to the attraction of outdoor tennis, Wimbledon notwithstanding, and the appeal of the Masters Series tournaments in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne is enhanced by an opportunity to see leading men and women players at the same event, which is rare given their involvement in separate tours.

While the matches are highly competitive - the plentiful ranking points are banked as eagerly as the generous prize money - the atmosphere tends to be slightly more relaxed than at the four Grand Slam championships of Australia, France, Wimbledon and the United States. With the year's first major at Melbourne Park already consigned to the memory and the duelling on the red clay courts of Roland Garros, in Paris, scheduled at the end of May, this is a time to refresh style and revive spirits.

The tempo can become hectic, as it did during the final weekend in Key Biscayne in 1998, when charter flights brought an influx of fanatical Chilean supporters primed for Marcelo Rios's triumph against Andre Agassi, which gave Latin America its first world No 1.

When the Buchholz brothers launched their tournament in Florida, first at Delray Beach, then at Boca Raton, before settling in Key Biscayne, the event was played over 14 days and there was talk that it might grow into a fifth Grand Slam.

Although that did not happen, the tennis administrators in Australia became so worried that their struggling championships were in danger of being supplanted by an upstart in South Florida that they created the magnificent tennis showpiece that is the pride of Melbourne.

Key Biscayne continued to cement an important niche in the sport. Ericsson hopes to build on the goodwill established by Lipton, and trusts that its debut will coincide with a revival in the form of the leading American men, Agassi and Pete Sampras, mirages in the California desert last week.

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