By Steve Gorten
KEY BISCAYNE – Erin and John McNichol thought they had seen everything at the Miami Open besides tennis.
The couple from Baltimore said they flew down last year to watch the men’s semifinals, and when both matches were cancelled because of walkovers, it gave them plenty of time to check out everything else the tournament had to offer.
But when they returned to Crandon Park Tennis Center on Friday, they saw sand – 320 tons of sand -- right next to a Tiki bar.
“When we came around the corner over, I was, like, ‘Look at that! I can sit there, have a drink and watch some tennis,’” Erin McNichol said as she lounged in a white Adirondack chair on the sand while watching two matches on a huge, new video board.
“I still want to go see the players later, but it’s a little more relaxing here than sitting up in the bleachers.”
The “beach,” as London resident Nikki Jones dubbed it Friday, is the centerpiece of the Miami Open Experience -- a new open-air venue just west of stadium court.
It is the most striking of several changes made by tournament officials to enhance an event that’s consistently featured the sport’s biggest stars.
“If fans have more to enjoy, and are able to enjoy that entertainment longer, it’s a better event,” said tournament director Adam Barrett. “We have two weeks [March 23-April 5]. We have to create as much entertainment as possible. …So what do you do? Well, let’s get people to stay longer. If they’re going to invest the time to get out here, make sure their experience isn’t just three or four hours.”
The Miami Open Experience will include three additions in the second week of the tournament:
--- “The Taste of the Open,” an eating spot April 1 to 5 where the public can purchase samples of dishes designed by award-winning chefs Tom Colicchio, Scott Conant, Josh Capon and Michelle Bernstein.
--- Tori Praver’s Fashion Show April 3-4 at which Praver, a supermodel and fashion designer, will showcase her new swimwear line.
---- A beach volleyball tournament featuring the world’s best pro beach players, including Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross, Phil Dalhausser and Sean Rosenthal.
In addition to the Miami Open Experience, which was created on 9,500-square feet of land that previously housed a private hospitality village, Miami Open officials added a social media video board featuring tweets from fans, as well as free wireless access and charging stations.
Also, the food court received a full makeover. The asphalt that used to get blazing hot under the afternoon sun was replaced by a new, permeable surface. Tables and chairs were replaced with modern furniture, and large umbrellas that provide more protection from the sun, and less hassle, were installed to replace individual umbrellas.
Next to the food court, which includes a few new vendors, white leather chairs and love seats were added for fans wanting to watch matches on another of the complex’s three video boards.
“I feel like I’m sitting in a big tooth,” 12-year-old Emily Callahan said of the love seat she shared with her mother, Wendy. “They’re really comfy though.”
Half of the picnic tables were also replaced and buildings throughout the tennis center were repainted inside. The buildings’ exterior will be painted in this next year, Barrett said.
“These are probably the most public changes we’ve done in some years,” he added. “It’s all about experiences and giving fans access to all these different experiences.”