The Five Finest ATP Miami Open Finals

ATP Miami Open champions Novak Djokovic and Tim Mayotte.
As the 2021 Miami Open approaches the end of its first week, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, looks back at the finest finals in the tournament’s history, beginning with the Five Finest Men’s Finals.

Miami in particular and Florida in general have long been the spiritual home of American tennis, because of the fabulous weather that gives Florida its nickname of “The Sunshine State” and the presence of so many tennis academies, including that of Nick Bollettieri. Consequently, it is surprising that the ATP Miami Open (or the Miami Masters as it was originally called) has only been in existence since 1985. However, for a long time before then, Miami and Florida had been an integral part of the US tennis circuit.

Indeed, Florida was at the forefront of the long-running tension between amateur and professional tennis that blighted the sport for much of its first century. From the early 1960s onwards, those top players who had sacrificed playing at the Majors so that they could actually make a living from the game often appeared in special events in the state. However, they were usually staged in venues that were a far cry from today’s lavishly appointed Hard Rock Stadium and its surrounding courts.

Indeed, the likes of Pancho Gonzalez and Frank Sedgman often had to appear at fairgrounds and showgrounds, playing on a portable canvas tennis court that they travelled around with.

It was one of their fellow professionals, Butch Buchholz, who was the guiding hand behind the formation of the Miami Masters in 1985. By the early 1980s, Buchholz had become the Executive Director of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and was finally in a position to realise his dream of staging a high-profile tennis tournament in Florida, thus completing the long journey that he had begun more than 20 years earlier when he had toured the state in a station wagon with Gonzalez and Sedgman.

His avowed aim was to have a “Winter Wimbledon” and to that end he enlisted the help of an authentic Wimbledon legend in the form of Teddy Tinling, the pre-eminent designer of tennis clothing since the 1920s, to help design the uniforms that the Miami umpires and line judges wore. More than 35 years on, Miami is one of the undoubted highlights of the tennis calendar, one of the few tournaments outside the Majors at which both men and women compete.

This year more than ever, it has really helped to launch the “tennis spring”, because Indian Wells, which is almost its Californian equivalent and the first part of the so-called “Sunshine Swing” across America, has been postponed because of the Coronavirus pandemic and may end up being cancelled altogether.

So, having given that brief history of the Miami Open, here are the five finest men’s finals in its history, in reverse chronological order.

  1. 2017: Roger Federer beats Rafael Nadal 6-3 6-4

The second part of “The Sunshine Swing” was also a key staging post on what may eventually be seen as the last great swing of Roger Federer’s career. In 2017, he defeated his greatest rival, Rafael Nadal, in the Miami final in straight sets and did so with relative ease. In the process, he maintained the astonishing momentum that had begun some six weeks earlier with his victory over the same opponent in the Australian Open Final, his first Major triumph for nearly five years and his first victory over Nadal in a Major Final for nearly a decade.

The 2017 Miami Final was memorable not so much for the closeness of the contest as for its lack of closeness, as Federer continued his amazing late-career resurgence, winning both Indian Wells (where he defeated compatriot Stan Wawrinka in straight sets in the final) and Miami after winning the Australian Open. At the time, it was arguable that Federer, sporting a remodelled backhand that he had developed during his six-month layoff from the tour before Melbourne, was playing the best tennis of his career, which arguably also made it the best tennis that any man had ever played, an impression that was strengthened when he won Wimbledon again that summer for a record eighth time.

Four years on, Federer is not even in Florida because of his continuing injury problems and the chances of his scaling those remarkable heights again look increasingly slim.

  1. 2011: Novak Djokovic beats Rafael Nadal 4–6 6–3 7–6 (7–4)

In 2017, Nadal faced Federer at his imperious best, in what might be the last great stage of Federer’s career. Six years earlier, he had faced Novak Djokovic at the beginning of what would eventually become the Serb’s decade of dominance (or ‘djecade of djominance’) between 2010 and 2020, a period of supremacy in men’s tennis that may well be extended into a second decade, so powerfully has Djokovic started 2021.

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Ten years ago, though, Djokovic was not quite the tennis machine that he would eventually become, although he was starting to exhibit the the supreme consistency that would become his trademark. Having led Serbia to its first ever Davis Cup victory at the end of 2010 and been diagnosed with the gluten intolerance that had hitherto held him back from maximising his obvious athletic ability, Djokovic began 2011 in remarkable fashion. His narrow, third-set tiebreak victory over Nadal in Miami was one of the highlights of an incredible start to the season, when he went unbeaten until the French Open in May, where he finally lost for the first time that calendar year to Federer in the semifinals.

  1. 2005: Roger Federer beats Rafael Nadal 2–6 6–7 (4–7) 7–6 (7–5) 6–3 6–1

Nadal must hate Miami. Florida may once have been part of the Spanish Empire, but Spain’s greatest ever tennis player has never ruled at the Miami Open. In fact, he is a five-time runner-up, having also lost to Djokovic in the 2014 Final and Nikolay Davydenko in the 2008 Final in addition to the three other final losses on this list. Nevertheless, his memories of Miami are not all bad, because it was there that he first played and beat Roger Federer in 2004, literally serving notice of the greatness to come by defeating the then world #1 in straight sets in the third round.

Then, a year later he really launched himself on to the tennis world stage by facing Federer in probably the greatest ever Miami men’s final. Having lost to Nadal a year earlier, Federer would certainly have been alive to the danger that the then 18-year-old Spaniard presented in the 2005 final. However, even he must have been amazed when Nadal swept him aside in a one-sided first set and then won the second set after a tiebreak.

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Fortunately for Federer, at a time when Miami, like all Masters-level events, was still contested over five sets (the switch to three-set matches came in 2008), he had the opportunity to fight back and did so in style. First, he won  a third-set tiebreak and then he overwhelmed Nadal in the final two sets, winning them for a total loss of just four games. Nevertheless, the greatest ever rivalry in the history of men’s tennis can legitimately be said to have begun in Miami.

  1. 1987: Miloslav Mečíř beats Ivan Lendl 7–5 6–2 7–5

Miloslav Mečíř was one of the all-time great tennis artists, a master of spin and swerve and sheer shot-making ability who sadly never won the Major title that his talents probably merited and without which he cannot be considered alongside the “Holy Trinity of Tennis Artistry” (at least on the men’s side) of Nicola Pietrangeli, John McEnroe and Roger Federer, multiple Major-winners whose greatest achievements were not just statistically significant but aesthetically extraordinary.

Nevertheless, Mečíř still had an outstanding career, reaching two Major Finals (at the 1986 US Open and the 1989 Australian Open) and winning the Men’s Singles Gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, after tennis was readmitted to the Olympics for the first time since 1924.

However, perhaps the Slovakian magician’s finest ever performance came in Miami in 1987, when he defeated Ivan Lendl in straight sets in a five-set match, at a time when it was thought almost impossible to do so. Outside of Wimbledon, where he lost successive Finals in 1986 and 1987 to Boris Becker and Pat Cash respectively, Lendl dominated men’s tennis for the second half of the 1980s, which included defeating Mečíř in the 1986 US Open Men’s Singles Final 6–4 6–2 6–0.

But Mečíř gained a modicum of revenge some six months later when he triumphed in Miami. And in defeating Lendl, the Czech-born player who was already in the process of applying for US citizenship, he gained one of the last significant tournament victories by a Communist bloc player before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and with it the old Soviet Empire.

  1. 1985: Tim Mayotte beats Scott Davis 4–6 4–6 6–3 6–2 6–4

Fittingly, the first ever Miami Men’s Final in 1985, which was the culmination of Butch Buchholz’s long-held dream to stage an important tennis event in Florida, was one of the finest in the tournament’s history, even if it featured two players who are largely forgotten today, at least outside the memories of tennis historians. But between them, Tim Mayotte and Scott Davis played a final that firmly launched Miami onto the world tennis map.

Mayotte and Davis were two of the many “other Americans” who played in the long Golden Age of American men’s tennis, which lasted roughly from the arrival of Big Bill Tilden, the first male superstar of tennis, in the 1920s right up to the start of the 21st century, during which time only Australia could come close to rivalling the USA as a tennis superpower. And although Mayotte and Davis could not match the extraordinary, multiple Major-winning achievements of the likes of Budge, McEnroe and Sampras, they still had superb careers, with Mayotte reaching #7 in the world and Davis just failing to crack the top 10. Given that the highest-ranked male American currently is John Isner at #28, the USTA would probably love to have a couple of supposed “journeymen” like Mayotte and Davis right now.

Mayotte will remember the first Miami men’s final more fondly than Davis, as he came from two sets down to triumph. But Davis could draw comfort from the fact that he had not only contributed to a truly epic final, one of the finest men’s finals outside of the Majors in the whole of the 1980s, but in the process had helped to generate the momentum that would eventually propel the fledgling Florida tournament into the front rank of tennis events around the world, which is the status that it certainly enjoys today.

Next time (and in time for Finals Weekend next weekend): the five finest Miami Open Women’s Finals.

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