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Key Biscayne tennis visionary to step down

The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 05:58 PM
KEY BISCAYNE -

Butch Buchholz vividly recalls the first time he visited this island off downtown Miami in search of a site for his tennis tournament.

"A tropical paradise," he says.

Then Buchholz took a closer look at the location county officials had in mind. The place was a dump.

Literally: It was a county dump.

"We walked to the back and there was a dead dog," Buchholz says. "There were old refrigerators, there were sofas, there was an old car, there was a broken trailer, and people had been putting trash there for 30 years.

"I said, 'This is available? This is great!"'

Nearly 25 years later, the Sony Ericsson Open is the world's largest tournament aside from the four Grand Slams and a source of innovation for the sport. Buchholz used the former dump site to push his now-popular concept of combined events for men and women beyond the four major tournaments. It was the first tournament besides the major events to offer equal prize money, and the first to use electronic replays.

The 13-day Sony Ericsson Open begins Tuesday, and it will be the 69-year-old Buchholz's last as chairman. He announced in November he was stepping down and turning the reins over to Adam Barrett, tournament director since 2002.

While Buchholz plans to remain active in the sport, he's ready for a reduced workload.

"I don't want to be sitting here when I'm 75 sleeping and someone says, 'Hey Butch, wake up. You've got to go hand someone a trophy,"' he says.

Buchholz's legacy will be the tournament that took root amid the palms on Key Biscayne. This year's purse is $9 million, with attendance expected to approach 300,000, and the field includes Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, Venus Williams, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters.

Many in the field weren't yet born when the tournament struggled for survival in its infancy. The event started in Delray Beach, Fla., in 1985, moved to Boca Raton the following year and then came to Key Biscayne. There was resistance to the combined-event format and the notion of equal prize money, and many top players stayed away.

Buchholz landed a title sponsor, and the tournament grew in popularity as the Lipton Championships. But efforts to build a permanent stadium were repeatedly stymied by opposition from Key Biscayne residents, even after construction began.

"We had kids lying down in front of bulldozers," Buchholz said. "They had a Lipton tea party where they went out in canoes dropping bags of tea into the lake on the site. And the most devastating thing was when a judge shut the construction project down."

An appeals court overturned the ruling, and the stadium opened in 1994. Buchholz's personality was the decisive factor, Key Biscayne resident Cliff Drysdale said.

"Butch is the most tenacious person I have ever met," says Drysdale, a TV announcer and former player who has known Buchholz for nearly 50 years. "He never gives up. I've seen him with sponsors, with tournaments, with politicians, and for him, 'no' doesn't exist. If you say no to Butch, it goes right over his head and he carries on with his business, which is what happened here."

Buchholz said the legal battle was like playing a five-set tennis match.

"You're going to have some bad calls, you're going to have some let cords that are going to go against you, and the wind is going to blow," he says. "But you've still got to win."

A St. Louis native, Buchholz dropped out of high school to join the tennis tour, became the No. 1-ranked American and had played Wimbledon three times by age 19 before turning pro in 1960. His career as a promoter began with a tournament in St. Louis in 1964.

He has long argued the sport is too fragmented, with an alphabet soup of governing bodies that includes the ATP, WTA, ITF and USTA. Still, he pronounces tennis "in pretty good shape."

"You go to a tournament today and watch the first round, and the product has never been better," he says.

To reverse the recent decline in U.S. results, Buchholz wants to see more inner-city programs that give youngsters rackets, balls and even clothes.

"It's one thing to teach a kid how to play tennis," Buchholz said. "But when he's 12 and he's got to go play tournaments and he has one racket and a string breaks, or he has outgrown his shoes, we need to provide that for these kids. Many inner-city kids aren't going to have the funds to keep going."

Buchholz's latest campaign for change involves Davis Cup. He says a new format is needed because of the event's sagging popularity, especially in the United States.

His suggestion: Gather 16 teams in one location for a tournament sometime after the U.S. Open.

"There's a debate about Davis Cup right now," Buchholz said. "We should try to find a solution that is best for tennis, and I would like to be a part of the solution."

He'll be available to help in two weeks.

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