Bruce Matheson Single-Handedly Kills the Miami Open

The Crandon Park Tennis Center has hosted Miami's largest tennis tournament since 1994.
The Crandon Park Tennis Center has hosted Miami's largest tennis tournament since 1994.
Photo by Karli Evans

Andy Murray is melting in the Florida heat. It's the final round — set three, game one — of the Miami Open, the biggest tennis tournament in Florida, the second-biggest in America, and, for at least a little while longer, the fifth-biggest in the world. The match is even at one set each. As the game draws to a close, he tosses the ball up and drives a serve toward his opponent, wheezing in the process.

Across the net, Serbian Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked male player in the world, swats the ball back with ease. He fans shots to the opposite corners, forcing the Brit to wind-sprint back and forth along the baseline. It's cruel. Eventually, Murray runs out of gas and flops a halfhearted shot straight into the net. He crumples over his racket. Advantage Djokovic.

Murray looks faint, grimacing between points and wobbling from side to side on his feet, trying in vain to summon his last drops of energy.

Smelling blood, Djokovic hammers a series of powerful volleys at Murray. After a few strokes, the curly-haired 27-year-old Murray sends another halfhearted backhand straight into the net, dropping the first game of the third set.

Murray staggers immediately to the sideline, cracks open a plastic water bottle filled with a greenish-yellow energy drink, and gulps it down. He tries to summon his coach for more liquid, but there isn't time. Murray staggers back onto the court and drops the next game, consistently flubbing shots. As he goes down 2-0, he gnashes his teeth and mouths, "I'm gone."

In a news conference later, Murray apologizes for wilting. "I'm sorry I couldn't make it more of a fight in the third set," he says. "I was trying, but my legs were tired, and I couldn't quite make it happen." Later, Djokovic calls the park's conditions "brutal."

The 13,000-seat Crandon Park Tennis Center on Key Biscayne can be a hothouse, melting even high-level players like Murray as if they were on Mars. As top-flight stadiums like Wimbledon have added retractable roofs, Crandon remains uncovered and behind the times. The lighting rigs are temporary, as are about 5,000 seats. By county rules, everything is installed no earlier than 45 days before the tournament begins, which creates chaos. Many of the restrooms are portable. The property was formerly a landfill, and the entire site is sinking.

Next week, the tennis center will host Djokovic, Murray, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, and the rest of tennis' greats for the Miami Open. But soon, tennis' best may no longer compete here. Roger Federer, notably, is skipping the tournament for the third time in four years. Though IMG, a New York-based sports management firm that owns the tournament, has offered to spend roughly $50 million to beef up the grounds — and Miami-Dade County voters overwhelmingly approved the proposal — an unlikely obstacle has arisen: Bruce Matheson, scion of one of Miami's founding families.

And backed by Florida's Third District Court of Appeal, which quashed a lawsuit the tournament filed this past December, it now seems likely the tournament will soon leave town for good.

"It's a shame," says Butch Buchholz, the Open's founder. "One person has done this. One person."

Bruce Matheson hits the accelerator and plunges a beat-up, yellow-white Ford Expedition over the Rickenbacker Causeway and onto the northern tip of Crandon Park. Stains pockmark the truck's gray cloth seats, and the back is crammed with boxes and old newspaper clippings, though his 72-foot Argosy yacht is docked not far away. Used napkins choke the cup holders.

Matheson, age 70, is a huge presence. He's nearly six-foot-five and drives with his chin poking out over the steering wheel, stretching his bird-like nose over the dash. His brown hair is parted to the side and is pinned in place by his huge, oblong ears. He wears oval-shaped glasses.

"Do you see how the road vanishes?" he booms in a vintage South Florida drawl. Thick expanses of trees and mangroves arch along both sides of Crandon Boulevard, the main highway slicing through the park. The plants turn the lanes into tunnels. You're supposed to feel like you're getting lost deep in the forest. The entire park is a mecca of unblemished nature and ample parking.

The island of Key Biscayne is roughly five miles long and split into thirds. Crandon Park's 800 acres take up the top section. In the middle sits a village of roughly 12,000 people – a place of immense wealth where tennis and golf play an outsized role. Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park makes up the bottom third.

Bruce's great-grandfather was W.J. Matheson, a scientist, inventor, world traveler, and, around the turn of the 20th Century, one of the country's richest men. The son of a Scottish sugar farmer, he made a fortune in upstate New York selling synthetic dyes to factories during the early 20th Century. Having built himself into an aristocrat —he later befriended Theodore Roosevelt — he sent Bruce's father, Hugh, to the Adirondack-Florida School, a prestigious academy that sent boys away to a camp in the Sunshine State for half the year. After some pleading, Hugh eventually convinced W.J. to sail down and visit. The young man's father quickly fell in love with the land.

"The elder Matheson had this wanderlust, this love for adventure, like, 'Let me send my son into this primeval world,' " historian Paul George says. "Florida was very raw at the time, in its infancy."

Bruce Matheson claims to speak for the 130-person Matheson family, which once owned most of Key Biscayne.
Bruce Matheson claims to speak for the 130-person Matheson family, which once owned most of Key Biscayne.
Photo by Karli Evans

In 1902, W.J. Matheson bought up land for a massive winter estate in what is now Coconut Grove. Six years later, he started purchasing tracts on Key Biscayne too. Around that time, Hugh graduated from Yale and began working in his father's factories. But the son soon came down with lead poisoning, a common illness for factory workers at the time. His joints hurt, his kidneys were failing, and he was struck with bouts of delirium. His doctors told him to spend as much time as possible in the sun.

So Hugh moved permanently to South Florida and, with his father's money, attempted to turn Key Biscayne into an empire. He brought in 60 workers from the Bahamas who planted thousands of coconut trees across the island. He dredged canals across the key, set up massive water wheels to irrigate the land, and laid out a series of huge cisterns to catch rainwater for his employees to drink.

At the island's westernmost point, the Mathesons built a massive estate called "Mashta" — an Egyptian name for "resting house by the sea." The home was modeled after a palace W.J. Matheson had seen while sailing down the Nile. The courtyards spread out in every direction, not unlike James Deering's Villa Vizcaya, which was built at roughly the same time in Coconut Grove. "Mashta was a party house," George says. "They had the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, the Mellons there."

W.J. instilled a love for nature and animals in his children. His son Hugh adopted two Galapagos tortoises. The family even brought back a whole flock of flamingos, then extinct in the United States, from Andros Island in the Bahamas.

(Years later, Finlay Matheson, W.J.'s grandson and Bruce's uncle, adopted emus and kept them on his Coconut Grove estate. In 1998, one emu escaped from its enclosure and began sprinting through the city streets at 35 miles per hour — five miles over the speed limit at the time. "My brother Michael got it cornered in by a swimming pool," Finlay's son, also named Finlay, says, "but the emu kicked a piece of PVC pipe out, and my brother ended up soaked, head to toe, and covered in emu shit.")

In the 1930s, Dade County Commissioner Charles Crandon offered a trade: The family would give land to the county, and in return a bridge would be built to the island. In 1939, W.J. Matheson's three heirs — Hugh, Malcolm, and Anna — agreed, under one condition: The land must be used "for public park purposes only." Private companies — like, say, the one that now operates the Miami Open — would be banned.

Bruce Matheson recalls this history as he trudges out toward the beach at Crandon. A few families sit by the water. A wild iguana perches on a tree stump but scurries away when Matheson approaches. A pair of thick-breasted turkey vultures swoops by overhead.

"Want to know the difference between a buzzard and a turkey vulture?" he asks. "Buzzards have black heads. Turkey vultures have red ones."

Bruce Matheson grew up in South Miami. As a teen, he was sent off to a boarding school in New Jersey. In his downtime, he sailed with his father in South Florida. He attended college but didn't graduate, then spent most of his time traveling the globe as a salesman for a metal fabrication company in Texas. He has never married, has no children, and is intensely secretive. According to court documents, he splits his time between his girlfriend's Coconut Grove apartment and the 72-foot boat docked at the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club. Most of his life is spent micromanaging park minutiae, like fence-post heights at Crandon Park. He is a well-meaning curmudgeon, incapable of letting even the smallest detail slide.

This explains why the Miami Open infuriates him so. Pulling into the Crandon Park Tennis Center, he comes upon a sea of activity: Giant cranes are everywhere. Men blast the sidewalks with power washers. Golf carts whiz by, carrying men holding clipboards. It's preparation time for the tournament, which begins March 21, and white tents for food and souvenir stands are popping up all over.

For a tennis fan, this is hallowed ground. But Matheson's temperature rises just seeing the beehive of activity. He parks his truck and trudges out, his mouth melting into a frown. "We don't hate tennis," he says, speaking for the family. "I used to play tennis in high school, actually."

What it's about, Matheson says, is ensuring Crandon Park doesn't fall into the grubby hands of private developers. But his opponents say the county has, instead, allowed the park to fall into Matheson's own grubby hands.

"The Mathesons weren't conservationists," says Gene Stearns, the tournament's lawyer. "Look at what it took to plow Crandon Boulevard right through the park. Our friend Matheson just wants the tournament gone."

Cliff Drysdale is 74 years old and in stunningly good shape. His hair is dark and thick. His eyes seem wild. He runs a tennis clinic at the Ritz-Carlton on Key Biscayne — today, he's in playing mode, wearing a loose-fitting shirt and glasses with a strap tied behind his ears. Despite the fact that he looks like the world's strongest librarian, he's a tennis legend — formerly the world's fourth-ranked player. He also ran men's pro tennis for a short stint in the '70s. He's now ESPN's most prominent tennis announcer and has called every Miami tournament for the network. As he speaks, a dozen small children chase tennis balls around a fenced-in court.

"There was a time when there were rumors of Miami overtaking the Australian Open as a major," Drysdale says. "It's not going to happen now. And if the tournament leaves, you lose exposure for the city, worldwide."

The tournament began in 1985 under the auspices of Drysdale's close friends, Butch and Cliff Buchholz. They were the sons of a former pro from St. Louis — by the time the boys were in their teens, their father had migrated to coaching. Jimmy Connors, the best male player in the '70s not named Björn Borg, trained in their dad's program. Chuck McKinley, who won Wimbledon without losing a set in 1963, grew up alongside Butch, the elder brother.

As a pro, Butch Buchholz was rail-thin, wore Lacoste shirts, and combed a thick head of hair to the side. Now in his 70s, he's grown shaggier and has a grandfatherly air about him. After retiring from tennis, Buchholz later ran the men's pro league in 1981 and 1982.

"The [Miami] tournament was really Butch's idea," brother Cliff says. "He wanted to have a player's championship, sort of like the player's championship in golf. It was to be a men's and women's event, with a two-week format."

Butch, who was living in Connecticut at the time, says he intentionally chose South Florida to create a bridge among the North American, European, and South American tennis markets. "We wanted close contact with Latin America, since there wasn't a major event down there," he says. "We almost wanted to create a South American Open." At the time, the Lipton Tea Co. had already been sponsoring a tournament outside Jacksonville. Buchholz, who had a friend in Lipton's beverage-sales department, convinced the company to pony up $1.5 million to sponsor the tournament.

Novak Djokovic has won four of the last five Miami tournaments.
Novak Djokovic has won four of the last five Miami tournaments.
Photo by Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports/Newscom

In 1985, the first Lipton's International Players Championship was held in Delray Beach. Tim Mayotte, a tall, rangy New Yorker, battled back from two sets down to win the inaugural final over his childhood friend Scott Davis. Mayotte took home $112,000. (The total purse has since grown to more than $5 million.) On the women's side, Martina Navratilova beat Chris Evert in straight sets. The next year, the tournament moved to the Boca West facility in Boca Raton.

Hungry for a permanent home, the Buchholzes struck a deal to start playing, permanently, in a new stadium, to be built in Weston in 1987. But as the contest neared, it became clear construction wouldn't be completed on time. "It was still pretty barren," Butch says. "The roads were totally unfinished."

As the brothers scrambled to find a place to play, Butch says he ran into Merrett Stierheim, who had been Dade County manager from 1976 to 1986 but was then heading the Women's Tennis Association. "I said, 'For heaven's sakes, why don't you bring the tournament to Miami?' " Stierheim, who recently underwent heart surgery, said over the phone.

Butch Buchholz said Dade County Deputy Parks Director Chuck Pezoldt then began scoping out locations. "We saw Tropical Park, Haulover Park, Amelia Earhart Park. The last one we went to was Key Biscayne," Buchholz recalls. At the time, the site was occupied by a landfill. "He said, 'We've been trying to figure out what to do with this dump for a long time.' There was a dead dog in there, old refrigerators, sofas. The smell was just terrible. But going over the bridge was really beautiful — you could see the skyline. It felt like a postcard. And the fact that they wanted to do something to get rid of the dump felt like it made sense."

In 1986, the tournament built 15 tennis courts on the property. Key Biscayne hosted its first Lipton Tournament the following year, accommodating 213,000 people in temporary bleachers. Miroslav Mecir, a cerebral, slow-moving player from Slovakia, took the men's final in straight sets. Among the women, Steffi Graf won her first of five Miami championships, beating Evert.

But the players still needed a proper clubhouse, and the tournament required a stadium.

"This," Buchholz says, "is where things get a little bit cloudy. Obviously, we didn't think there would be a problem." Buchholz maintains he was never warned about any of the Matheson family's deeds before setting up plans to build the tennis center at Crandon Park. By any estimation, the county rushed the deal through without seriously pondering future issues. Bruce Matheson's one-man war was still in the future.

Around Thanksgiving of 1992, Bruce Matheson sat in a cushy office in Boston, staring across a table at Butch Buchholz, then-Miami-Dade County Manager Joaquin Aviño, a host of lawyers, and Roger Fisher, the man who'd settled the Camp David accords. In the late '80s, the Matheson family embarked on a winding path of lawsuits aimed at blocking the Buchholzes from building a stadium in Crandon Park. Perhaps sensing doom, the county suggested the three parties meet in a neutral location with a trained mediator. At the time, Fisher was likely the best in the world.

One county representative "opened with a story about these two women," Matheson told New Times in 1996. "There was one orange on the table, and both [of those present] wanted it. So what were you going to do? Cut the orange in half? Well, when you found out in conversation that one of them wanted orange juice and the other wanted to make marmalade, you let one person have all the juice and you let the other person have all the skin, and they were both happy."

What the Matheson family wanted had been obvious for years. In 1988, a coalition of 60 Key Biscayners, including Matheson family members, sued Dade County, claiming the Lipton Tournament's use of Crandon violated the original Matheson deeds. The suit halted construction at the tennis center.

"You don't turn a privately dedicated public park into a commercial development zone," Matheson growled, recalling his feelings at the time.

In 1990, an appellate court decided that the tennis center needed to serve a "public park purpose" to stay. (The center remains open to the public for all but the tournament's 12 days.) In 1991, the Mathesons sued again.

Threatened with never-ending litigation, Dade County suggested the mediation in Boston. Bruce was chosen to represent the family, which had ballooned to more than 130 heirs spread all over the country.

County lawyer Robert Ginsburg recruited Fisher, a fellow Harvard graduate, to mediate the dispute. At a cost of $20,000 — which the county paid, Matheson says — the group shuffled in and out of meetings for two straight days. "Matheson didn't say much," Cliff Buchholz says.

Eventually, the county agreed to this: Provided the Mathesons stopped suing, the tennis center would be built. But only 7,500 of the stadium's seats would be permanent, and bleachers would be set up each year for the tournament. A new Crandon Park Master Plan would be drafted by the Olmstead Firm, which had designed Central Park in New York City. The stadium eventually opened in 1994. (The settlement agreement required the county to pay Matheson's legal fees, which at one point totaled close to half a million dollars.)

But, the mediators said, if the Matheson family objected to the Master Plan, a five-person team, including Matheson himself, would settle any issues that arose.

In hindsight, Bruce Matheson's critics — and there have been many over the years — say he installed himself as Crandon Park's "dictator." He objected to huge portions of the plan, tried to kick out softball fields, and attempted to raze a children's playground. But Matheson points out that those things never happened. "I'm just here to ensure the park is protected for all future generations," he says.

In 1996, the village of Key Biscayne sued the county, claiming, among other things, that Matheson's control of the park was unconstitutional. The village lost.

Most important, the settlement agreement prohibited the tournament from building any additional structures on stadium grounds. Realizing that last clause could prove disastrous, Butch Buchholz refused to sign off on any of the resolutions that sprang from the mediation sessions. But the county eventually agreed to Matheson's demands. "That was a mistake," says Stierheim, who watched it happen from the sidelines. "We never should have agreed to that." The plan was eventually ratified in 2000.

In 1999, the Buchholz brothers decided to sell the tournament to IMG. (IMG is now owned by Rahm Emanuel's brother Ari Emanuel, who served as the basis for Jeremy Piven's character on Entourage.) "We sold because of tennis politics, mostly," Butch Buchholz says. Pro tennis had sold the sport's marketing and TV rights to an outside company, thus taking away a huge cash source. "What were we going to do?" Buchholz asks. "Sell hamburgers, hot dogs, and T-shirts?"

By that time, the tournament had exploded in popularity. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi spent a decade slugging it out on the tennis center's hardcourt. In 1996, Agassi lost to upstart Marcelo Ríos — the win catapulted Ríos to the number-one ranking, making him the first Chilean to earn it. The day Ríos won, Santiago's streets erupted in celebration.

Crandon Park
Crandon Park
Photo by Karli Evans

Among women players, Serena Williams has won the tournament eight times, more than anyone else.

The tournament ran through a host of sponsors, from Lipton to Sony. In March 2004, at what was then called the NASDAQ-100 Open, 22-year-old Roger Federer was matched against 16-year-old Rafael Nadal, then an unknown talent. Federer, ranked first overall, was the heavy favorite; Nadal sat at number 34. But during the match, Nadal kicked into a gear few knew he had, taking the first set and then the second. The famously calm Federer fell into a rage, crushing the ball harder and harder. Eventually, Nadal won in straight sets.

The next year, Federer beat Nadal in the NASDAQ-100 final, battling back from a 0-2 deficit and setting up a rivalry that lasted more than a decade.

The tournament became a glamorous, worldwide event, to the point that Vogue Editor Anna Wintour attended in 2011. But at the same time, the stadium itself started looking more like a relic. While the tournament was barred from renovating the stadium grounds, investors were pumping money into the tournament's main competitor.

That tournament, known informally as the Indian Wells Open, is held each year in California's Coachella Valley. In 2009, gonzo tech billionaire Larry Ellison, the world's fifth-richest man, bought the entire Indian Wells tournament and started stuffing fistfuls of money into the grounds. "Indian Wells has invested millions of dollars into their facilities," says Cliff Drysdale. "And it pays dividends. The place is jammed with people. It's sort of downgraded the Miami tournament in the minds of the players."

When construction started on Crandon Boulevard in 1999, lawyer Gene Stearns led a protest against it. "One day, bulldozers started showing up and started ripping up the median strip in front of the tennis center. Everybody went, 'What the hell is going on here?' "

He soon found out: The county had agreed to build a tunnel that would connect the parking lot to the Crandon Tennis Center. The road would need to be elevated and the trees surrounding the tunnel torn out. Stearns and his friends bought wooden stakes, tied yellow ribbons on them, and marched down Harbor Drive with their arms linked. "We literally planted a thousand stakes. It was civil disobedience to the extreme. Who in the hell thought this was a good idea for two weeks a year?"

These days, Stearns, an egg-headed man with large, round glasses, is the chief lawyer representing the tournament. He is also Bruce Matheson's nemesis. "I don't think Bruce likes me very much," he says.

He characterizes Matheson as a rube who never graduated from college and has no formal degree in anything, let alone park planning. Matheson, he says, is an undeserving heir, a man given far too much power for far too long. With Crandon Park, Stearns says, "Matheson is trying to preserve a 1950s park museum."

On August 23, 2012, Stearns stood in front of Miami-Dade's Board of County Commissioners, gesticulating at a series of posterboards that sat to his left. "What began as an idea for a professional tennis tournament in our community has turned into the single most important economic engine in Dade County," he claimed. "According to the most recent study, it generated over $380 million in investment and spending in Miami-Dade County in the last year alone."

What the tournament needed, Stearns claimed, was a tune-up. With his Brahmin charisma, Stearns pitched the county on a $50 million Tennis Center upgrade. The main court's temporary seats would become permanent. Three of the practice courts, he said, would be converted into permanent stadiums.

The tournament would also build a massive promenade with a 35-foot clock tower sprouting from the center. And, Stearns claimed, his client would pay for everything. Despite some trepidation, county commissioners set a referendum on the plan.

Matheson took up arms. "They were under a court order not to build any new structures on the property," he says. As the vote neared, he took out a series of full-page ads in the Miami Herald denouncing the plan.The referendum on the plan was held November 6, 2012, and 73 percent of voters — more than 500,000 people — backed the Tennis Center upgrade.In a last-ditch effort to salvage the tournament, Stearns sued Matheson and Dade County, claiming Matheson had no say in the upgrade. He lost – and then failed on appeal.

Stearns is now trying to appeal again. If that goes nowhere, he says the Open has no choice but to move. Buenos Aires and Shanghai have been mentioned as possibilities. The lawyer notes that Orlando just built a $60 million, 100-court facility and proposed bringing the Open there. There's a hang-up, though. IMG still has eight years left on its contract with Miami-Dade County.

"There are other communities that will pay hundreds of millions of dollars," Cliff Drysdale says. "Larry Ellison paid hundreds of millions of dollars for Indian Wells... It's a matter of what Orlando will do or what Beijing or Tokyo or Buenos Aires will do."

But the tournament isn't rolling over. In January, when IMG began selling tickets for a Duran Duran concert to be held at the tennis center on April 1, the Village of Key Biscayne demanded it stop.

On January 26, tournament director Adam Barrett, wearing a gray suit, went before the village council to address the issue. Barrett has dark hair, small eyes, and a smile that tends to melt into a grimace. His voice is somewhat nasal in tone. He gripped both sides of the podium and said: "We have no intent to create any ill will with the village. If there's a way we can... create a win-win situation for both of us, we would love to have that conversation."

Village Councilman Michael Kelly then cut Barrett off. "Mr. Barrett, with all due respect," he began, "your explanation as to why you're doing this is utter B.S." Kelly then added: "Obviously, this was a moneymaking ploy, and you chose to ignore the restriction that goes with that land."

Barrett recoiled, his eyebrows shooting to the top of his forehead, his head shrinking down into his torso like a turtle. "Everyone is free to their opinion," he said.

The concert was moved to Bayfront Park.

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