By Mario Sarmento

The Sony Open began as a dream to create a “Winter Wimbledon,” a fifth major tennis championship to go with the Big Four. Deals were struck with the ATP and WTA Tours and the first tournament was held at Laver’s International Tennis Resort in Delray Beach in 1985.

To add prestige to the event, Wimbledon tournament referee Alan Mills was brought in to be the head referee, and well-known tennis fashion designer Ted Tinling was named director of protocol. The $1.8 million prize money was surpassed only by Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and was distributed equally to the men and women, the first time such an arrangement had been made outside of the Grand Slams.

Top-ranked players came in droves, as 84 of the world’s top 100 men, and 97 of the top 100 women, played in the first event. Americans Tim Mayotte and Martina Navratilova triumphed at the initial championship, which moved to Boca West, in Boca Raton, in 1986.

Soon after, tournament founder Butch Buchholz looked to Miami to find yet another new venue for the tournament. He had an epiphany when he crossed the Rickenbacker Causeway into Key Biscayne, and saw the property that would become the Tennis Center at Crandon Park.

“You go over that bridge, and it’s like leaving a city and entering a tropical paradise,” Buchholz said. “It had that postcard feeling I was hoping for, and then I saw those 5,000 parking spots (by the beach) and I thought, ‘This is it.’”

In 1994, the first matches were played on the Stadium Court, and the tournament has only grown since then. IMG took over the event in 1999, and the Sony Open, as it is now called, has earned its place as one of the world’s largest tennis events. The ATP has named it the “Tournament of the Year” in nine of the last 13 years, and the WTA named the Sony Open the “Tournament of the Year” in 2004.

The event has been the site for some the greatest champions of the past 25 years, from Serena Williams (a record six titles), to Steffi Graf (five), Andre Agassi (six), Pete Sampras (three), Novak Djokovic (three), Venus Williams (three), Roger Federer (two), Monica Seles (two), to last year’s champion Andy Murray (two).

It has been quite a journey from Delray Beach to Key Biscayne, where over 307,809 people attended last year’s event. And the future looks only brighter.