The weather was Chamber of Commerce perfect. Miami-Dade schools were on their first day of Spring Break. And the Sony Open menu on Friday was loaded — Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Venus Williams and David Ferrer, to name a few.
Oh, yes, and Martina Hingis playing doubles out on Court 2. Between them, the players in Friday’s lineup have won 39 Grand Slam singles titles.
It should come as no surprise then that traffic was backed up on the Rickenbacker Causeway by midday and a crowd of more than 17,000 filed into the Tennis Center at Crandon Park for the day session alone. There were still several thousand fans left just before midnight, when defending champion Murray rallied to shake off Matthew Ebden of Australia 3-6, 6-0, 6-1.
Australian Open winner Li Na, was supposed to play first on Stadium Court, but her opponent, Alisa Kleybanova, withdrew with a viral infection, so Li got a walkover.
The rejuvenated Federer took center stage against 6-10 big-serving Croatian Ivo Karlovic, who has lived in South Florida for eight years and is a diehard Heat fan. Federer skipped last year’s tournament, and was welcomed back with a rousing ovation and a video tribute.
“It looks like a farewell video,” Federer joked with the crowd. “I miss one year, and you make me feel guilty.”
Federer neutralized Karlovic’s serve, which topped out at 138 mph, and advanced with a 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) win.
“Physically, it is super easy because there are no long rallies,’’ Federer said, of playing a tall serving machine like Karlovic. “It’s just like a penalty shootout in soccer. I don’t want to say you pick sides, but it’s about quick reaction, not getting frustrated and feeling the returner is the one who has got less pressure. I quite like it. It’s just uncomfortable at times.’’
That Karlovic, 35, was on the court at all was nothing short of remarkable. Last April, he was rushed from his Sunrise home to Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach with viral meningitis. He was unconscious, suffering stroke-like symptoms. When he awoke, he had numbness of the arm and face, severe headaches, paralysis of his jaw, no peripheral vision, and loss of memory.
“It was really scary,’’ Karlovic said. “I was getting ready to leave the next day for a tournament, I just woke up and I was out, didn’t know what was going on, jaw was weird, not able to speak, I didn’t know my name, which year it was.’’
He said the headaches lasted 10 days. He remembered his name after four days and the numbness began to subside after five days.
“I didn’t know if I’d be able to play again, if there would be any consequences,’’ he said. He missed two months of tennis, and won his second tournament back in Bogota. He said the illness made him appreciate tennis more, and he was grateful to play on Stadium Court on Friday.
Three-time Sony champion Novak Djokovic was next on Stadium Court and beat Frenchman Jeremy Chardy 6-4, 6-3.
Chardy’s countrymen Richard Gasquet, Julien Benneteau and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had a better day, all of them advancing. Gasquet beat Alejandro Gonzalez of Colombia 7-6 (9-7), 6-4. Benneteau defeated Ernests Gulbis of Latvia 6-4, 4-6, 7-5; and Tsonga cruised past Adrian Mannarino 6-2, 6-4.
Other men’s winners included 2013 finalist Ferrer, Grigor Dimitrov, and wild card Marcos Baghdatis.
On the women’s side, Williams, who has slipped to No. 29, beat Anna Schmiedlova of Slovakia 6-3, 6-3 in the first evening match.
Williams, 33, has been slowed by Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease. But she proved she’s still got game by not dropping a set en route to the title in Dubai earlier this year.
“That win in Dubai really helped me,” she said. “There is always a point in anyone’s career where you have so many hard knocks, so to speak, and you just keep getting up and believing that you have it in you. At the end of the day, that’s what I believed, that I had it in me.”
Third-ranked Radwanska, the tournament champion in 2012, defeated Romina Oprandi 6-0, 6-4. Sixth seed Simona Halep withdrew because of a toe injury. And American Varvara Lepchenko upset No. 7 Jelena Jankovic 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (7-2).
American Sloane Stephens beat qualifier Zarina Diyas 7-5, 6-3. Miami resident Monica Puig, who competes for Puerto Rico, lost to former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki 6-1, 1-6, 6-3. Madison Keys of Boca Raton knocked off Daniela Hantuchova 6-4, 6-2.
Top-ranked Rafael Nadal plays his opening match at 8 p.m. Saturday against former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt of Australia.
“I prefer an easier opponent, but I cannot choose the draw,” Nadal said, smiling. “It’s gonna be a tough one. I admired him when I was a kid and saw him on TV. I like his character. He is always fighting for every ball.”
This story was originally published March 21, 2014 11:34 PM.