The Euroclay season is the most intensely concentrated competitive period of the year in tennis, at least for the ATP. No other segment has three Masters 1000 events jammed into a span of barely six weeks — followed just a week later by a Grand Slam event.
The two most closely watched and prestigious of that trio of events unspool back-to-back starting Monday with the Madrid Masters and concluding two weeks later with the Rome Masters, aka the Italian Open. That’s a pretty heavy lift for highly seeded players who play both tournaments.
The timing of these two events — both of which feature ATP and WTA draws — and their relation to each other always raises questions. Here are some of them.
Which is the more important tournament?
The answer to that question is tricky because the two serve different roles. Madrid is where most players buckle down for the grind to Roland Garros, while Rome is where they smooth out the rough edges and make a final push to prepare for the big show in Paris. Rafael Nadal is an exception, as he tends to gorge on clay, with obvious success.
Madrid is not the host country’s official national championship, the way Rome (Italian Open) or the US or Australian Opens are. Nor does Madrid have the history of Rome, which — but for a 13-year break because of political uncertainties before, during and after World War II — has been played continuously since 1930. Madrid is a newcomer, an indoor Masters originally played on carpet and reborn on clay in 2009.
Ion Tiriac, the billionaire former player and owner of the Madrid Open, has created the kind of player- and fan-friendly environment that has helped position the tournament as a kind of Indian Wells of Europe. But Madrid isn’t as accurate a predictor for French Open success, at least not on the ATP side.
Securing Masters status has enabled Rome to retain and even build on its historic importance. The top players bring their A-games to Rome, knowing they’ll have a week off before the start at Roland Garros. Madrid generates a lot of buzz, but Rome yields a better picture of where players stand in their preparation for the second major of the year.
Why are the tournaments played back-to-back?
You might remember the epic, five-hour Rome final in 2006, in which Nadal overcame Roger Federer in five sets: 6-7 (0), 7-6 (5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (5). The Hamburg Masters (German Open) was scheduled to begin the day after that final. Both stars refused to play, citing exhaustion.
Meanwhile, Tiriac had been busy lobbying to move the Madrid Masters, played indoors in the fall, to a spring slot. The savvy entrepreneur also had the city of Madrid ready to finance a new venue.
The awkwardness of the situation in 2006 gave the ATP the final impetus to shake up the calendar. Hamburg, where the climate often was cold and wet in May (another reason for the “Fedal” withdrawal in 2006), was downgraded to an ATP 500 to be played in late July. Rome was bumped up a week, and Madrid was added to the calendar. And within a year, five-set finals in Masters events were replaced by best-of-three.
Is one better preparation for the French Open?
There’s no substitute for going into the French Open on a high note, which means the winners in Rome enjoy a mental advantage over their rivals. There’s a reason Serena Williams has whittled down her clay prep work to just Rome.
Actually, Williams has a number of good reasons. The major one also holds true for the rest of the pros, men and women: Madrid is played at altitude, so the balls fly faster. Despite the distinct golden tint of the clay in Rome, the courts play much more like those of the French Open.
Who have been the most successful players?
The rolls of champions tell a lot about the different conditions in Madrid and Rome. Nadal, hailed as the King of Clay, has “only” four Madrid titles since the event moved to clay in 2009 (by contrast, in that same span, he has bagged seven at the French Open, at the Monte Carlo Masters and in Barcelona, plus five in Rome).
Federer has two Madrid clay-court titles — neither since 2012 — but has never won in Rome. Novak Djokovic has won Madrid only twice but has taken the title in Rome four times. Other recent winners include Alexander Zverev and now-inactive Andy Murray, who have both won each event.
Among the women, Petra Kvitova has put the hammer down more than any other woman in Madrid; she’s targeting a record fourth title next week. Simona Halep and Serena Williams have also won twice in Spain. Williams and Maria Sharapova (who has now withdrawn from Rome as well as Madrid) have been the stars in Rome, each winning three times. Elina Svitolina and Halep have played the past two finals, with Svitolina winning on both occasions.
How different is the vibe at the two venues?
The “Caja Magica” (Magic Box) was built by the city of Madrid as a tennis venue, partly because the city was in the midst of an ultimately unsuccessful bid to lock down the 2020 Olympic Games. It’s a state-of-the-art facility with a contemporary, minimalist/industrial feel, the grounds created around a large artificial lake. The three courts are all part of the same structure, with a series of retractable roofs. The main stadium, Estadio Manolo Santana, seats 12,500. The tournament is known for its lavish hospitality and amenities.
The Italian Open has been played since 1935 at the Foro Italico, a sports complex inspired by ancient Roman forums and built by dictator Benito Mussolini. It, too, was supposed to lure the Olympics (for 1940), which were canceled because of the war. The grounds feature enormous marble statues of athletes, wide white marble walkways, and grassy areas surround the courts. The stadium (capacity: 10,500) has been modernized, but the grounds still have a hauntingly classical atmosphere.
What are the most memorable moments?
Madrid hosted one of the most controversial — and ill-fated — of experiments in 2012 when, in a stunning departure from tradition, the event was played on blue clay. In addition to the novelty of the surface, the promoters wanted to enhance the visibility of the ball. The consensus among the players was that the surface was dangerously slippery and faster than red clay. Federer won the event, defeating Tomas Berdych in the final.
The Italian Open, with its passionate fan base, has been the scene of numerous raucous incidents. In 1978, during a semifinal between Italy’s Adriano Panatta and Spain’s Jose Higueras, the fans mercilessly rode Higueras and interrupted play. They jeered, cursed and hurled coins at the Spaniard. The result: Both chair umpire Bertie Bowron and Higueras quit the match after Panatta recovered from an 0-6, 5-1 deficit to win the second set — with a lot of help from his friends.
“I will never play in Italy again — tournaments, Davis Cup, anything,” Higueras said after the match. “I am finished with this place.”