I must say, I'm really enjoying the tennis from Rome this week. It follows on from last week's Madrid Open, which was also a joint ATP and WTA event. That similarity aside, the differences are night and day. Firstly, no blue clay! The red-dirt is back and as a consequence, we are seeing much better tennis. Whilst players movement was restricted due to the slippy Smurf surface (meaning 'first-strike' tennis became prevalent as players tried to just hit the ball for winners rather than construct rallies), the slow clay of Rome sees a return to normal clay-court tennis. That means better constructed points, more breaks of serve, more variety of shot and overall, much more interesting matches. And because the balls are not flying as quickly through the thin air of Madrid, we are seeing longer rallies due to better defensive plays.
But where Madrid should really take a leaf out of Rome's book, is in the atmosphere created. The 'Caja Magica' complex in Madrid, may be a spectacular looking tennis stadia, but in building it, they seem to have forgotten about the most important aspect of any tournament - the fans. The centre court is surrounded by expensive-looking 'executive' boxes, which you'll often see are empty for the most part, until the big matches in the latter stages. The number of these seats seems much more than in most tournaments and they seem to go back a fair way into the arena. They are usually filled by the sort of people who you can tell are only there because it's the fashionable thing to be seen in a posh-box at a tennis event. Most probably were given corporate tickets. They turn up in their suits and posh frocks, hoping that Will Smith or Christiano Ronaldo will be close by - which they often are!
The problem with that is, it generates a staid atmosphere. The people in these boxes are not true enthusiasts and the few that are will certainly not show it! So it's polite applause all-round but little else, as the real, ordinary fans are stuck out the back of the arena in the cheap seats. And I don't know what they were charging for tickets but I hardly ever saw a full arena outside centre court for any match. There were some belting match-ups on outside courts played in front of tiny crowds, where every cough and rustle could be heard, like at a Challenger Tour event. For a Masters 1000 (Premier Mandatory for the women) that's a shameful thing. I know the Spanish economy is in deep trouble now but it's not as bad as Italy's and the Rome event is showing that even in times of fiscal torment, the people will turn up if you do things right.
Firstly, they have put the ordinary tennis fan first. The stadiums are packed with people of all ages, not just middle-aged corporate clean-shirts, and even the outside courts attract a reasonable crowd. Everyone is afforded a decent view, no matter where they are sat, as the courts (particularly centre court) have a Colosseum-style design, with high, steep sides in a bowl shape, as opposed to Madrid's shallow-sided boxes. Instead of reams of walled-off, individual executive boxes taking up all the space, as many seats as possible have been crammed in. This creates a fantastic atmosphere when full and because most people are just ordinary Romans and tennis fans, they have come to enjoy the actual tennis and more importantly, enjoy themselves. So matches are often loud, raucous and supported with passion and enthusiasm - the complete opposite of Madrid.
They seem to have the pricing policy right in Rome and everywhere you see around the complex, people are milling about, moving between games. I think that's partly because the smaller courts are designated free areas i.e. you don't need a ticket to watch (just a ticket into the grounds). Fantastic idea. And I am certain that players respond better when the atmosphere is good. The matches I've seen this week have surpassed most of what I saw in Madrid by some distance. And with the sun shining constantly over the open arenas, rather than casting shadows or shut off by the intruding roof in Madrid, it just looks like a fun place to be. Take note tournament organisers across the world - it's all about the fans at the end of the day.
OFF-COURT BEAUTY World number 97 Andrea Hlavackova of the Czech Republic: