For the last twenty years, 60% of the winners in Monte-Carlo have gone on to win at Roland-Garros. As a form guide for the "French", the other two Masters 1000 tournaments on clay, Madrid and Rome, don’t have such a record. Even on other surfaces, no tournament provides such a Grand Slam form guide. Why such mimicry in the results between Monaco and Paris? Because...
1/ The playing conditions in Monaco are the most similar to Roland-Garros
Same altitude, same climate and even, up to 2011, the same balls: everything contributes to make Monte-Carlo a substantive dress-rehearsal to Roland-Garros. Since Sergi Bruguera’s victory in 1993, the winner in Monaco has gone on to claim the crown in Paris a few weeks later on 12 occasions, or has been a finalist 15 times out of 20. It’s because clay courts, a 'natural' surface (like grass as opposed to cement and other carpets), have almost as many variations as there are tournaments on the dirt. Madrid's clay courts, in a tournament played at 650m above sea level, prove to be quite fast because of the lower air resistance. This explains, for example, that Rafael Nadal has more difficulty there than elsewhere (one title in four appearances). Rome, with its hot, dry weather conditions, distances itself somewhat from the Parisian clay - except in the years when the sun really beats down on the Porte d'Auteuil - and is well suited to aggressive players who find similarities with faster surfaces. Americans have thus regularly been successful in Rome: Vitas Gerulaitis and Jim Courier twice, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jimmy Arias once. Nothing like that in Monte-Carlo. “The court is slower than in Rome and Madrid,” explains Novak Djokovic. “The altitude plays an important role, and conditions are ideally suited for Rafa. Roland-Garros excepted, this is where he plays his best tennis.”
2/ Por que Monte-Carlo habla castellano…
Who are the best players on clay? Since the 1990s, the Spaniards. Where is Monte-Carlo? Less than five hours drive from the Iberian border, and only slightly more from Barcelona, the historic heart of Spanish tennis. For, much more so than Madrid, it is in the city of Gaudi that all the good tennis players come to complete their training: from Bruguera to Nadal, through Arantxa Sanchez on the feminine side, all the Spanish professionals have spent time there at some point. So, it's normal for them to feel at home in Monaco. Bruguera, Moya, Ferrero and Nadal, of course, have all done the Monaco-Paris double at least once. Rafael Nadal, Prince of the Monegasque courts since 2005, has this to say: "This is one of my favourite tournaments. It’s on the Mediterranean and it’s near my home. The courts overlook the sea, so high, that I can almost imagine seeing Mallorca from there!" Generally engaged in an ATP 500 in Barcelona the following week, the King of Clay feels so good there that he has taken the habit of celebrating his countless Monegasque titles in his car, along the Mediterranean coastline, dozing peacefully in the backseat while his uncle Toni and his agent Carlos Costa share the driving to make it to Catalonia in the evening.
3/ …And because many other players live in Monaco
The Spanish players aren't the only ones to feel at home in Monte-Carlo. Between the appeal of the Riviera and/or the benefits of the tax system in Monaco, a number of prominent tennis players have made their home on the French Riviera and have their lives there. Three decades ago already, Björn Borg lived right next to Monaco, at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and then revealed a very different facet of his personality from the Iceborg of legend. "Once, at a press conference during the tournament, Borg was dressed as a cook and pretended to prepare a dish for the journalists" recalls Francis Truchi, director of the Monte-Carlo Country Club. Marat Safin or Andrei Medvedev also had, in their time, an address in the Principality, just like today's world No. 1 Novak Djokovic or the great Australian hope Bernard Tomic. But the one who felt at home the most in Monaco was probably Ilie Nastase. Player and epicurean, the Romanian – a triple winner of the tournament from 1971 to 1973 - has left lasting memories. Playing to the crowd, he was once seen closing the handcuffs of a young female police officer he was trying to seduce around her wrists. During the 1973 final he said "ask the Princess Antoinette to do something because the public is supporting Borg" recalls Francis Truchi. Could you imagine the same with the British Royal Family in its box at Wimbledon? Monaco, a certain idea of sport and its stars...
4/ Because its prestige reaches across time
“It’s been a century since the tournament débuted, and many great names of tennis won there: Santana, Gimeno, Borg, Lendl, Wilander, Nastase and my friend Carlos Moya. It has a great history and tradition, like Wimbledon.” Unlike Rafael Nadal, who had to read the prize list engraved in the marble of the Monte-Carlo country club, most tennis players are conscious of the history of their sport, and like to play their part in its telling. The recent Madrid Masters 1000, housed in the concrete Caja Magica stadium outside town, is clearly missing something, and doesn’t mean much even for the Spanish players. On the flip-side, Monte-Carlo and Rome, with a rich tradition of great champions stand next to each other in terms of prestige. Though, the bucolic event at the “Foro Italico” suffers from having moved too much on recent years’ calendar: from its position as the last Masters 1000 before Roland-Garros in the 90s, it was moved to second-last during the 2000s after changing places with Hamburg, before taking back its place in 2011. But Monaco always remained proud and steady in its honorary place as first meeting of the year on clay. This year, again, it could well be the same man who will have the last word in Monaco and Paris.
By Guillaume Willecoq