The clay court season may have kicked off last week but for tennis purists, the season doesn’t really begin until now with the start of the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters in Monaco, a tournament that still feels like an enigma despite recent attempts to “open its doors” to the rest of the world. Even though the tourney is an ATP Masters 1000 event, it’s not mandatory for players to go there and it’s said only recent efforts by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have kept Monaco’s top-tier event status, at least in terms of ranking points offered, intact. So the question remains, should Monte-Carlo be considered a “must-attend” event and if so, why?
Despite having current players like Nadal, who’s going for his seventh straight title there, along with Federer and others in action, the whole tourney still feels like a glimpse into another time. As if you expect to spot Sean Connery, as James Bond of course, sitting in the box seats sipping a martini while discussing a bit of international intrigue with a stunning young woman whom he later finds out is a double agent. The event does a great job of evoking and promoting its fabled past all the way to back to 1897 when it first began, especially through the tournament posters released each year, but there’s still part of me that thinks one reason the event has lost some of its stature in recent years is because it has become more accessible to the outside world. Not less.
I got that feeling while watching a free video stream of today’s match between Milos Raonic and Ernests Gulbis that the young Canadian won 6-4, 7-5 despite the usual flashes of brilliance and nuttiness that we’ve all come to expect out of the Latvian. Not that long ago, this early round match would have only been experienced by fans outside Monaco through a written report of some lucky journalist on site, forced to sit in a cramped seat at the top of the stadium as they scribbled notes away on a paper pad while glancing up now and then to marvel at the view of the blue Mediterranean Sea just steps away before forcing themselves back to the action on the orange courts below them. A photographer would have then wired a few majestic snaps of the grounds out to his or her editor for fans to glance at and perhaps be captivated by, thinking, “I must go there next year.”
You might be saying, it’s the 21st Century now and the event is right to have television and the Internet on site to allow fans around the world the ability to watch matches. That’s true I guess, but even Wimbledon, with all of its tradition and history still maintains the aura of being “The Championships”. If you think about it, Monte-Carlo is only 20 years older than the “Big W” and that’s quite impressive, so why the downgrade in status? Monte-Carlo may not be a Major, but tennis still needs events like it with long histories and traditions to be kept alive and somewhat out of reach, if only in perception. That’s why if I were running things, I would keep the networks and the streamers out of “MC” until the semifinals to keep some of the enigma of the event alive and well. Much like the now infamous and still invite-only players’ party where a lot of the top guys dress in drag and do crazy imitations of each other, with rumors and leaked video the only source of what really went down that night.
I’m all for equal access and opportunity in the sport, but I can’t help but wish there was someway for Monte-Carlo to still have reports drift in from a few hardy print and yes, web writers savvy enough to even have a top deck seat in the stadium. For some, Monte-Carlo feels like an anachronism in the modern and very corporate age we live in. So why do Federer and Nadal, two of the sport’s biggest stars fight, to keep it just a notch below the Majors? Maybe because they appreciate how the event’s history is more important than where it falls on the calendar. It will be up to the event itself to decide which way it will be be viewed 30 years from now, but let’s hope they find better ways of preserving their history more so than a beautiful framed poster and a well-poured cocktail by the beach.