|Rome, Italy||Madrid, Spain|
Thanks to some clever scheduling and an accommodating spouse, I was able to arrange my family's annual vacation to coincide with two of the most important clay court tournaments of the year: the Mutua Madrid Open in Madrid, Spain and the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome, Italy. That the tennis tournaments happen to be in two of the European cities that we have not visited yet but were relatively high on our joint bucket list was an extra bonus.
Before arriving, we were told that Rome is a much more exciting city than Madrid so we budgeted twice as much time for the Eternal City. However, Madrid is the larger city (3.3 million residents to 2.8 million residents) while Italy is the more populous country (60.6 million to 46 million). Tennis-wise, both the Madrid and Rome tournaments share the feature of the four Grand Slams (Australia, French, Wimbledon and U.S.) that women and men compete at the same event, which is excellent for someone like me who is a fan of both the ATP (men's tennis) and the WTA (women's tennis). Both tournaments are very important stops on the two tennis tours, labeled a Masters 1000 event for the Men and a Premiere event for the Women (i.e. the largest tournaments just below the Majors). The Madrid tournament is technically larger (it has a draw of 64 and a purse of $5 million for the women and € 3 million for the men) compared to the Italian tournament (which has a slightly smaller draw of 56 but a significantly smaller purse of $2 million for the women and € 2.4 million for the men). The Madrid final is played in a state-of-the-art stadium called La Caja Magica (The Magic Box) while the Rome final is played in a Centre Court at the Italico Foro (Italian Forum) on the site of the 1960 Olympics.
Here are my impressions of the two tournaments, having attended the exact same session on the same day 1 week apart in the same year (the day session of Day 5: Quarterfinals Day).
In Madrid, the matches we were able to see with a ticket to the largest arena were: World #1 Victoria Azarenka v Li Na, Serena Williams v. World #2 Maria Sharapova and Tomas Berdych v. Fernando Verdasco (who had eliminated World #2 Rafael Nadal the round before). We also potentially had access to every other match being played during the day, which included Juan Martin del Potro v Aleksandr Dologpolov, World #4 Agnieska Radwanska v. a Qualifier and World #5 Samantha Stosur v. a Qualifier. The latter matches were played on Court #3, since for some reason Court #2 was not used on this day but I believe was in service during the earlier part of the tournament. The Night session featured World #1 Novak Djokovic v Janko Tipsarevic and World #3 Roger Federer v World #5 David Ferrer.
In Rome, the quarterfinal matches were split between the Centre Court and the Super Tennis Arena. Thanks to the fact that all tickets to the Italian Open can only be purchased online through TicketOne.it (which appears to be the Italian version of Ticketmaster) I was unable to get what I considered an acceptable Centre Court ticket online and opted for tickets in the 4th row of the 2nd largest court instead. My decision was made easier when it also became clear that buying a ticket to the largest court did not provide optional access to the 2nd largest and all other courts on the grounds, which is typically the practice in every tournament I have been to, including all four slams. In the day session at Centre Court was Serena Willliams v Flavia Pennetta, World #1 Novak Djokovic v. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and World #3 Rafael Nadal v. Tomas Berdych. In the Super Tennis Day session was World #5 David Ferrer v Richard Gasquet (who had eliminated World #4 Andy Murray), Li Na v Dominika Cibulkova, and Venus Williams v World #2 Maria Sharapova. The night session featured World #3 Petra Kvitova v Angelique Kerber and World #2 Roger Federer v Andreas Seppi.
Overall, I'd say the Madrid tournament is the tournament that I would more be likely to attend again.
This decision is made on the following reasons:
Accessibility (Madrid): The site of the Madrid Open is very accessible by public transport from the center of the city by Metro, followed by a short (10 minute walk) from the nearest subway stop (San Fermin-Ocasur on the Yellow Line). The Italian Open is a 40-minute bone-jarring bus ride from the Central Train Station and then a short 5-minute walk to the Olympic complex which contains the tennis stadiums.
Fan Friendliness (Tie): The Madrid Open allows absolutely no food or drink to be brought in from outside (these rules are not posted on the tournament website). I had brought two packs of Trader Joe's cranberries, a banana and some locally purchased tangerines and security would not let me enter with even a single piece of fruit after a thorough search of every bag. At the Italian Open you could probably walk in with a pizza (or a gun!) the security was almost negligible with no searching of bags whatsoever.
However, the Madrid site has numerous other aspects which make it more oriented toward the casual tennis fan (give-aways of posters with players names, lots of booths with tennis gear and tournament schwag and a gigantic television screen outside of the main court showing all the scores and the action on the main court).
Tournament Site (Madrid): Madrid's Caja Magica is one of the best tennis venues I have ever been in bar none (and that includes Centre Court at Wimbledon!). It is clearly better (in the sense of being more modern and comfortable to be in with better sight lines) than all of the stadiums at Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows (except perhaps Louis Armstrong Stadium in New York). I haven't been to every court at Flinders Park in Melbourne or Wimbledon but of the British courts since only Centre Court has a roof that is the only court I would say approaches the Caja Magica. I've heard that Hi-Sense Arena and Margaret Court Arena (both of which will have roofs by next year) are excellent stadiums buut I've only been to Rod Laver Arena, which I think is slightly too big. The Magic Box contains three courts in one carpeted arena, which for all intents and purposes are indoor courts because they have retractable roofs. Of course, the blue clay is controversial but the seats are well-marked and the traffic flow of getting fans to their ticketed seat is professionally maintained. Rome's Super Tennis Arena has no marked areas to distinguish the different seating areas and then uses the same numbers to describe two different seats in two different areas! There are no ushers once when gets into the stadium so basically even if you have an assigned seat, it is very unlikely that is where you will be sitting.
Ticketing and Pricing (Madrid): The Italian Open website is a disorganized disaster (though bizarrely, the one thing they do better than Madrid is live-streaming of the matches online) with the ticketing problems already mentioned. Their seating charts of the two main stadium are very misleading (this is a common problem with the seating charts of every tennis stadium I have ever been to!) What is needed is the actual measurements of the stadium and always the location of the umpire's chair to be indicated. If this information was provided I see no reason why any tennis fan would ever buy a ticket to Arthur Ashe Stadium again--it is the absolutely worst tennis stadium in the world to watch a tennis match for the average fan. The Italian Open tickets were slightly cheaper but the availability was significantly reduced. As a fan coming from another country, a site that allows printing of one's ticket from the website is necessary, and ticketone.it only has that option for certain tickets and the Italian Open re-sellers rarely had that option at all. The Madrid Open website allows one to print out tickets directly from it's own website.
City and Country of Event Location (Tie): Both the Italians and the Spaniards have the shocking habit of answering their cellphones (and engaging in a full conversation!) when they ring during a match. As a city and country, Madrid and Spain seem more technologically advanced than Rome and Italy. The Spanish metro is one of the best in the world, with modern, clean trains coming every 2-4 minutes. It's not cheap, but it's fast and efficient. Rome's metro system is like a throwback to New York's subways from the 70s or 80s. They are covered in graffiti and there are only two(!) lines. The bus and tram (light rail) lines are the more efficient way to get around the city, but the city transport service (called ATAC) does not make it easy to find the location of the routes. However, a weekly pass (which allows travel on all bus, tram or subway) is half the price it is in Madrid (or Barcelona) and is an excellent bargain. Yes, there's probably more to see (and eat) in Rome than Madrid as a tourist but the Spanish city is a more livable city (i.e. more grocery stores, easier to get around, cheaper accommodations) and when the tennis is over one has to enjoy the rest of one's stay. The Spaniards really do start eating dinner at 9, 10, 11pm at night but they also have a nap (businesses close) in the middle of the day. It's all very civilized. It's true that while in Italy there are many, many more cities you could visit (Milan, Florence, Venice, etc) while in Spain there are fewer alternate destinations (Barcelona, Seville, Bilbao).
Interestingly, the next tournaments I want to attend are in North America: Sony Ericsson Open in Miami and the Roger Cup in Toronto (or Montreal).