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Smashing Records and Expectations: Drama at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters

At the beginning of April, all the attention of Monegasque sports fans is traditionally focused on the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, one of the most important sporting events in the Principality. Though the participation in this tournament is not mandatory for the world’s top players, many tennis stars come to Monaco to compete for victory. Let’s remember which famous tennis players managed to win the coveted cup, and the others too for whom missing out on the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters Trophy will remain a painful disappointment.

A Little History and Quirky Tale of the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters Venue Itself

The Monte-Carlo Masters had a most interesting story at its origin that spanned various locales, leaving a trail of tennis balls and unique legend.

The modern Monte-Carlo Country Club was originally named “Lawn Tennis de Monte-Carlo”; it was located just behind the Hôtel de Paris with the date of the foundation: 2nd April 1893. In the mystical tennis realms of 1896, its first major tournament, named the Monte Carlo International, emerged. It was George Whiteside Hillyard who clinched the first men’s singles title. The women’s event’s victor remains a mystery, tangled between a Miss K. Booth from Britain and a mysterious Mlle Guillon of France. Even Wimbledon librarian Alan Little, despite his valiant efforts, couldn’t decipher the enigma. And sometimes the tennis spectacle had more humble settings than today taking place also on red shale clay courts hidden beneath and behind the Grand Hôtel de Paris until 1905.

Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters
© Valentin Bréton for Hello Monaco

Seeking new adventures, it shifted to La Condamine from 1906 to 1914, offering other sports like archery and croquet — that allowed the enlarging of the Hôtel de Paris. The whims of the tournament even led it to the roof of a garage in Beausoleil, where tennis aficionados witnessed the sport’s acrobatics. On January 28, 1921, with new tennis courts and a spectator haven, the event found its home with the quirky name — the “La Festa Country Club.”

The current home of the Tournament is the prestigious Monte-Carlo Country Club which was inaugurated in a very regal affair in February 1928 by H.S.H. Prince Louis II of Monaco, in the presence of the tennis enthusiast, King Gustave V of Sweden, the Duke of Connaught, Prince Nicolas of Greece, the Grand Duchess Helene and the Grand Duke André of Russia. Ten months later it was baptised “The Monte-Carlo Country Club”.

In 1969, the tournament joined the Open Era competition. The Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters belongs to the men’s ATP Masters 1000 series. Tournaments in this series are the most prestigious after the Grand Slam tournaments. The tournament has had its current name since 2009 (previous names were Monte-Carlo Open, Tennis Masters Series – Monte-Carlo, Tennis Masters Monte-Carlo, ATP Master Series Monte-Carlo, Masters Series Monte-Carlo).

An absolute triumph

Rafael Nadal with his eleven victories remains the star of the tournament in Monte-Carlo. Rafa won eight tournaments in a row from 2005 to 2012 and three tournaments from 2016 to 2018. Rafael Nadal’s dominance reached unparalleled heights in 2017 as he clinched his tenth Monte Carlo title. The historic victory, a 6:1, 6:3 triumph over Albert Ramos-Vinolas, marked Nadal as the first man in the Open Era to achieve such a remarkable feat, further solidifying his legacy on clay.

The closest rivals are hopelessly behind Nadal: they are Björn Borg, Thomas Muster and Ilie Năstase with three wins each, Novak Djokovic, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Mats Wilander, Gustavo Kuerten, Guillermo Vilas and Stefanos Tsitsipas have two each.

In 2018, the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort inaugurated a suite in honour of Nadal. The 92 m² room features some of Nadal’s personal items and features numerous images of him on the walls.

Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal attending the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters. Photo: Gianni Ciaccia

Star Losers

In 2014, in an all-Swiss final, Stan Wawrinka seized his opportunity to capture his first Masters 1000 crown, winning 4:6, 7:6(5), 6:2 against Roger Federer. Wawrinka showed rare resilience to win the title in the absence of pre-tournament favourite Nadal, who was eliminated in the quarter-final. This was Federer’s fourth and last Monte-Carlo Masters final. Wawrinka denied Roger the chance to win in Monte-Carlo at least once in his life… In 2022, the great Roger retired without receiving this coveted title.

The Monaco tournament has never been won by such World No. 1s as Stefan Edberg, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras.

The 2006 100th Edition, First Part Of Nadal vs. Federer Trilogy

In the centennial edition, the Monte-Carlo Masters showcased a clash of titans as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal faced off in the first part of their legendary trilogy. Nadal triumphed in a high-quality final, extending his clay-court winning streak to 42 matches. This match set the stage for two more epic finals between the tennis greats in 2007 and 2008. The supremely gifted Federer would never defeat Nadal, the genius on clay in Monte-Carlo.

In 2013 Djokovic ended Nadal’s eight-year reign having proved that nothing is forever, even Nadal’s winning streak on clay. Djokovic’s exceptional play broke Nadal’s 46-match winning streak at the venue, showcasing the Serbian’s prowess on clay.

Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters
Roger Federer competing at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters. Photo: Gianni Ciaccia

Shock defeats of Djokovic and Sampras

The 2016 edition brought a seismic shock as World number 55 Jiří Veselý derailed Novak Djokovic’s juggernaut. Veselý, displaying remarkable composure, clinched a stunning 6:4, 2:6, 6:4 victory, marking Djokovic’s earliest defeat on the ATP World Tour in three years. This unexpected loss disrupted Djokovic’s impressive winning streak, adding a memorable chapter to Monte-Carlo’s history.

Djoko wasn’t the only World #1 to fall to his knees in defeat in a Monte-Carlo upset. Pete Sampras suffered the same humiliation. In an unexpected turn of events, Pete Sampras, in 1992 the World number four, faced a formidable challenge from the 40th-ranked German, Carl-Uwe Steeb. Despite Sampras’ stellar career, Steeb’s explosive start and nerves of steel secured a 6:3, 6:4 victory, marking one of the most surprising defeats for the American.

Too long a wait for the Italians and French

Go down the Honour Roll of the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters and you’ll see a plethora of Spanish names over the past 30 years, but no sign of any Italians. In fact, you need to go back to Nicola Pietrangeli, who won his third crown in 1968, before the Open Era, to find the last Italian singles winner. But that changed in 2019, when Fabio Fognini recorded wins in Monaco over Andrey Rublev, Alexander Zverev, Borna Ćorić and three-time defending champion Nadal in the semi-finals. He got the cherry on the cake with a 6:3, 6:4 win over Dušan Lajović to become the first Italian to capture a Masters 1000 title.

The Italians were not alone in lengthy periods of famine. Cedric Pioline etched his name in history, ending a 37-year wait for a French champion in Monaco. It was Pierre Darmon, at that time No.8 in the world rating, who brought a victory for France in 1963. Battling through steady rain, Pioline secured the title with a hard-fought victory over Dominic Hrbaty, marking a milestone triumph for French tennis. Since then, Gaël Monfils is the sole Frenchman to reach the final, achieving the feat in 2016.

Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters
Princess Charlène of Monaco, Rafael Nadal (the winner), Prince Albert II of Monaco and Elisabeth Anne de Massy, President of the Monegasque Tennis Federation, at the 2018 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters. © Agence Realis Monaco

And what about the doubles?

The US twins Mike and Bob Bryan remain the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters record holders in doubles with their nine finals and six victories. To be honest, the formidable brothers also had unfortunate defeats. Thus, in the 2013 final, the Bryans gave up seven match points to Julien Benneteau and Nenad Zimonjić, who were playing together for the first time, and lost with a score of 6:4, 6:7(4:7), 12:14.

How Djoko & Neymar had fun in Monte-Carlo

“Keepie uppie” is the skill of juggling with a football using feet, lower legs, knees, chest, shoulders, and head, without allowing the ball to hit the ground. And guess who is good enough at it to dare to play it with Paris Saint-Germain superstars Neymar and Marco Verratti?

It is Monaco’s Novak Djokovic, the world number 1 tennis player who in 2022 took a break from his preparations for the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters one Monday, to test his skills on the football pitch.

Pretty brave even for the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) Novak. Neymar is one of the most renowned names in world football and has scored 71 goals for Brazil’s national team, while Italy’s Verratti is known as one of Europe’s most skillful and tenacious midfielders.

Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters
Princess Charlène of Monaco, Andrey Rublev (the winner), Prince Albert II of Monaco, Holger Rune and Mélanie-Antoinette de Massy, President of the Monegasque Tennis Federation, after the singles final match in 2023 @ Alamy.com

Two unforgettable duels at the Monte-Carlo Masters

Muster against Becker

The 1995 Monte-Carlo final witnessed a titanic struggle between Thomas Muster and Boris Becker. Muster, riding a remarkable 21-match winning streak on clay, faced adversity in the semi-final against Andrea Gaudenzi, experiencing fatigue and dehydration as he clinched victory but spent the night in a hospital, hooked to a drip.

The final pitted Muster recovering from extreme fatigue against a determined Becker, eager for his maiden clay-court title. Becker took a commanding two-set lead. However, Muster’s clay-court prowess emerged in a spectacular turnaround, winning the next three sets, including a thrilling tiebreak in the fourth. Down 0:4 in the tiebreak, Muster’s resilience saved two championship points, triggering Becker’s frustrations.

In the fifth set, Muster exhibited sheer dominance, securing a 6:0 victory. This triumph extended Muster’s 1995 clay-court streak to 40, solidifying his legacy. Becker, questioning Muster’s performance, faced repercussions as he was later fined by the ATP for insinuating Muster may have taken stimulants to overcome his extreme fatigue from his prior semi-final. Muster continued his clay-court dominance, concluding the year with a staggering 65-2 win-loss record on clay. And for Muster, this triumph propelled him to World No. 1 in February 1996.

Becker, who committed 82 unforced errors, reflected on missed opportunities: “I had all the chances in the world. But he didn’t give up.” Years later, when he ended his career, the German was left to rue one of the toughest losses of his career.

© Agence Realis Monaco

Vilas against Connors

Another remarkable duel pitted Guillermo Vilas against Jimmy Connors in a Rain-Soaked Drama from 1981. With the stage set at the normally sunny and glamorous Monte-Carlo Country Club, the lack of sun on that day was compensated for by the anticipation of an intriguing final.

Connors, not renowned for clay success, faced clay-court maestro Vilas (the GOAT prior to Nadal) in a contest of opposing styles. Connors at that point had never won a tournament on this surface in Europe. But given Connors’ smooth run to the final without dropping a set and Vilas’ experience on clay, the final promised a riveting battle. However, a sudden downpour transformed the clay court into a muddy pond, halting the match at 5:5 in the first set.

Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters
© Agence Realis Monaco

Vilas and Connors are forced to get back to the dressing room, the day a wash-out and without knowing when the match will be resumed.

Connors had already planned on attending some north-american tournaments, and with the organizer’s approval, the two men decide to resume the match on June 7th, the day after the Roland-Garros final. It won’t be the case. Connors argued that he needed to prepare for the grass season before Wimbledon, and escaped playing a rematch facing accusations he was a spoilsport.

Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters
© Agence Realis Monaco

The absence of regulations obliging match completion left the tournament organizers in a quandary, leading to an unresolved final. Vilas, briefly declared the winner (later amended to show the final remained undecided) faced mixed emotions, while Connors missed an opportunity to write his name alongside the biggest in Monte-Carlo history. He never won in Monte-Carlo, leaving a question mark on his legend. Nor did he ever win Roland Garros.

If you want to be one of the GOATs you need to win a major clay court tournament!

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