The Italian Open, with its long and important history as the biggest clay court tournament next to Roland Garros, is still viewed by many as being a key indicator as to who will raise the French Open trophy each year.
Started in 1930, the event was first held in Milan at the Tennis Club Milano. Five years later, the tournament moved to Rome and to its present location at the Foro Italico near the Tiber river. In 1961, the event took place in Turin as part of the Italian unification celebrations while in the 1980’s the women’s event was held in Perugia and Taranto. But ever since both men’s and women’s tournaments are held in Rome each year. In 2011, the two events were combined.
The men’s tournament is denoted by the ATP as a Masters Series 1000 event. The women’s tournament is designed by the WTA as a Premier 5 event.
Five Italian men and three Italian women have won their country’s biggest title. Nicola Pietrangeli, who won in 1957 and 1961, is considered to be the nation’s greatest champion. In fact, the old stadium at Foro Italico was named in his honor on his 73rd birthday.
Adriano Panatta was the last Italian man to win the title in 1976. Raffaella Reggi was the last Italian woman to win back in 1985.
As far as all-time winners go at the event, Chris Evert and Rafael Nadal lead that list. Evert won five titles while Nadal, who is this year’s defending men’s champion, has claimed six titles.
On the men’s side, the Italian Open has certainly seen its share of surprise winners and classic matches. In 2002, Andre Agassi became the last American man to win the title over a then very young Tommy Haas 6-3, 6-3, 6-0. A year later, Spain’s Felix Mantilla stunned Roger Federer in the finals even though Federer was considered the favorite to win the whole thing. Ironically, though Federer has reached the finals of Rome twice, he’s never won there making it one of the few tournaments that the Swiss superstar doesn’t have on his resume.
A classic clay court duel in 2005 between Rafael Nadal and Argentina’s Guillermo Coria went the five set distance becoming one of the most watched sporting finals in all of Italy that year. Nadal eventually won his first Italian Open title in a dramatic fifth set tiebreak 6–4, 3–6, 6–3, 4–6, 7-6(6).
Novak Djokovic became the first Serbian to ever win the title in 2008 when he beat Stanislas Wawrinka. Djokovic would repeat three years later as champion in 2011 after defeating Nadal in the finals as part of Djokovic’s then record winning streak.
Last year, Nadal would return the favor by beating Djokovic to reclaim his Italian Open title.
On the women’s side, the Italian Open has quite a few surprise winners, including some who had considerable success in Rome, only to fall short at the French Open.
For example, both Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina and Spain’s Conchita Martinez each won the title four times. But neither was able to replicate taking home the trophy in Paris that same year.
Jelena Jankovic, a winner in 2007 and 2008, looked a lock to win the title a third time in 2010 after she beat both Serena and Venus Williams in earlier rounds. But Jankovic was stunned in the finals by Spain’s Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez who used a clever slice forehand and her trademark serve and volley game to win 7-6(5), 7-5 to take what then and now is the biggest title of her career.
Despite once calling herself a “cow on ice” when asked to describe her movement on clay, Maria Sharapova found Rome to be the perfect spot to perfect her clay court game. Sharapova won the event in 2011 making it the biggest clay title of her career. She repeated as champion in 2012 over China’s Li Na. Sharapova then went on to win the French Open a few weeks later.
Serena Williams, who many consider a favorite for this year’s French Open, has won Rome once in 2002. Williams went on that year to win her first, and still only, Roland Garros championship.
With its stunning layout and intimate setting for fans to watch the greatest players in the world compete, the Italian Open remains one of the jewels of the tennis season. Those who do well there certainly become “ones to watch” as they head to Paris for the French Open.