Is There Magic in the Box?

Wednesday, May 07, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

A friend emailed me after I wrote my “Clay-Court Curmudgeon” post a few days ago to let me know that in some quarters, the Caja Mágica—the site of the ongoing Madrid Open—is commonly called the “Caja Tragica.”

So much for that seductive “Magic Box” (the English translation of Caja Mágica) theme. . .

Just the other day, my pal Neil Harman of London’s The Times fired out this tweet: “Sitting in Madrid wondering if I’ve ever seen a smaller international press contingent at any Masters/Premier event.”

And that was even before Roger Federer joined Novak Djokovic on the sidelines.

Okay, so it’s not a great year for Madrid. But then, how many have been?

The point I made in my “curmudgeon” column is that the Caja Mágica, despite being highly touted as a state-of-the-art venue when it opened in 2009, is a lousy place to experience tennis. All that “high-tech” metal is low-tech ugly. The box is so bland and severely angular that you couldn’t hide any magic in there if you tried, and Fabio Fognini alone can’t make up for that.

More distressing, the attendance seems to bear out the theory that fans aren’t exactly flocking to Madrid. My only caveat to these thoughts is that I haven’t attended the event in person, so perhaps with boots on the ground I’d feel very differently. But few people have suggested that I might.

All this wouldn’t be so bad a thing were Madrid just another run-of-the-mill event—even a Masters 1000 on the order of, say, Cincinnati, or Miami. But a lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into creating this tournament. It put another Masters event, Hamburg, out of business; in doing so, it almost led to the ATP going belly up (only a narrow victory for the establishment in a court of law averted that). It has ruffled a lot of feathers and led to a fair amount of tinkering with the calendars of the respective tours.

The big question is, Was it all worth it?

When Ion Tiriac, who owned the original Madrid franchise (granted in 2002, to replace his former tournament property in Essen, Germany), launched the machinations that created Madrid as we now know it, his dream was to create a fifth Grand Slam. In typical fashion, he was frank and rational about this desire. As he once asked me in the course of a long conversation, “Where is it written that the world should have only four Grand Slam events?”

Of course, wanting to create a fifth major and then getting the public to actually check off on it are two vastly different things. I believe Tiriac has learned that since he managed to get his tournament moved out of the fall indoor season and into the choice, spring clay-court stretch. Madrid has been part of the “road to Roland Garros” since 2009, but it’s uncertain if the road really leads to the French Open, or into a cul de sac where there’s just a nice big pile of money awaiting the winners.

Tiriac did a masterful job selling the idea of his tournament, but what he was able to promise now seems to be part of the problem.

It was all irresistible to the lords of tennis: The game would have a new clay-court tournament in sunny Madrid—as opposed to cool, rainy Hamburg—expanded into a combined event and muscled into the calendar in such a way that it eliminated a huge problem for the ATP. Before Madrid’s shuffle, Hamburg and Rome were Masters events held in back-to-back weeks. That led to the famous “double pull-out” following the Rome Masters of 2006.

That year, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played one of the greatest matches of their rivalry, a five-hour final won by Rafa, 7-6 in the fifth. The clash was so debilitating that the following day both men withdrew from Hamburg. They even went to the German city to apologize and explain in person at a press conference.

That proved to be a kiss of death for Hamburg, and a stroke of remarkably good luck for Tiriac. And don’t for a moment think he didn’t make the most of how his ambitions might help solve that quandary. Of course, Tiriac also didn’t want to play Madrid right before the French Open, like Hamburg was, because it would work against his aspirations to build his event’s significance.

That may have been a miscalculation in at least one way. Coming as it does more or less in the middle of the clay-court season, Madrid is a somewhat expendable event, at least in relative terms. Even if you miss it, you still have Rome and then another week of small events to dial in your game for Roland Garros. And if you’ve already played the opening segment of the season, you’re game isn’t likely to need a heck of a lot of dialing.

Tiriac might have outfoxed even himself on this front, but there’s one other important factor to consider, and that’s the role of Barcelona in all this. Given that Madrid is the Spanish capital and it hosts a Masters 1000 event—as opposed to Barcelona, a mere ATP 500—you’d think it would be the premier tennis tournament in Spain. But that honor remains with Barcelona, and for some good reasons:

1. As the 11th longest-running international event and officially the International Spanish Championships (Open), Barcelona is the most prestigious of all Spanish tournaments.

2. The Real Club Tennis Barcelona, its the host site, has long associations with the history of the game and with Spanish royalty. The snob appeal of Barcelona is off-the-charts, and don’t ever discount that in tennis.

3. Barcelona is of critical importance to every Spanish player; there isn’t a domestic tournament that any of them long to win with greater determination. This year's 48-player tournament featured 15 Spaniards and was won by Kei Nishikori—the first non-Spaniard to win there since 2002. All this inevitably diminishes the status of Madrid.

4. In this era of windfall endorsement and appearance fees, prize-money is not nearly the inducement it once was, even if the number of rankings points on offer in Madrid is greater.

Tiriac is a European man. There’s no question that he was aware of all these factors when he pushed to create his event. But the question that still lingers, in the fifth year of the Madrid Open, is: Did Tiriac bite off more than he can chew?

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