Italian Open in Rome: best clay ATP 1000 event and city?

Seeing the broadcast on Tennis Channel back in 2013, I remember sitting in the unfurnished attic of my mixed doubles tennis partner. We watched a delayed replay of the clay court event on her small TV.

The footage was grainy and did not do the location justice, but I knew there was something magical there about the Foro Italico.

Even after I had witnessed the French Open in 2009, the smaller Masters Series events had a more appealing allure to being close to the players while still being among the local people of the community.

It was spectacular, with giant white marble statues surrounding a tennis stadium's outdoor garden.  I remarked that one day I would be there. The eternal city of Rome, Italy, would be on my tennis bucket list.

Fast forward to Spring 2016...

I decide to apply for a very last-minute request for a media pass. The chances of getting into a Masters 1000 ATP/WTA combined event are slim, but since I had been putting it off so many years, I would at least try.

However, after answering a few questions in Italian with the help of Google Translate, I explained my situation. I presented my portfolio of work covering many other tournaments as both a writer and a photographer at many other events.

A few days later, I received an email back in Italian. Usually, a short letter is a bad sign (just like college acceptance letters). But this time, I was pleasantly surprised after I had translated it. It read:

"Siamo lieti di informarla che la Sua richiesta di ACCREDITO PERMANTENTE agli Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2016 รจ stata approvata."
We are pleased to inform you that your request for "ALL-TOURNAMENT" accreditation to Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2016 was approved.

The acceptance letter also included instructions on how to book accommodations and transportation for a hotel.

This gave me less than 2 weeks' notice! But with that vote of support and a clear 4-5 days to travel on a decent budget, I went for it.

How do you buy tickets online for Europe when traveling from America? (Bring your passport!)

As they say, "When in Rome..."

After a short stopover in Munich, my final stop was Rome at Leonardo Da Vinci Airport. I arrived late at night and immediately took the train to the central station of Termini for a taxi ride to my hotel.

The speedy cab driver raced through the town at night, giving me a sense of the city's urgent vibrancy with all the scooters and mini-compacts zipping through traffic.

Everyone was always practicing for a Grand Touring race in one's own Citigo, Citroen, or Mini.

Italian Fashion extends into the soul of its food, streets, and especially cars.

Its hospitality is warm, animated, and very personable. I found that knowing a little bit of Italian helped a long way (or Google Translate).

With Google Maps and a few helpful hand gestures by locals, I usually got where I needed to go.

Europe in the Spring
May is the perfect weather for tennis and tourists alike - between 65-75 F most days. There were only a couple hours of rain during my stay, but mostly clear skies.

Media Hotel and Walking the Neighborhood

My hotel looked historic, about 1-2 km from the Foro Italico site of the Italian Open. It was also just a few kilometers from the Vatican.

I recall the tiny old elevator barely fitting my suitcase and me inside before sending me up. Likely it had been remodeled in the last 10-15 years. I could tell the original structure dated decades before anyone here was alive. The ages are literally layered upon the city.

In the morning, Roman life's bustle fills the neighborhood. It slowly and gradually peeps into your window as a reminder of its daily life.

You wake up to construction crews whistling at a construction site, cars with staccato horns urging the mini log jams to move along. Women with young school children crossing the narrow streets. Patrons in small cafe bars ordering their expressos and Ciao'ing each other with a peck on the cheek.

I lived uphill from the river, so a brisk walk in the morning eventually got me there. There were several chic Italian cafes along the way. One was a classic coffee shop offering sandwiches with crusts perfectly trimmed into fluffy, white triangles.
Unfortunately, the opposite was true at night when walking back up the cobblestone hills. The journey home would make for a much more adventurous trek home with vagabonds living under the archways of some Roman bridges.

The footpath back was wide but not well-lit. Staying next to the river, it was hard to get lost.

There was also a bus option, but getting there took a long time. I definitely did not want to take the wrong one.

4 Reasons to Visit Rome for Tennis

1) Top Men and Women players worldwide.

Much more accessible and affordable than any grand slam.

If you only want to see the best matches in 1 week's time, the Masters Series is the place to look. It is much less crowded, and you get to the "business end" quickly among the World's Top 50 competitors playing in the 1st and 2nd rounds.

Everyone at the tournament competes at a very high caliber, so chances are that anyone you see is big or will be big in the tennis world.

2) The Eternal City (Rome)

It is just a few minutes away from the city center - perfect for post-match evening strolls to see the Vatican City or sample any of the wide range of delicious foods and restaurants.

There are lots of amazing sights to see. At night the city is a whole new world. I would highly
recommend an evening Segway tour if you are in a hurry or do not want to walk everywhere.

The beauty of the city really comes out at night. You should spend a few hours checking it out by bus or simply walking.

3) Rome rivals Madrid and Paris (...for both its Clay Courts and City Scapes)

The backdrop and cityscape are a lot more natural and open. Unlike Monte-Carlo, it is bigger and offers ATP and WTA (Women) players in the same event. Basically, it's the same price for twice the player's field.

Even though the Caja Magica in Madrid offers a roof as insurance from the rain... the metallic look of the campus makes everything feel and sound very tinny. Madrid's high altitude and fast court speed also do not translate well to Roland Garros.

"Everybody knows that Madrid is the most different tournament on clay -- at the same time it is the most difficult one because the ball flies a lot." - Rafael Nadal (press conference, 2018)

On the other hand, Rome has a much more similar condition to Paris - making it a true preview of the events only a week away.

You will get a better vacation and culinary experience in Rome than in most parts of Europe.

4) Food, Wine, Culture, and Sport is all here.

A mix of many other ancient civilizations, such as Egypt, Gaul, and Spanish, have influenced art and architecture.

Thousands of years of history are on display and preserved for the millions of tourists who visit each year.

If you enjoyed movies such as Gladiator, Eat Pray Love, or even Ben Hur - you will enjoy the ambiance of the Roman Colosseum.

Media Access and Navigating the Campus

Arriving at the Tennis site on foot, I was directed to a small building a few blocks further. By mid-week, I was lucky as the line was much shorter to pick up my badge. After a short wait, they printed my picture ID pass and put me in as a Media Journalist / Writer.

I entered the Media center space on the 2nd floor along the back wing of the main stadium complex.

It was intimidating, to say the least when I first arrived. Everything was in Italian, and I did not recognize anyone from my previous Media tents.

However, after appearing day and night - I quickly knew the lay of the land, and the gatekeepers learned to recognize me.

Soon, the staff became more comfortable with my presence there.

Roaming around and discovering all the behind-the-scenes spots was part of the fun.

Intimate Practice Court Views

The proximity to the top players, including Federer (over my shoulder) was amazing. If one entered early and knew where to go, one could easily see most of the top 10 players within just a few rows in a day. This is the tournament where Serena met her future husband.

Because there are not many top players in Italian Tennis, there is simply less pressure here than in Madrid (Nadal with the Spanish Armada), or in England (Brits pushing Andy Murray in the UK).

I could easily see young guns like Thiem, Zverev, and Nishikori almost everywhere on the practice courts.

When there was a big match with Nadal on center, you often found the eventual French Open Champion, Wawrinka, practicing on a side court simultaneously.

Traveling from one side to the other was not too challenging or far. It usually took longer simply to queue up to enter a court than to get there from the grounds.

I feel like the Italian culture of food, friends, and family echoes well throughout the people and city.

Canon Professional Services (CPS)

Specifically, I want to highlight how impressed I was by the Canon CPS representatives in Rome. The small group of Italian photographers representing Canon CPS Europe was very generous and professional. They showed up every day to field the equipment.

In contrast, the USA CPS group talked a lot but offered very little at the US Open. After a few loaners and cleanings, it was not worth renewing my Gold membership for very limited benefits here in the States.

The best photographers in the world
In particular, the Italian Photographers were very my favorite bunch, and I quickly found some friends there. They were gracious enough to accept me as their own and even included me with them in their photographer section.

Even with just my press pass and a Rebel Ti4 camera at the time, they were very gracious and allowed me to loan out the 5D mark 3 and top-of-the-line 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II lens (valued together at over $5000) simply by showing them my passport and media credentials.

In truth, the French Open could be called the Spanish Open. Nadal has conquered the capital for over 20 years. Spanish Tennis with Carlos Alcarez, it will likely dominate another 20 more. I favor relocating the clay Grand Slam between Italy and Spain until France can return it.

Each day, I could just check in and check out the lens I needed without having to lug it all the way back to my hotel.

On my very last day, I was even given a 5D Canon full-frame camera to capture some of the best shots in my Rome Portfolio during the match with Nadal and Djokovic.

I was so impressed with the pictures that I bought the latest 5D Mark IV and a 70-200 f/2.8 lens just a year later.

I was grouped with photographer Cesare Grasselli and his team in rotation for the big stadium matches.

The photographer groups organized themselves into small teams of 5-8 members. Each group was granted a small armband that allowed access to the Center Court photo pit.

On my final day, I was selected by the Italian team leader to lead off. That meant I was first into the photo pit entrance to cover Rafa vs Novak! 
Photo Assignments
1) Players' Entrance
2) Pre-match Warm-ups
3) First 3 games of the 1st set
4) Run back to pass the armband

Seeing Nadal vs Djokovic on clay from this close-up was definitely the highlight moment of the trip for me. Meeting the Uniqlo Japanese photographer, Sato-san, and shooting next to him was also a big honor.

Leaving the pit, I nearly got run over by Novak while he was sprinting inside the staging area - this was completely my bad as I was rushing to the front!

Later, I found an area behind the baseline where ballboys and photographers could camp out to get ground-level baseline shots. The highlight movie above was shot there.

This provided an amazing location to take highlight videos of some matches.

Although access was limited to this area, it was well-designed and offered a vastly different perspective than any other I had seen at any other event prior.

What is it like to watch Clay Tennis from below Court Level? 

Nishikori and Thiem - warm up from the back-stage angle

Rome Trip Advice

I highly recommend Google Flights, Airbnb, and Uber to get around. Good luck!
Please send us a comment or picture if you can make it to this amazing event one day.

My next Italy photo tour preview features Milan and Turin for ATP Finals.

European Spring Swing for Tennis

Tip: Get tennis tickets in advance if you can, or buy them for retail at the box office, but the lines can be long. I would recommend StubHub for any resell tickets you cannot find locally.

For more European clay events, check out Germany and Spain for great tennis and adventures.

Federer Trophy Pose - Full Shoulder Turn