Italian Open in Rome: why it is the best Masters event to attend

Back in 2013, I remember sitting in the unfurnished attic at one of my
mixed doubles tennis partner's home. We watched a delayed replay of the clay court event on Tennis Channel.

The footage was grainy but I knew there was something magical about the Foro Italico. Although I had experienced the French Open in 2009, the smaller Masters Series events had a more appealing allure lately.

With giant white marble statues surrounding the outdoor garden of a tennis stadium, it was spectacular.  I remarked that one day I would be there. Rome, Italy - the eternal city 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.

But after answering a few questions in Italian with the help of Google Translate, I explained my situation and presented my portfolio of work covering many other tournaments as both a reporter and a fan.

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 that I was accepted!

"Siamo lieti di informarla che la Sua richiesta di ACCREDITO PERMANTENTE agli Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2016 è 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 for a hotel and transportation.

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

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.

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

It seemed like 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).

Google Maps along with a few helpful hand gestures by locals usually got me to 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 very 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 fit my suitcase and me inside. Likely remodeled in the last 10-15 years, I could tell the original structure dated many decades long before anyone here was alive. The ages are literally layered upon the city.

In the morning, the bustle of Roman Life 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.

In the morning I lived uphill from the river, so a brisk walk eventually got me there. There were several chic Italian cafes along the way. One was a classic coffee shop offering sandwiches with the crusts perfectly trimmed into fluffy, white triangles.
Unfortunately, at night the opposite was true when walking up the cobblestone hills. The journey back would make for a much more adventurous trek home with vagabones 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 it took a long time in-between and I definitely did not want to take the wrong one.

4 Reasons to Visit Rome for Tennis

1) The Rome Event features both the Top Men and Women players in the world.

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" of the top 50 competition in the 1st and 2nd rounds.

Practically everyone at the tournament plays at a very high caliber, so chances are that anyone you see is big in the tennis world.

2) The Italian Open is held at 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. By bus or simply walking, you should spend a few hours to check it out.

3) Rome rivals Madrid and Paris (...for Clay Court Tennis)

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

Even though the Caja Magica in Madrid offers a roof as insurance from the rain...its metallic look of the campus makes everything feel and sound very tinny. The high altitude and fast court speed in Madrid also does 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 most parts of Europe.

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

There is a mix of many other Ancient Civilizations such as Egyptian, Gaul and Spanish influence the art and architecture.

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

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

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 which was 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, very quickly 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 scene spots was part of the fun.

Really, Really Up-close 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, you could easily see most of the top 10 players within just a few rows in a day.

Because there are not many top players with 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 was easily able to see young guns like Thiem, Zverev, and Nishikori on the practice courts almost everywhere.

When there was a big match with Nadal on center, often you would find the eventual French Open Champion Wawrinka practicing on a side court at the same time.

Traveling from one side to the other was not too challenging nor 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. The small group of Italian photographers representing Canon CPS Europe were very generous, professional and showed up every day.

Canon Professional Services (CPS)

Specifically, I want to highlight how impressed I was by the Canon CPS representatives at Rome.

The best photographers in the world
In particular, the 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 top of the line 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II lens (valued at over $2000) simply by showing them my passport and credentials.

Each day, I could just check in and check out the lens I needed without having to luge 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 later I bought the latest 5D Mark IV and a 70-200 lens just a year later.

I was grouped with photographer Cesare Grasselli's team.
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 one of the teams to lead off. That meant I was first into the photo pit to cover: 

1) Players' Entrance, 2) Pre-match Warm-ups and 3) First 3 games of the 1st set

Seeing Nadal vs Djokovic on clay from this close up was definitely the highlight moment of the trip for me.

Getting down to the pit, I nearly ran into Novak while he was doing his sprints inside the staging area I was so excited!

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 some highlight videos of some of the matches.

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

Watching Tennis from the Ground Floor Level  

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

Rome Trip Advice

I highly recommend Google Flights, AirBnB, plus using Uber to get around. Good luck! Please send us a comment or picture if you are able to make it to this amazing event one day.

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 Viagogo to get resell tickets internationally.

Just be sure to bring your ID and Passport if you get an e-ticket so they can verify you when you enter.