Once again, it is looking likely that Rafael Nadal will be crowned “the King of Monte Carlo.” He has already won the Monte Carlo Masters a truly remarkable 10 times, a statistic that shows his absolute domination of one of the landmark tournaments of tennis. Monte Carlo enjoys that status not just because it is the first significant event of the European clay-court season, but because it takes place on arguably the most beautiful tennis court in the world.
What are the other jewels in the tennis crown and where precisely does Monte Carlo rank in the list of the most aesthetically pleasing events? Here are the five most beautiful tennis courts in the world.
- Hampton Court’s Real Tennis Court
Admittedly, this is something of a cheat, in that it is not a “real” tennis court, as we know it today, but instead a real tennis court, real tennis being the antecedent of modern tennis. It was played indoors, on a court roughly the size of a modern-day court, and undoubtedly the finest surviving real tennis court in the world today is that at Hampton Court, outside London. Legend has it that real tennis was originally only played by ruling monarchs, making it genuinely “the sport of kings”. In more recent times, the modern King of Tennis, Roger Federer, has played exhibition matches on the court.
- Eastbourne’s Stadium Court
Eastbourne’s Stadium Court is relatively small (holding a maximum of only 8,000 people) and rather quaint (like much of the traditional seaside resort in which it is situated), but it is also undeniably lovely. In addition, it is the closest that any other main court on the tennis circuit comes to matching the grandeur of Monte Carlo, albeit that it overlooks the often grey sea off the south coast of England rather than the usual glittering azure of the Mediterranean. Such is its beauty and sheer charm that although the Eastbourne International event is only really a warm-up for Wimbledon, over the years it has still attracted many of the world’s greatest players. In particular, Martina Navratilova won it an incredible 11 times in total, including five times in a row between 1982 and 1986, and often described playing Eastbourne as the ideal preparation for conquering Wimbledon.
- Foro Italico, Rome
Rome’s Foro Italico just edges Roland Garros for inclusion in this list. It was built before the Second World War at the express command of Italy’s then dictator, Benito Mussolini, and initially named after him – “Foro Mussolini”. Mussolini’s ambition was that the surrounding sports complex would help Rome to win the right to stage the 1940 Olympics, but of course the little matter of World War Two put paid to that. However, even if the man who commissioned its construction was the most dangerous of jackasses, the Foro Italico (as it was renamed after the war) is an aesthetic triumph, with its classically red clay usually contrasting beautifully with the blue Roman sky above.
- Centre Court at Queen’s Club
Forget Wimbledon – this is the most beautiful grass court in the world. Wimbledon’s Centre Court is undoubtedly magnificent (especially now that it has a retractable roof, to ensure play in all weather), but its colossal size is such that it simply cannot compete with the Centre Court at Queen’s Club when it comes to pleasing the eye. And when John McEnroe was at his mercurial best in the early to mid 1980s, and usually winning Queen’s before winning Wimbledon (he won Queen’s four times, to go with his hat-trick of Wimbledon singles titles), it was the perfect stage for one of the most beautiful tennis players ever to hold a racket.
- Monte Carlo
The first tennis tournament in Monte Carlo was staged in 1897, so it is possible that such lovers of tennis as F. Scott Fitzgerald (who famously depicted the French Riviera in Tender Is The Night) and Claude Debussy (whose last major orchestral work, Jeux, was a musical depiction of a tennis match) might once have sat in the stands, nominally watching the tennis itself but in reality taking in the whole extraordinary panorama in front of them.
Monte Carlo’s main court is unquestionably the most beautiful tennis court in the world. It is also proof that tennis is the game for aesthetes, such as Fitzgerald and Debussy, being not so much poetry in motion as geometry in motion, as its finest proponents demonstrate almost mathematical genius to hit and retrieve winners.
The only shame about Monte Carlo is that Roger Federer, the most aesthetically pleasing tennis player ever, has never won it. He has been a finalist four times (losing three times to Nadal and once to Stan Wawrinka) but never triumphed beside the Med. Now that he seems to have abandoned clay court tennis forever, in a bid to prolong his career, he almost certainly never will. Consequently, the most beautiful tennis player ever will probably never hold aloft the winner’s trophy on the most beautiful tennis court in the world, and for all Nadal’s fist-pumping, bicep-bulging brilliance, that is undoubtedly a source of regret.