*By Feliciano López
17 October 2002. It is a date that will always be etched into my mind. I close my eyes and I can still clearly see the memory of the first edition of the Mutua Madrid Open in the Rocódromo in Casa de Campo, digging deep in a match in which I was close to beating Andre Agassi (6-7, 7-6, 5-7) in the third round. Although I didn’t manage to win, it was a magical defeat and one of the most special days of my career in an unbeatable and emotional tennis atmosphere. That day I knew that I was ready to compete with the best in the world. Now, 16 years on from my invitation from Manolo Santana to fulfil a dream, the journey continues with a challenge that I face with great keenness and excitement.
It is, without doubt, a grand responsibility to succeed a legend of Spanish sport, a person whose goes above and beyond tennis. He has been an indispensable symbol, bastion and guide for the establishment of the tournament in Madrid, for its success every single year and for its integration into the genetics of the city. My admiration for Manolo goes beyond the tennis courts. We met when I was a child of just 13. When I started to stand out at that age, he followed my training sessions and contacted my father. Since then we have maintained a great relationship. He has always looked out for me, showed interest in my career and has been affectionate with me. He even helped me when I left for Barcelona.
Just as he has been for me, he is a role model for national tennis. He was a pioneer in winning Wimbledon in 1966, when just playing on grass was unthinkable for any Spanish player, let alone taking a title on it. He also won the Musketeers’ Trophy at Roland Garros in 1961 and 1964, and the 1965 US Open. His record speaks for itself. And as if that weren’t enough, I have been lucky to share a fantastic relationship with him and he was quick to lend me a hand, once again, throughout this transition as I succeed him in his role starting from the next edition of the Mutua Madrid Open.
Taking on this position is special to me for many reasons. The first, as I say, is because it is an honour to take over from the man who will become Honorary President in May 2018, so that his name may live on eternally in the history of the tournament. Also because this place has been like a home to me for the last 16 years, I have always helped out a lot and felt at one with all the people that form part of this big family. From Ion Tiriac to Gerard Tsobanian and Alberto Berasategui, whose role deserves special recognition.
At the time, I was the person who lent most support and wanted Alberto to be the player liaison at the Mutua Madrid Open. I knew he was the ideal person because he has been a friend, colleague and training partner since I was a kid, we shared the same coach and later he was my coach. Berasategui has been a very important person in my sporting life and I knew that he would suit the profile perfectly. When Manolo Santana spoke to me about that position, we agreed that he was the best person for it.
For all these reasons, being the director of the Mutua Madrid Open is great news and, of course, a great opportunity at the end of my career. Perhaps, Tommy Haas laid the foundations at Indian Wells, another ATP Masters 1000 event, and my name came up from among all the candidates. I think it is a great idea to get behind active or recently retired players and that we can work at tournaments of this standard. We know the tour and live alongside the players every day, which is important for knowing the feeling in the dressing room and what it expects of a tournament.
As soon as Manolo spoke to me about the proposal, we worked on the idea and I was quick and happy to accept the position. But obviously there are still things I have to learn, because for the director of a tournament like this there are many other internal functions you have to fully understand. It has a far broader dimension, implicating several aspects that I will be learning throughout this year in order to be more prepared when my turn comes around. First I wanted to share Santana’s 80th birthday and pay homage to him as he deserves on the day his name will become eternal in the Caja Mágica. We have planned it in this way with a transition towards 2019 in mind.
The Mutua Madrid Open is a tournament in constant progression, going through different phases. But it was well received from the very beginning. Madrid was longing for a world-class tennis tournament and it was successful from outset. From the Casa de Campo it moved to the Caja Mágica, a facility that was born of Madrid’s Olympic candidacy. The change only brought good news: a tournament with more days of competition, men’s and women’s draws, etc., but the most important thing was its identity; it now forms part of the city.
People are anxious for May’s arrival so that they can go to the tennis, not just fans but also thousands of people who want to enjoy a day out with the family at another event in the city. To do this takes a lot of time and dedication from the team that has worked hard for all these years to achieve it. It’s a lot more than just a tennis tournament, it’s a festival of sport, events and activities. And that will be my goal, for the Mutua Madrid Open to continue forming part of the city’s DNA.