The organizers and fans were perplexed. How Agassi won the title in Madrid without entering the court

By | May 11, 2024

The Madrid Masters has a relatively brief history compared to other major tournaments of its category in Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Rome, and other cities. The Spanish capital was only granted the right to host the competition in 2002. At that time, former professional tennis player and successful businessman Ion Tiriac decided to fulfill his long-held dream of organizing a prestigious tournament. He purchased the ATP license for the Madrid Masters, which replaced the Stuttgart event in the calendar. Tiriac not only launched a top-tier tournament from scratch but also simultaneously initiated a promotional campaign for the 2012 Olympics in Madrid.

“I hope to have not the biggest, but the best tournament in the world,” Tiriac declared. He strove to live up to these words in every way. In 2004, to promote the tournament, he even brought in attractive girls from modeling agencies as ball girls, but first, the “Madrid Arena,” which held about 12,000 spectators, was constructed. From October 14-20, 2002, it hosted the first Masters in the Spanish capital. Almost all the strongest tennis players gathered for this hard-court tournament with a prize pool of $2.328 million. The world’s top-ranked player from Australia, Lleyton Hewitt, did not play due to a cold, but the following in the rankings—American Andre Agassi, German Tommy Haas, Russian Marat Safin, and Briton Tim Henman—arrived in Madrid. The tournament was particularly significant for the 32-year-old Agassi, who wanted to unseat Hewitt and finish the year as the oldest world number one in tennis history (ultimately, he did not succeed, and Hewitt remained the leader).

“It’s amazing for me. At the twilight of my career, I found a city where I had never played before. And such a large one as Madrid,” Agassi asserted.

Remarkably, Haas, Safin, and Henman all crashed out synchronously in the second round. This significantly simplified Agassi’s task of claiming the title. On his way to the final, he defeated fellow American Jan-Michael Gambill (6:4, 6:4), Spaniards Feliciano Lopez (7:6, 6:7, 7:5), and Juan Carlos Ferrero (6:3, 6:2), as well as Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean (6:4, 3:6, 6:4). His opponent in the deciding match was the 11th seed, Czech Jiří Novák. Novák had a more confident tournament overall, though he too gave up sets twice. However, in the semifinals, he easily defeated Frenchman Fabrice Santoro (6:2, 6:4) in just 67 minutes, clearly using less energy than Agassi did in his confrontation with Grosjean.

Agassi was the favorite for the final, but it was expected that the fresher and five years younger Novák would at least give him a serious challenge. Ion Tiriac, Gerard Tsobanian (tournament president in Madrid), and Manolo Santana (director) did everything possible to ensure that all tickets for the decisive match of the debut Masters in the Spanish capital were sold out. However, both the competition organizers and tennis fans were ultimately disappointed.

Agassi was awarded the title without playing. Jiří Novák withdrew from the final shortly before it was due to start due to a right leg muscle strain. Novák apologized and stated that he had felt pain during his semifinal game against Santoro. He had hoped that everything would be fine by the final match, but the situation only worsened, and he found himself unable to take to the court.

Tiriac, Tsobanian, and Santana appeared disappointed and puzzled for the first time in a week during Agassi’s award ceremony. They had expected to see a tense battle. Agassi himself was clearly not overly pleased with such a title, as he preferred to win it in a fair fight. For Agassi, this was his 15th Masters win of his career (a record for the ATP Tour at the time) and his third of the season after Miami and Rome. The only active tennis player who had won all four Grand Slam tournaments also claimed seven of the nine Masters series tournaments: all except the spring clay court events in Monte Carlo and Hamburg, which he often simply did not attend, preferring to participate in smaller tournaments in the US on this surface in April or just spend time with his beloved Steffi Graf, whom he married in October 2001 and welcomed the birth of his son Jaden around the same time. Agassi continued to achieve remarkable accomplishments at 32 years old. At a time when his principal rival, one year younger Pete Sampras, had ceased playing and was seriously considering ending his career.

“I think I got extra motivation to come to Monte Carlo and Hamburg to try to win titles there. But many things must align for a victory. There are planning and personal life decisions that I have to make throughout the year. Although winning titles at all the Masters is a goal I would like to achieve. I know Pete might end his career, but such thoughts don’t inspire me. I think we are in two completely different positions in this regard. My body can handle the strains, so I won’t make any forecasts. I have no idea how long I can play at a high level. But mentally, I am still determined to improve and win,” Agassi stated at a press conference in Madrid. It would hardly be appropriate to blame Jiří Novák for a “spoiled final,” although some fans believed that the Czech could have at least tried to take to the court and play against Agassi. After all, we’re talking about the final of a major tournament, especially a debut one in Madrid. It didn’t look quite the same as the withdrawals of Jannik Sinner and Daniil Medvedev due to injuries before and during the quarterfinals this year.

It is very rare for decisive matches at such a level not to be held at all. Something similar happened in 1998 when Spaniard Albert Costa was unable to play in the final against Chilean Marcelo Rios due to health problems. The withdrawal of Roger Federer from the 2014 Finals against Novak Djokovic also caused significant controversy, much to the displeasure of his semifinal opponent Stan Wawrinka. Overall, the first Masters in Madrid did not take place. However, the debut tournament can still be considered successful. Over the week, the arena in the Spanish capital was visited by 103,876 spectators — the seventh-best result of the 2002 season considering Grand Slam tournaments. Moreover, Tiriac promised all ticket holders for the unplayed final free passes to the next year’s Masters, which seemed like not the worst decision in the given situation.

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