Zeljko’s Notebook: Monte Carlo Casino, Nadal, Federer & One Speedy Scooter

There are few finer sights on the ATP Tour than looking out from the Art Deco clubhouse on a cloudless day at the Monte-Carlo Country Club, perched on top of the glistening Mediterranean, where the beautiful people — and their grand yachts in the near distance — come to be seen in early Spring. If you happen to be present at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters on a Wednesday afternoon, shortly after diners have taken lunch on the terrace, you can close your eyes and listen to the roar of the galleries as Rafael Nadal steps onto Court Central for the first time.

It is where Zeljko Franulovic, the vastly experienced Tournament Director since 2005, takes great pride in welcoming the tennis world, and where Nadal, for an incredible 11 of the past 14 years, has shook the hand of His Serene Highness The Sovereign Prince of Monaco as the champion on the final day. “Rafa and the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters will go down in the history books as a very special and unique relationship, between the player and the tournament – simple as that,” Franulovic told ATPTour.com.

“After having won the event for the eighth straight year in 2012, it was obvious that Monte-Carlo was turning into a success story for Rafa, to put it mildly. Since he won his first event in 2005, the year I first became the Tournament Director, it was sort of a success story for me too. I said to Rafa, half-jokingly, in the locker room that year, during a rain delay, ‘Hey Rafa, it seems to me that our destinies are linked. As long as you keep winning, I should be okay as well. I count on you to win this event, otherwise I get fired!’”

The 72-year-old Franulovic can only smile over the influence of Nadal, who, when the ATP Tour looked to restructure the calendar and trim the number of Masters 1000 tournaments from nine to eight in 2007, became one of the most vocal to protect the status of Monte-Carlo. “What’s more important than his 11 titles, is his personality,” says Franulovic. His image as a sports personality, as a champion. It’s not just his presence around the Country Club, whether playing or practising, but it’s his huge respect and attachment to the tournament. Having such a champion adds to the prestige of the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, or when people watch his press conferences, it’s the best publicity a tournament can have. Because when the tournament really needed player support in 2007 not to be downgraded, he was one of the most vocal to protect the Masters 1000 status.”

While the ambience of the Monte Carlo tournament week is centred on tennis, when the world’s best players find their clay feet in a picturesque setting, there is also the Gala, La Grande Nuit de Tennis or the Players’ Revue, founded by Gloria Butler more than 70 years ago, and a huge success to this day. In 2006, the organisers decided to promote the tournament for the first time in the heart of Monaco, live on television. Featuring Nadal, the defending champion, and then World No. 1 Roger Federer, it remains one of Franulovic’s favourite memories.

“I will never forget it, as it was the first one, the perfect choreography in front of the Hôtel de Paris, a mini tennis court and the Monte Carlo Casino in the background,” recalls Franulovic. “Rafa and Roger were supposed to arrive in this beautiful, vintage convertible, a Mercedes, when the company was a Tour sponsor. It was a unique model in the world, but difficult to drive. When we found out that neither Roger or Rafa could drive it, we started to panic as we’d imagined Roger or Rafa behind the wheel driving to the Casino Square with the TV and photographers.

“We lost 15-20 minutes trying to find a solution and we ended up having a local Mercedes rep driving the car. It broke our choreography and caused confusion, significant delays to appear on this mini tennis court. When Roger and Rafa arrived, guess what? Rafa did not have his racquet. So his PR agent [Benito Perez-Barbadillo, who was then working for the ATP], had to jump onto his scooter and rushed back to the hotel. He must have broken the Formula 1 record, but he got the racquet back. That lost us another 15 minutes. Another delay, but it makes me laugh. It was a lesson that you can never plan to the last detail.”

Franulovic, the player, won the tournament by beating the likes of Ilie Nastase and Manuel Orantes in 1970, the year he also reached the Roland Garros final. A right shoulder injury ended his peak performance days only two years later, and, during his long rehabilitation, he went on to complete a law degree in Split over five years. He later began a long career in tennis management, which included nine editions as Tournament Director of the season-ending championships [now named Nitto ATP Finals], when it was held in Frankfurt and Hanover. It is his mixed background, which also includes stints as ATP Marketing Director and then Executive Vice President, Europe, that has helped Franulovic develop the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters over the past 15 years.

“Our venue has improved, the different player areas and facilities, locker rooms, medical services, restaurants, interview rooms,” says Franulovic, who has a small full-time support staff and 800 people working during the ATP Masters 1000 tournament. “We’ve one of the best hotels on the ATP Tour, so I have always made sure to improve and satisfy player needs. We need to attract them to come to Monaco, but to also return the next year. Being a player helped me, as I knew what the players wanted. I came from a solid background as a player, and a tournament background, ATP administration, ATP Finals director.

“Monte Carlo has always been mine, and many other players’ favourite tournament. In those times, in the 1970s, we did not have 60-plus events to play. We now sometimes have three events to play in a single week. I remember waiting impatiently for Monte Carlo to begin. Arriving on the French Riviera, seeing the sunshine, Mediterranean weather, sand, and a bit of glitz and glamour, which Monaco is famous for. In short, Monte Carlo was not only a fantastic place to play as a player, it was the place to be in April.”

Due to the global outbreak of COVID-19, the 2020 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters will not proceed as scheduled.

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