Ports of Call: The Balearic Islands
In tennis, Davis Cup ties get really exciting when everything hinges on the fifth and final match. For this competition of international team tennis, it’s as nail-biting as you can get – the equivalent of a penalty shoot-out in football. So imagine just how bitten the fans’ fingernails were at the Puente Romano tennis club in February 1989 when Mexico took Spain to a fifth and deciding match on the last day of their Davis Cup clash. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. The score had see-sawed constantly over the course of the weekend. First Mexico had led, then Spain. Half-way through the third and final day it was two matches apiece. Everything depended on the final battle, between homeboy Jordi Arrese and 24-year-old Mexican Francisco Maciel. Fortunately for the mostly Spanish fans doing their best to cheer and shout and even scream their man across the line, young Jordi eventually secured victory for his nation.
The matches played at Puente Romano Tennis & Fitness Club (as it’s known nowadays) aren’t always as exciting as those witnessed on that sunny winter’s day in 1989; in fact many of those contested by the well heeled tourists at this luxury resort are decidedly pedestrian by comparison. Nevertheless, the list of tennis legends who have struck balls at this outstanding Marbella venue is a long and illustrious one. Björn Borg, Boris Becker, John McEnroe, Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, Pat Cash, Mats Wilander, Jim Courier, Thomas Muster, Yannick Noah… they have all graced the courts here at one time or another. Hardly surprising, really. The facilities here are pretty special. There are 10 courts in all, eight clay and two hard including the central court which can accommodate up to 2,500 spectators. In the past, as well as the Davis Cup, the resort has hosted professional WTA tournaments, senior legends events and top-level wheelchair tennis. In 1992 it even switched from sport to music when it hosted the first of its now famous summer concerts. On that occasion the highlight act was Montserrat Caballé.
Since then the club has been entertained by the likes of José Carreras, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Van Morrison, Grace Jones, George Benson, Dionne Warwick, Lionel Richie and Liza Minnelli. This tennis club, situated on Marbella’s so-called Golden Mile (the stretch of prime real estate that wends its way from western Marbella almost as far as Puerto Banus) first opened in 1979.
A year later, its sister hotel hosted the wedding reception of Björn Borg and his first wife, the Romanian player Mariana Simionescu. The Swedish tennis star, who won 11 Grand Slams (including five Wimbledons), loved the venue so much that he agreed to become director of the tennis club. But his marriage to Mariana was just the beginning of a very complex and widely documented love affair. With his long blond hair, honed physique, Scandinavian good looks and super-cool personality (they nicknamed him Ice-Borg), this sports legend was never short of female attention. Indeed, during his heyday at Wimbledon in the late 1970s, he was regularly mobbed by hundreds of screaming fans, just like the Beatles were a decade previously.
Despite his chequered private life, the celebrity glitter he brought to Puente Romano meant that, under his stewardship, the tennis club flourished. In 1983, former Wimbledon champion Manolo Santana took over as boss. Facilities were gradually added so that nowadays the club includes a gym, a massage room, a sauna, a Turkish bath, a restaurant/ bar, a sports shop, even four courts for padel tennis – a racket sport played on a four-walled court, and now enormously popular across Spain. The club also prides itself on the coaching it offers. A team of multi-lingual coaches offers tennis tuition for all ages and levels, from little kids up to accomplished adults. But it’s not the facilities so much as the setting that makes this club so special.
The immaculate courts are dotted around the club grounds, separated from one another by palm trees and lush gardens so players can enjoy privacy while they play. From the lovely clubhouse you follow the twisting walkways and staircases to your allotted court. A couple of hundred yards to the south are the beaches of the Costa del Sol, and off to the north you can see the Sierra Blanca mountains rising into the clear blue Andalusian sky. (And, yes, in this part of the world it is clear blue much of the time.) In recent years, this setting hasn’t gone unnoticed by top-level professional players. Davis Cup squads from Spain, Germany and Australia have all trained on Puente Romano’s courts. Some players have even stayed at the neighbouring luxury hotel, with its multiple restaurants (one of them Michelin-starred), spa, swimming pools and botanical gardens. Could Puente Romano ever stage another Davis Cup tie, as it did in 1989? Unfortunately for the residents of Marbella, the current Spanish team is so popular (and regularly vying for domination in Davis Cup’s elite World Group) that the club’s central court isn’t big enough to accommodate all the spectators who would inevitably turn up. Rafa Nadal and his countrymen would no doubt love the club atmosphere but there simply isn’t room for all their hordes of fans.