Conchita Martinez’s first trip to Rome as a teenager in 1990 ended in the quarterfinals with a 6-2, 6-0 defeat at the hands of her idol, Martina Navratilova. But it wasn’t a complete loss.
Martinez fell in love with the vibrant city center, the food and all those terrific feats of architecture -- the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum, the Roman Forum and the Pantheon.
“Rome made me feel very comfortable,” Martinez recently told wtatennis.com. “The cultures of Italy and Spain are similar. There were a lot of people that cheered for me there.”
After a fantastic four-year run, from 1993-96, Martinez became another of Rome’s leading attractions. She won 20 consecutive matches in that span, dropping only three sets, and defeated four different Hall of Fame players in the finals.
“I felt the ball really good there,” she said. “The bounce was OK, and it was a little bit faster than other courts. Especially if you’re happy in the city you’re playing, it’s easier to practice and play matches. I have great memories.”
As the Hologic WTA Tour celebrates its 50th anniversary, we look back Conchita Martinez’s mastery on the courts of Foro Italico.
In 1991, a year after her Rome debut, Martinez avenged that loss to Navratilova, beating her in the quarterfinals before falling to Gabriela Sabatini in the semifinals. Two years later, Martinez would avenge this loss, too.
The 1993 Italian Open was the 50th edition of that storied event. The final featured Martinez (who again defeated Navratilova in the quarters) and Sabatini, who had won the tournament in 1991 and 1992.
“We had a similar style of play, one-handed backhand, and we could slice, hit with topspin,” Martinez said. “She was looking for her third -- didn’t happen. You have to be really aggressive against her. I played a great match for sure.”
The score was 7-5, 6-1. It was Martinez’s first Tier 1 title, third of the season and 14th overall.
Growing up in Spain, Martinez enjoyed watching Navratilova play, especially her dash and relentless charges to the net. As a professional, she knew that Navratilova’s power game wasn’t quite as effective on clay. And, when she came to net, Martinez had an answer -- the backhand crosscourt passing shot.
Martinez won the 1994 Rome final 7-6, 6-4 over Navratilova.
“Beating her in that final gave me the confidence that, going to grass, I can beat her at Wimbledon,” she said. “I mean, I felt like I had a good chance -- and I did it.”
For sure, she did. After Roland Garros, Martinez captured her only Grand Slam singles title at the All England Club, defeating Navratilova in a rousing three-set final. She was the first Spanish woman to win the Wimbledon title.
Going for her third consecutive title in Rome in 1995, Martinez was confident but rain dampened everyone’s enthusiasm. Eventually, after numerous delays, she defeated Mary Joe Fernandez in the quarters and Mary Pierce in the semifinals. Fellow Spaniard Arantxa Sanchez Vicario fell in the final, 6-3, 6-1.
By the time 15-year-old Martina Hingis arrived in the 1996 Rome final, Martinez was already familiar with her game.
“I beat her in the final in Hamburg [6-0, 6-1] the year before,” she said. “Of course, we all know what Hingis was later. She was very talented and always knew where you were going to hit the ball. That year, she was still very young. She beat me in Australia, and a lot of times after that. But that day, I was better than her.”
The score was 6-2, 6-3 and Martinez collected the 31st of 33 career singles titles. In 1997, Martinez would reach her fifth consecutive Rome final but lost to Pierce 6-4, 6-0.
Martinez reached a career-high No.2 in 1995 and finished in the year-end Top 10 nine times. There were 13 doubles titles, five Fed Cup crowns for Spain and three Olympic medals. Martinez was enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2020.
After playing professionally for 18 years, Martinez retired in 2006. She coached Garbiñe Muguruza to the 2017 Wimbledon title. In 2021, Martinez was voted the WTA’s Coach of the Year. Recently, Martinez and Muguruza announced they had parted ways.
She’s enjoying the time off, she said, reacquainting herself with Barcelona after years of travel.
“I’m always open to new adventures and challenges that might come my way,” she said. “But at the moment, I’m relaxing and enjoying my time. No stress.
“Looking back, the Hall of Fame was amazing. To be inducted and look around at the exhibits of the champions was fantastic. My time came, no?”
Indeed, it did. But her time in the Italian capital, perhaps even more in retrospect, was extremely special.
“Yes,” Martinez said, “there was something about Rome.”