November 01, 2019

Article at Jeremy on Authory

Behind the scenes of prestigious men's tennis finals

Image Caption

Jeremy Blackmore goes behind the scenes at the O2 during preparations for the Nitto ATP Finals (pictures courtesy of the ATP)

The eyes of the tennis world fall on London this month as the top eight men’s players and doubles teams compete for the sport’s crown jewel event at The O2.

Global superstars Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are among those who have qualified to compete in tennis’ prestigious showpiece season-ending tournament, the Nitto ATP Finals.

Over the past 10 years, the finals have become firmly established as a major annual worldwide sporting event, broadcast in more than 180 territories with a global annual audience of 95 million.

While attention will be firmly on what happens on court, behind the scenes is a hive of activity. An experienced team will be working around the clock getting ready to turn The O2 from a concert venue into a fully functioning tennis arena, complete with practice courts, hospitality areas and facilities for media from 36 countries.

It’s an operation that requires military precision. So much so that planning for each year’s event begins almost 18 months in advance.

Masterminding that multi-million-pound operation is tournament director Adam Hogg, based at the London offices of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals).

As the men’s governing body, the ATP is a membership organisation which represents players and tournaments. Unlike many other events on the professional circuit, the season finale (which moved to London from Shanghai in 2009) is owned, controlled and operated by the ATP itself and features only the very best performers across the course of each season.

Those factors, combined with the highest number of ranking points on offer after a Grand Slam and a total prize pot of US$9 million ($2.5 million for the men’s singles champion), bestow the event with a special cachet among the players.

Early and ongoing dialogue with The O2 is vital to ensure the venue is aware of what the ATP needs in order to deliver each year’s event. In turn it allows Adam to stay on top of any changes at the venue such as new facilities and exhibitions.

The success of the finals is critical to the health of the ATP, and even as one tournament starts, Adam’s attention turns to considering how the team will market next year’s event and when tickets might go on sale. That allows them to maximise the captive audience at the O2 to encourage them to return the following November.

Typically, tickets go on sale around the time of the Australian Open in January, beginning a dedicated marketing effort throughout the year.

Last year’s event attracted 243,819 spectators across eight days of competition, bringing the tournament’s cumulative attendance since 2009 to more than 2.5 million across 150 sessions.

“It always slightly scares me every time you go into that arena, with the lights fully up and you go, ‘ there’s quite a few seats in here and we're trying to sell this out 15 times over every year for a number of years!’ says Adam. “So, it requires a serious effort to push that promotion.”

The closer to the tournament, the more important the operational elements become, so that by early September a team of contractors are on site constructing the various components which will make up the backstage areas such as practice courts and hospitality areas.

The week before the finals is the most frenetic. Teams are on site working around the clock to have everything ready for the players’ arrival on Thursday (when they begin training) and the start of the tournament on Sunday afternoon.

“The pre-week in a bizarre way I find worse than the week of the tournament,” Adam observes. “Just purely in terms of hours and stress and being pulled hither and thither, that load-in week is the toughest.”

Come the crack of dawn on Monday when the Sunday night show is loaded out from The O2, the ATP team will be waiting outside the loading bay, trucks at the ready. Crew will be everywhere, in the arena and backstage arranging and installing press conference facilities, players’ locker rooms, practice courts and the media centre.

The contractors which Adam’s team have worked with for many years are highly experienced, so each year’s event is like a well-oiled machine.

However, Adam adds: “It's a complicated jigsaw and the moment that you suddenly realise you're missing a piece; things can go wrong quickly and without a lot of time to correct them. Which is why we have a lot of trust in a lot of the suppliers that we've used for a number of years because we value their expertise and knowledge.”

The event has made its name in terms of the way tennis is presented with dynamic lighting, special effects and bespoke videos. That means using cherry pickers to hang lighting trusses and screens – a process that needs to be completed before the court is installed. Three coats of acrylic paint are then applied to the court over three days, allowing time between each to dry.

The O2 is a perhaps a surprisingly intimate venue to watch tennis in its lower tiers, partly due to the rise of its seats, but also because of the huge effort that goes into the lighting effects that are designed to draw everyone’s focus onto the court itself.

As Adam observes, when the full lights are on, the venue can feel enormous. “But using the power of technology, then we can make it much more intimate, everything suddenly focused on that court and less on the seating blocks around.”

It is about getting the right balance, both for those in the arena and for those watching on television – a medium where giving viewers a sense of the crowd is particularly important in order to create atmosphere.

Qualification for London is decided by virtue of ranking points accumulated across the entire year until the Masters in Paris, the final event of the regular season. The top eight then come together in London.

The hunt for the year-end number one, the player with the highest total of ranking points across a gruelling 11-month season runs alongside the race to qualify for London.

Yet, it has only happened once that the event has decided not only the winner of the ATP Finals but also the year-end title. Indeed, during the period when Djokovic was so dominant on tour, he had the year-end title wrapped up (in terms of ranking points) long before London.

“In the dream scenario, it all comes down to that final match in London determining who wins world number one,” says Adam. “We did have that in 2016 with the Murray v Djokovic final which was the perfect climax.

“They’d played 20 odd tournaments each, 50-60 matches over the course of the season. In an ideal world, you want the maths to get to that situation where it’s winner takes all [in London]. In 49 years, we've had that once with Andy and Novak.”

This year the race for year-end number one has been shaping up to come down to that final performance in London with Djokovic and Nadal neck and neck throughout the autumn before Nadal started to pull ahead.

Everyone is aware going into London what results are needed in order to finish year-end number one. At the same time, players are competing in a tournament with 1,500 ranking points and $2.5 million on the line, so are equally keen to win the event itself.

Indeed, look at the roll of honour over 49 years of the ATP Finals and it reads like a who’s who of men’s tennis, from Becker to McEnroe, from Borg to Nastase, from Lendl to Edberg from Agassi to Sampras.

There is one notable exception: Nadal.

“I’m sure he would love to tick that box on the CV,” says Adam. “There’s a huge prestige to winning and pride, particularly now that we've taken more ownership of it since the event came to London, the players feel so much pride in winning it as well.”

For Adam’s team the ‘Race to London’ is an irresistible narrative on which to hang their promotion efforts leading into the autumn after the US Open. It’s also one which ties together the entire year. Players do not make the finals without having played an extraordinarily consistent season.

“That's the focus not only for us as the organisers, but fans and for the players themselves. So, it would be foolish for us to disregard it, but at the same time it's out of our control. Whatever happens on court, that’s down to the players, we can’t control that, so, we just want a good clean fight!”

While the ‘big three’ (now all in their thirties) provide box office clout, the event also provides an exciting platform for the sport to showcase its next generation of players such as defending champion Alexander Zverev (22) who became the youngest tour champion since Djokovic a decade earlier when he won last year’s finals.

Meanwhile, Daniil Medvedev (23) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (21) recently joined Dominic Thiem (26) in qualifying for this year’s event. All three acknowledged just how much the achievement meant to them.

“It just adds a new dynamic and quite a fresh approach,” observes Adam. “So, you forget when you see them at The O2 actually they are quite young and you feel their excitement, ‘I can’t believe I’m here!’ Then they’ve got Roger in the locker room to the left of them and Rafa to the right and they think, ‘gosh this is for real, I’ve made it!’”

Change is also on the horizon for the finals themselves. Earlier this year, the ATP announced that Turin had been selected as host city from 2021-2025 after a competitive bid process.

Adam added: “It'll be an exciting new chapter, obviously different to London. We look forward to working with the Italians to put the event on but the key for us is we set a standard in London and we want to grow on that.”

Image Caption
Image Caption
Image Caption
Image Caption
Image Caption