The World Tour Finals, the ATP Tour’s year-end championships, which has now been completed following Nikolay Davydenko’s singles victory, has re-established itself as the ATP’s premium tournament following its premiere in its new home of London’s O2 Arena.
The Shanghai experiment (the Tennis Masters Cup—the Finals’ previous name—was played there for the past four years) now looks like a woefully unsuccessful misadventure, a notion underlined by the fact that the ATP pulled the plug on the event one year before the original contract expired in favour of the newly sponsored and newly organised event in London.
The mainland Chinese made a good effort to get up to speed with state-of-the-art, Western-style sports promotion, particularly with tennis. With team-based sports already popular in Asia (football being a clear example), individual sports were the next emerging area.
The likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal already had huge fanbases, as well as sponsorship, in China, and it was hoped that staging the Tennis Masters Cup in a cosmopolitan and accepting Chinese city like Shanghai would capitalise on this interest.
A brand new arena, introduced solely for the Tennis Masters Cup, was inaugurated in 2005 by Federer (the “lucky” 8-leaf, magnolia-shaped roof does not seem so lucky anymore).
But despite Shanghai’s—and the ATP’s—best efforts, certain difficulties remained insurmountable. The most significant of these was the painful reality that the Chinese equivalent of a “typical” tennis fan didn’t have the disposable income, or free time, to buy a ticket.
Equally, for the majority of overseas fans, China seemed just too far to travel even to see the best tennis players.
The event, in its innovative stadium and with presidential-like benefits, seemed like a futuristic novelty for the majority of its prospective visitors.
From the offset, it was different in London’s O2. Hosting other events such as unique music concerts, gymnastic championships, and exhibitions, the location is already well-known as a prestigious location for the world’s best entertainment.
As soon as tickets were released for the World Tour Finals in February, sessions began selling out. By August, only 20,000 of 250,000 tickets remained available.
An unstoppable hype machine, combined with a thrilling 2009 tennis season and, most crucially, an enormous, long-established, and relatively affluent Western fanbase whose constituents are already familiar with the sport, made the move to London profitable before the event even started.
The media presence in Shanghai was also limited; organisations that usually send reporters abroad found the lack of activity in Shanghai a reason for home reports instead. The time difference only compounded issues for broadcasters, reporters, newspapers, and fans alike.
London, on the other hand, is well positioned geographically and chronologically for the broadest range of countries and individuals. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to visit and report from London, one of the financial and cultural hubs of the world?
The sheer number of accreditation passes hanging around the necks of those who wandered the O2’s alleys provided the evidence that this event would be comprehensively documented by the world’s media.
The ATP positioned the move to Shanghai as a (incredibly) forward-looking gamble based on China’s booming economy and growing interest in tennis. A progressive mood was in the air, especially as this event is second only to Grand Slams in terms of importance. Shanghai seemed like the perfect location to compound the global aspirations of the widespread ATP tour.
Although it is advantageous to maximise the market for tennis by taking the sport to emerging or exurban regions, there is no doubt that the most important event should be held in mature markets and big cities, purely because of the limited style and duration of the event.
The Shanghai event was out of sight, out of mind.
How many neutral television viewers were around at two a.m. GMT to flick to the TMC and suddenly find an interest in tennis? This shortsightedness has cost the ATP in the long term and is why it is even more crucial that the event is taking place in such a global, high-octane centre such as London.
The TMC events held in New York in the 1980s have always been the benchmark, and perhaps the reason why only a city like London can come close to that success.
From all accounts, it appears that the past week’s World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena has well and truly achieved that.
The London event was a stunning success, with the quality of the tennis providing an uplifting end to the 2009 season.
The crowds were unexpectedly huge, the staging was brave and innovative, and, most importantly, the players gave absolutely everything to what has now been acknowledged as one of their favourite locations and events.
From the first ball, this was a classy competition, ambitiously staged by the tournament directors. The light shows and emotive musical introductions created chilling pre-match hype, and the practice court in the middle of the public walkway added to the fan experience.
An early criticism related to the lateness of the match finishes. Some of the evening singles sessions ended close to midnight, a spectacle that would normally be appreciated if it were not for the lack of public transport from the East London location at a late hour on chilly, rainy November evenings.
The atmosphere would change completely if the evening session started earlier, even by half an hour, so that all fans could stay until the conclusion of the final match without worrying about missing transport connections.
The only real disappointment of the week was the farcical indecision of Thursday night, at the conclusion of Group A singles matches, when dithering ATP officials failed to announce the two winners of the group to the players and spectators.
Given the nature of the event—the same layout, and same rules, remain every year—the situation should have been thought through properly, especially as one who had even basic computer spreadsheet competency could have disclosed the result immediately following the evening match.
All in all, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate the World Tour Finals’ new home in London. We have plenty to look forward to next year…
(Published on Bleacher Report; 30th November 2009)