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An ATP tennis destination like no other: Halle celebrates 30 years and 3 million patrons
Nestled in the charming countryside of northwest Germany, the innovative grass-court tournament adored by players and fans alike has achieved three decades of excellence.
Published Jun 23, 2023
2019 FLASHBACK: Federer wins 10th Halle trophy.
HALLE, Germany—In 1993, an ambitious vision shared by Gerhard Weber, Ralf Weber and Udo Hardieck was officially born in Halle (Westphalia) when the first tennis ball was hit at the inaugural Gerry Weber Open. Thirty years later, the renowned grass-court tournament is a staple of the ATP Tour, the pride of North Rhine-Westphalia, and forever linked with a 20-time major champion.
Now named the Terra Wortmann Open, this week the ATP 500 event welcomes its three millionth ticket holder through its gates. An impressive figure, yet an unsurprising one—for this tournament has innovated and grown with the times, understood the needs of its players and patrons, and trusted in its backbone of a dedicated team behind the scenes.
From his vantage point, Phil Thorn could write a book about getting the event off the ground. The son of an experienced green keeper, Thorn jumped at the chance to create something from scratch after gaining invaluable hands-on experience at Wimbledon and Surbiton. With less than a year to get the courts right, the condensed timeline left Thorn with plenty of headaches to tackle and sleepless nights to brush off. Like a puzzle, intricate pieces must come together for a grass court to be playable, let alone at the ATP level—good soil structure, the right grass varieties, a reliable drainage system and an understanding for how to maintain the surface week to week are among the moving parts.
“Just building the 10 courts, the stadium and everything around, getting all set up was unbelievable achievement in such a short time,” says Thorn. “We have a high clay content to get the ball to bounce. You can't just build a tennis court with sand, which would be nice, like a football pitch where you can just water it and water it and water it.”
Starting out as a hostess and later moving into managing the press counter, fellow original staff member May Arnold-Enders smiles when thinking back on the early years. The first accreditation office consisted of a makeshift setup with a pair of tables. There was no email or social media, so Arnold-Enders and a colleague would fax tournament results and match notes at the end of each night, oftentimes past 1 a.m. As Arnold-Enders and her peers navigated the learning curve of staging a new event, they could only be inspired by the enormous buzz swarming the site.
“People didn't know something like that could be here in this area. It was really a big, big deal to have this stadium,” Arnold-Enders says. “Mr. Weber did a real great job in this time. Everybody was excited.”
From day one, Wolfgang Rudolf was tapped to document the event behind his lens. A photographer for a local newspaper in nearby Bielefeld up until 2020, Rudolf laughs about the time Marc Rosset left too much of his own mark on the main court and later recounts a memorable Wednesday washout that stuck with him.
“It was raining the whole day and there was no match at all, so it was difficult afterwards to organize everything to be finished,” he says in a translation provided by Arnold-Enders. “Ralf Weber, he gave everyone who had an entrance card for this Wednesday cards for the following year for free.”
As Thorn, Arnold-Enders and Rudolf each did their part to help bring the vision of their proverbial founding fathers to life, it was just the beginning of grander aspirations to come.
By year two, the risk of an empty day of play was now off the table. The stadium court was upgraded with a groundbreaking retractable roof, a blueprint that Wimbledon organizers would look towards when transforming Centre Court many years later. Thanks in part to the foresight of Arnold-Enders’ longtime mentor Frank Hofen, working media soon had access to scores of workstations, a large press conference room, a dedicated café and exclusive wrap-around view of the main court. Over the past 11 years, Ines Schnuchel, who helps manage the media center desk with Arnold-Enders, eagerly offers personal tours of the facility for first-time attendees.
Just steps away from the courts, the opening of a new player hotel in 1994 eliminated any need of a daily commute. That unmatched convenience was further extended for competitors, who today warm up, play matches, fulfill media obligations, hit the gym, eat with their team and hang out at the player lounge, all in the same building. For those hoping to unwind, a bar-lounge and discotheque are also at their disposal.
“What stands out is the whole complex. It's very special for us players. It’s very nice also that the hotel is straight on site,” Dominic Thiem shared ahead of his first-round match this week. “It's really good for us if we have a long practice day or if we have a tough match to just walk for 10, 50 meters. We can do everything in one spot.”
The peaceful ambiance of an established tournament nestled in the charming countryside is a change of scenery—and pace—that draws certain players in. Take Andrey Rublev, who welcomes a rare opportunity to disconnect from the metropolitan hustle and bustle most events come with.
“It is super quiet. Sometimes you need kind of those tournaments where you have this beautiful, nice and relaxed atmosphere,” the world No. 7 believes. “Big cities [are] full of people. You try to go to dinner there, it's full of people, and here, you feel calm. It's a perfect place to prepare and recharge mentally for something big that is coming.”
Echoes Thiem, “Most of the season, we are in big cities. At one point it’s good energy, the other point it’s exhausting. It's very stressful to be that long in big cities. Here, everybody's pretty much relaxed and you don't have any long drives. There’s not so much stress, it’s not so much hectic. It’s a very nice week compared to the others.”
For Jan-Lennard Struff, Halle is as close as it gets to having a hometown tournament. Raised about an hour south in Warstein, Struff’s connection with the venue deepened as he developed his game. He had numerous opportunities to practice with top pros; he played his first junior grass-court tournament on these grounds; and, tournament director Ralf Weber afforded Struff his first shot at ATP qualifying in 2009.
“Halle was very, very important for me as a young player. I always felt very happy to come to the tournament. I know so many faces here,” he says. “Me personally, where I live, as well, is a more quiet place. I think every player is appreciating this event because it's a bit more calm, a bit more quiet. Not on the stands because the fans are very great. What I hear from the players, they all feel very welcome here. It's like a family area.”
Countryman Alexander Zverev agrees with Struff, adding, “It's very family-orientated. It's the biggest tournament that we have. The atmosphere is quite amazing—a very big stadium, which is sold out most of the time. I think that makes it very special.”
It's a perfect place to prepare and recharge mentally for something big that is coming. —Andrey Rublev
Fans flocking to this event have plenty of say in their order of play, especially when it comes to chowing down. Baguettes, with regional ham on offer, are made to order by one veteran vendor. Another tent serves up bratwursts and currywursts, while nearby food stands offer lighter fare in pretzels and fresh strawberries with whipped cream. A common area with lounge chairs and shaded tables is surrounded by more choices that include crepes, pasta dishes, pizza and you guessed it, beer.
For attendees seeking a premium experience, serving up hospitality has long been part of the event’s DNA. Some VIP ticket holders opt to cool off inside an elegant space lined with clothed tables and chairs where champagne, wine and beer selections await. Those with their 45 on mingle outside and soak up the sun with a cocktail from “Mojitoman Ibiza” at the beach bar.
Ticket holders struggle to head home empty-handed. There’s no shortage of merch, from having a pick of every major tennis brand's latest collection to deciding on a tournament-forward souvenir. Golfers can test out putters, while guests in need of a new briefcase, summer hat or knitted jacket just might be in luck. Players oblige fans lining the pathway leading to the Courts Hotel and across the way, more autograph hunters await to see which familiar face is next to emerge from the locker room.
On Wednesday, it was none other than Roger Federer. The Swiss, who hung up his racquet at last year’s Laver Cup, doled out hundreds of signatures after being honored inside OWL Arena by Weber for his record 10 tournament titles. Thirteen years earlier, Weber signed Federer to a lifetime contract with the event. Having Federer’s guaranteed participation added another level of intrigue to the tournament and the investment paid off in more ways than one. Federer picked up half of his Halle crowns after the deal was inked and by 2015, the tournament saw its status elevated by the ATP from a 250 to a 500.
When tennis isn't on, OWL Arena hosts a range of musical acts throughout the year. Handball, boxing and basketball are among the additional sports locals have been able to experience in the past. With Thorn overseeing, the floor of the structure is switched out to facilitate multi-purpose entertainment. The unique concept: a transportable grass court.
“A court we can actually move. It all brings problems, but it's brought a lot of success as well,” Thorn says. “I said to our tournament director at the beginning of this week, ‘Even after 30 years, it still looks awesome when you walk in here.’”
Rudolf, whose photographs of the first 29 champions line a wall inside the press conference room, relishes the dynamic of the team led by Weber.
“We are always the same people,” he says. “We are a big family and we are happy to see each other the next year and the next year, and so on.”
On what she’s enjoyed most over her time on the job, Arnold-Enders humbly says, “Everything. My colleagues, the atmosphere, the players, Roger Federer. Everything is fine, and we work really hard.”
Three million tickets, three decades and counting—that hard work deserves a Halle or two, or 30.
Special thanks: Fabienne Benoit, Martin Dagahs, Anja Gollan, Nele Kanke