There will be an echo every time a ball is hit as the Nitto ATP Finals are played for the last time in the cavernous emptiness of London’s 02 Arena this week. An echo reflecting the virus-ridden times we are living through and an echo of the past – great champions playing great matches in front of sellout crowds.
The crowds are gone but, judging from what we have witnessed over the past two months as the game has done its best to defy the necessary restrictions placed on it by COVID-19 the players will continue to strain nerve and sinew to produce tennis of the highest standard.
It is, of course, a sad way to bid farewell to the Docklands, where players had become used to disembarking from river craft as they arrived from their hotel further up the Thames at Westminster. No longer. The players will be housed in the new hotel that was built on site three years ago. A short walk from their locker rooms. In a bubble.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of what we are about to witness on our television screens is the long anticipated merging of the generations. At the ages of 28 and 27 respectively, Diego Schwartzman and Dominic Thiem provide a bridge between Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic representing the old guard and the quartet of defending champion Stefanos Tsitsipas, 2018 winner Alexander Zverev, Daniil Medvedev and first time qualifier Andrey Rublev.
The best story line is: Can Nadal win? Alone among what used to be known as the Big Four, the Spaniard has never won this event which requires a player to have finished the year in the world’s eight to qualify. While Roger Federer has won it six times; Djokovic five and Andy Murray once, Nadal has come up short in the final round against Djokovic in 2013 and Federer in 2010.
The other story line to consider is this: Can a Russian bring down the curtain on tennis at the O2 just as Nikolay Davydenko and his immaculate service returns raised it in 2009? Either Medvedev, who has just won the Paris Indoors at Bercy or Rublev who has won more matches than anyone on tour this year have a good chance of doing so.
Eleven years on, It is difficult to remember the apprehension surrounding the decision to move the ATP Finals from a successful four year stay in Shanghai to London at a venue stuck out in the Docklands in the dead of winter. The steady rise of Andy Murray to world No 4 offered an assurance of public support but it was Brad Drewett’s voice that carried most weight. The Australian who had headed the ATP’s Sydney office since 1999, had become an expert at running year-end finals in his role as the ATP International Director. With his quiet authoritative charm, Drewett had managed to handle the culture change of taking the event to China with all the local politics that the move entailed.
Drewett, who was to become the ATP’s CEO in January 2012, called on the assistance of Chris Kermode, the man who would succeed him as ATP boss, to act as his London-based assistant in the planning for the London move. Kermode was already established as a popular director of the Stella Artois Championships at the Queen’s Club and had a feel for the UK tennis market.
Fighting some objections from the company hired to market ticket sales, Kermode insisted on having two sessions per day for eight days with 17,500 tickets available for one doubles and one singles in the day session and another 17,500 for the two matches at night, with the doubles being played a curtain raised for both sessions.
From Day One it was a sellout – for both sessions. Surprise was expressed in the media at such an overwhelming support for tennis during the winter, but it was thought that a big percentage of the crowd was made up of tennis fans who faced annual frustration at not being successful in the Wimbledon ticket lottery. Instantly the event became a staple of London’s winter sporting scene and popular though he was, the attendance did not suffer when Murray, the champion in 2016, could not qualify the following year as a result of the injuries that have plagued his career ever since.
Drewett and Kermode were in tandem concerning another controversial decision that created much discussion behind the scenes. Despite the very welcome sponsorship money they were pouring into the event, sponsors were told that their boxes would not be courtside. Instead, they were positioned on the top tier of the stadium, well out of camera range. “It drives me crazy seeing empty courtside seats on television just because sponsors’ guest are stuffing themselves with food in the lounge,” Drewett told me with Kermode nodding in agreement. “It gives totally the wrong impression. Look at the jammed packed stadium we have here. That’s all the TV viewer should see.”
Tragically the tennis world lost one of its best minds and most popular figures when Drewett died from Motor Neurons Disease at the age of 54 in 2013. The Nitto ATP Finals should remain his shining legacy to the sport he loved.
Having witnessed the very first ATP Masters, as it was called, in Tokyo in 1970 – won by Stan Smith over Rod laver in a six man field – it is amazing to witness how the game has evolved with the turn over of generations. We are about to witness another with the Finals moving to Turin, Italy next year at a moment in the game’s history that is watching Italian influence grow at every turn.
Not only has the former Italian Davis Cup player Andrea Gaudenzi taken over from Kermode as ATP President but the country seems to be producing a flood of young talent. Matteo Berrettini and Jannik Sinner, the teenager who has just won his first ATP title in Sofia, lead the pack of Italian men and women making steady progress up the rankings, and the promoters in Turin will be hoping fervently that an Italian man makes it to the Top eight in twelve months time.