Dry ice, lights and Federer on a boat: how Finals took off
Ahead of 10th London edition, those behind UK move reveal the secrets of its success
As the World Tour Finals managing director Chris Kermode surveyed the scene in Greenwich, he could have been forgiven for thinking: “What on earth have I let myself in for?”
It was the summer of 2007, and Kermode had been brought in a few months earlier to run the rebranded ATP World Tour Finals, which from the end of 2009 would take place at the O2 Arena.
So, here he was, wearing a hard hat and industrial boots, standing under the tent of a deserted and bare O2 Arena that was only just beginning to shake off the “white elephant” tag bestowed on it by the failed Millennium Dome project. “People thought we were insane to try and do a tennis tournament there,” recalls Kermode.
He need not have worried. On Sunday, the 10th edition of the Tour Finals will begin at the O2, with sell-out crowds once again set to descend on the venue. It may lack Wimbledon’s history, and the elegance of Queen’s Club, but in its own way the O2 has become a staple of the British sporting scene, and its innovations – the dimmed lighting, heartbeat sound effect and vibrant blue branding instantly recognisable to even casual tennis followers.
However, it has been a long road. There was scepticism when the venue and location was first pitched by the then ATP president, Etienne de Villiers, in early 2007. The prevailing view was there were too many obstacles for the event to work at the O2.
Tennis is a summer sport in the UK – fans will not want to watch it in November. London’s tennis market is primarily to the southwest and in Surrey; they will not want to trek to the east end. British
‘There was no point trying to mimic Wimbledon – it was about creating something unique’
tennis lovers want their events traditional like Wimbledon and Queen’s. “Everyone was sceptical,” remembers De Villiers.
But De Villiers, along with associates such as Kermode and chief marketing officer Phil Anderton, were convinced it could work. De Villiers wanted to present the World Tour Finals as the jewel in the ATP crown, Kermode’s experience as tournament director at the quintessentially British Queen’s event offered a useful counterpoint, while Anderton was Ingenious: Special touches add drama to ATP World Tour Finals at O2 Arena a whizz at generating buzz around a sporting event – so much so he earned the nickname “Firework Phil” while chief executive of Scottish Rugby.
London was an attractive venue for a number of reasons. The time zone suited European and American audiences far better than the Tennis Masters Cup was doing in Shanghai, it made logistical sense for the players coming from the Paris Masters and there was a passionate fan base to tap into – especially with Andy Murray and the rest of the “Big Four” on the bill.
A complete transformation of the ATP’S year-ending competition was soon under way. The Tennis Masters Cup name was replaced with the ATP World Tour Finals, the doubles would be given more prominence, and underpinning everything was a desire to make the event as exciting and showstopping as possible.
There would be more ranking points available and more prize money. Even the gleaming trophy was made bigger.
“It would be loud, vibrant, dynamic, in your face,” Kermode says. “The idea was that it should be a real contrast to Wimbledon and Queen’s.”
Anderton underlines the point. “There was no point trying to mimic Wimbledon, which is an amazing event. This was about showing tennis in a different light and creating something unique.”
De Villiers became so convinced of London’s potential that he made the decision not to auction the event to the highest bidder, but to take it to the O2 and gamble on making more money through sponsorship and ticket sales than through a tender process. The stakes were high.
“The risk was you build it and no one comes,” says De Villiers, who left the ATP a year before the first Finals.
To ensure the punters did come, the ATP’S management team made a concerted effort to involve Wimbledon and the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA). Yes, this would be a very different event from the all-white traditionalism of the All England Club, but De Villiers was determined to tap into Wimbledon’s expertise and customer base.
Keen to grow tennis in the UK, the LTA and All England Club happily obliged. They promoted the World Tour Finals in their marketing materials and helped to generate interest to the point where Kermode decided to split each day into two sessions. There were furrowed brows all round at this, but the decision was more than vindicated when the Ticketmaster website crashed under the demand for tickets.
Another key group to win over
‘I was at a Neil Young gig and the lights went down. It suddenly became a piece of theatre’
were the players. Thankfully for the event’s organisers the convenience of hopping over from Paris, coupled with the appeal of London, meant they were quickly on board.
For Roger Federer, taking the boat down the River Thames to reach the landmark arena – another Kermode idea – was particularly appealing.
“It was exciting – the whole idea of going down with the boat from the London Eye all the way to the O2,” he said at the Paris Masters last month.
“I loved it, and I thought it was a great choice. I was very happy that the Tour decided to go to a place that had a lot of the history with tennis, after being in different places many years before which maybe didn’t have quite the same history as London.”
To make sure that the event lived up to expectations, Kermode – now ATP president – was uncompromising in seeing his vision through. The colour scheme would be made up of vivid blues, there would be entrance music and dry ice would billow through the air as the players took to the court.
Attending a Neil Young gig prompted another major aesthetic choice. “I was at a concert of his and all the house lights were up, and it was a bit flat. Then the lights went down and the focus went on to the piece of theatre and suddenly you get very excited.
“I thought, ‘Why couldn’t we do the same with this? Boxing does it, and it works.’” Players initially complained that they would not be able to see the ball, but after some technical gremlins they were able to literally see the light.
The inaugural event saw a total attendance of more than 250,000 and was almost unanimously hailed as a major success, save for issues around late finishes and transportation.
Nine years on, the event remains largely unchanged – a sense added to by Federer’s ongoing status as the headline act. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but as it heads into its 10th iteration, the World Tour Finals has become a major part of the UK sporting calendar.