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Light It Up: Nitto ATP Finals Still Shines Bright
Nitto ATP Finals 50 Years

From inauspicious beginnings in Tokyo in 1970, when the court broke up and a solitary light bulb illuminated the lockerroom, to today’s individual player suites and cutting-edge show production, there has been one constant during 50 years of the Nitto ATP Finals: At the beginning of every season, all players, whether they be a legend of the game like Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras or Novak Djokovic, or a Next Gen ATP Finals graduate like Stefanos Tsitsipas or Andrey Rublev, set their sights on making it to the season finale.

For the 344 (singles and doubles) players to date that have featured among the elite eight since 1970, participating at this prestigious tournament has long been a badge of honour. What’s also certain is that through several iterations, occasional changes in format and 14 different host cities, the crown jewel of the ATP Tour has become a celebration, showcasing the very best of the sport.

Fifty years ago, the sport was not prosperous enough to support 30 players at the highest level and rival circuit promoters were signing the best players as Open tennis signalled dollar signs. The Masters [now named the Nitto ATP Finals] came to fruition after a number of meetings in 1969 at the Parisian apartment of Philippe Chatrier, who opened his doors to former pro tour promoter Jack Kramer, the most influential person in the sport for more than 60 years, and Donald Dell, the sport’s first agent in tennis. By hashing out a futuristic plan for a worldwide Grand Prix circuit, with a system of points for each round that linked to the prize-money level of the tournament, Kramer’s blueprint centred on players competing in a 20-tournament circuit between May and December 1970 to qualify for a Masters. With the Top 30 also claiming graduated levels of bonus money, the intention of the Grand Prix was to make it attractive enough for players to resist promoters’ money.

Kramer got Pepsi-Cola to sign on as the first title sponsor, used his contacts as a BBC commentator to secure television finance, and the Metropolitan Gymnasium in Tokyo was selected as the first venue for the 1970 Pepsi-Cola Masters, a six-player round-robin event. Memories of the 9-15 December tournament remain vivid for Stan Smith, who told ATPTour.com, “Trestle tables and fold-up chairs lined each side of the rubberised court, which was connected together and set in the middle of the huge arena. The venue also didn’t have any heating, so the Japanese spectators were wrapped in blankets, fur coats and scarves to keep warm. It must have been like sitting in a refrigerator for them.” It was certainly a far cry from The O2 in London, which this year will host the Nitto ATP Finals for the 12th time before the tournament moves to Turin, Italy, in 2021.

Smith, Tokyo 1970

The Masters tournament quickly faced competition from the World Championship Tennis (WCT) circuit. Run by Lamar Hunt, who acquired the player contracts of George MacCall’s National Tennis League (NTL) the same year, WCT had financial and marketing clout, and paid guarantees. Starting in 1971 — and for the next 19 years — the city of Dallas played host to world-class tennis, including the 1972 WCT Finals title-match between Australians Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, which was called “the match that made tennis in the United States”.

While the reputation of the WCT Finals grew from its Texas base, held two weeks after the 1970 Pepsi-Cola Masters, but then contested in May each year, the Grand Prix circuit’s year-end championship moved cities from Paris (Coubertin Stadium, 1971), Barcelona (that marked the first eight-player round-robin at the Palau Blaugrana in 1972), Boston (Hynes Auditorium, 1973), Melbourne (Kooyong, 1974), Stockholm (Kungliga tennishallen, 1975) — that was very nearly held in Bucharest — and Houston (The Summit, 1976).

Early title sponsors took on ownership and the financial burden of the Masters. John Beddington, the Tournament Director for five years when Commercial Union sponsored the Masters (1972-76), told ATPTour.com, “There is no question that the WCT Finals in Dallas was a significant event and a very good one. The Grand Prix circuit and the WCT circuit were competitive to each other, on a friendly basis. It wasn't daggers drawn or anything. But it was a case of, if you can do it well, we will try and do it better. The two circuits improved each other. There was no question that Lamar Hunt's financial backing of the WCT circuit had a huge significance for tennis and did a lot of good things for tennis. The Grand Prix circuit had to play a bit of catch up, which I think we did.”

Beddington quickly realised that the WCT Finals being anchored to a couple of venues in Dallas was the way to go. It led to the Masters finding a long-time home in New York. Beddington, who memorably warmed up John Newcombe prior to the 1973 semi-finals at the Hynes Auditorium in Boston, remembers, “It was logistically difficult to switch locations every year. You work with a team and you build up momentum from year to year. It was difficult to move, as you had to work with a new local organisation every year and tell them how to do things.”

Commercial Union’s sponsorship coincided with the dominance of Ilie Nastase, who won four Masters titles from five finals between 1971 to 1975, and compiled a 22-3 (.880) match record at the tournament - a winning percentage that remains a record to this day. Incredibly, it took debutant Guillermo Vilas, who worked tirelessly with his long-time trainer Juan Carlos Belfonte, to stop the Romanian’s Masters final winning streak in Melbourne in 1974, the only time that the season finale has been played on grass courts. It was also Nastase’s antics at Stockholm in 1975 that heralded a double disqualification, forcing his round-robin opponent, Arthur Ashe, to walk off the court and take what was a 12-point piece of paper and develop the Code of Conduct. In 2020, the Code of Conduct amounts to 410 pages.

 

Ilie Nastase. Photo: FC Barcelona/Horacio Seguí Ilie Nastase at the Barcelona presentation ceremony in 1972. Photo: FC Barcelona/Horacio Seguí

In April 1977, an initial four-year agreement was reached for the Masters to be held in January the following year in New York, at Madison Square Garden, home of the Knicks (basketball) and Rangers (ice hockey). At the time, the site of a Virginia Slims women’s championship, the Garden had formerly played host to pro tour matches featuring Bill Tilden, Bobby Riggs, Don Budge and Kramer between the 1930s and 1950s. David Foster, the board chairman of New York-based Colgate, was a friend of Mark McCormack’s and IMG, the global sports and talent marketing company, who were involved in helping Colgate run the circuit, but not the Masters. That went to ProServ and the Tournament Director was Ray Benton. Together, they worked with Michael Burke, the president of the Garden, to bring the Masters to the iconic venue.

With total prize money of $400,000 on offer at the 1977 Masters, held from 4-8 January 1978, the tournament’s reputation grew from strength to strength over the next 13 years as the New York glitterati turned out to witness epic battles on the illuminated court. While challenge matches had failed to stimulate box office interest in the early 1970s, fans queued for blocks for a chance to watch the likes of Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Vilas vie for World No. 1 in the first year. “The most important thing every year, in my time, was to qualify for the Masters,” Borg, the 1979-1980 champion, told ATPTour.com. “Everyone was talking about it week after week and there were huge boards with 20 names and points at each tournament we arrived at. It was such a big thing and it was a very smart to move to Madison Square Garden.”

Thousands came to witness the touch and artistry of three-time singles titlist John McEnroe, who also partnered Peter Fleming to seven straight Masters doubles crowns (1978-84). Or Ivan Lendl, who made a round-trip every day from his Greenwich, Connecticut home, in a run to a remarkable nine straight finals between 1980-88. “I liked my own bed, my own cooking and I didn’t like staying in New York City as it was too noisy for me,” Lendl told ATPTour.com. “The stadium was always packed. The fans were loud and playing McEnroe was tricky at the Garden.”

Ivan Lendl

The Masters in New York controversially moved away from its eight-player round-robin format to a 12-player knock-out singles tournament for the 1982-84 editions, with the top four seeds receiving a bye. And in 1985, 16 players competed, prior to a return to an eight-player format. “I didn’t like this change of format at all,” said Lendl. “I felt it was more special with only the top eight players in the world.” Lendl took his irritation out on his countryman, Tomas Smid, one of his good friends, beating him 6-1, 6-0 in the 1985 first round. “I was so ticked off by the format that I played extra hard.”

Five-time champion Lendl’s streak ended in heartbreak, when Boris Becker was the beneficiary of a dead net cord winner on championship point after an epic 37-shot rally in the 1988 final. “I was so pleased to be in the final, because I lost my first match against Jakob Hlasek,” said Lendl, who had privately undergone right shoulder surgery only eight weeks earlier. “I beat Edberg, who was using a different racquet in the semi-finals, and the final ended with that unfortunate shot against Boris. I would have liked to have won that match!”

In 1986, the doubles competition split away for the first time. Arthur Ashe and Smith had won the first edition at Tokyo in 1970, prior to doubles returning in 1975 at Stockholm. Doubles moved to the Royal Albert Hall in London (1986-89), to Sanctuary Cove on the Gold Coast in 1990, Johannesburg (1991-93), Jakarta (1994), Eindhoven (1995), Hartford (1996-99) and Bangalore (2000-01) before reuniting with the singles event in Houston, 17 years ago.

Early in the Open Era, the ATP, without the financial security and confidence, had joined tournament directors and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to form the Men's International Professional Tennis Council (MIPTC), which ran the men’s circuit from 1974 to 1989. But by late 1986, players were unhappy. Hamilton Jordan, a one-time White House Chief of Staff to the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, became the ATP chief executive officer in February 1987 and immediately started to convince tennis players that if they broke away from the MTC, the ATP would create its own circuit that respected the 12 weeks of major championship and Davis Cup play. In August 1988, in a parking lot outside the gates of the US Open, a press conference crystalised momentum for the birth of the ATP Tour, which began on 1 January 1990.

Under the new structure, the ATP Tour would now own the event, rather than the current tournament sponsor. At the same time, Germany was at the centre of the tennis universe, with superstars Becker and WTA No. 1 Steffi Graf. A new television channel, SAT 1, was prepared to pay handsomely for the television rights of the tournament, which was renamed the IBM ATP Tour World Championship and moved to Frankfurt. It was run under the guidance of Tournament Director Zeljko Franulovic, who had competed in the first two tournaments in 1970 and 1971.

While the FedEx ATP Rankings were established on 23 August 1973, it wasn’t until the year-end championships moved to the Festhalle in Frankfurt, in 1990, that world ranking points were awarded for the first time — initially, the same number of points as the winner of a Grand Slam championship. Additionally, while the players ate in a small restaurant directly under the Festhalle court, each competitor was able to prepare in their own locker room for the first time. The corporate boxes were quickly pushed back in 1990 after Lendl fired a big serve into the second row on the first bounce.

In a six-year tenure in Frankfurt, Becker won the 1992 and 1995 titles, while another German, Michael Stich, heightened local fervour with the 1993 crown. “Boris and I had different kinds of fan bases, from different backgrounds,” Stich told ATPTour.com of playing in Germany. “Maybe I could have had more respect, but I was very lucky to play at that time and be a part of a great German tennis era.”

After much debate, the ATP Tour accepted a well-prepared proposal by the city of Hanover, which was staging Expo 2000. With Tiriac taking control of the marketing, the tournament was played from 1996 to 1999 in the vast Expo 2000 Tennis Dome exhibition halls and was sold out. Music blared out and a spotlight picked out players as they walked out onto the court. In one of the most memorable matches of the decade, Sampras, who would finish up with five titles, had to battle for four hours to break Becker’s serve in an epic five-set victory for the 1996 crown. “Those titles are right up there in my career, having qualified so many times and beaten the best-of-the-best,” Sampras told ATPTour.com. “I always look back on my one match against Boris in Hanover, when we went toe-to-toe in front of his fans in Germany. You could never take a day off, but I enjoyed the pressure.”

On the eve of the new millennium, after the ITF had run its own Grand Slam Cup for 10 years, featuring the 16 players with the best records at the four major championships, the ATP reached an agreement in December 1999 to co-own a single year-end championship, renamed the Tennis Masters Cup. With the advent of an ATP Champions Race — now named the FedEx ATP Race To London — players all started on a level playing field in 2000 in a battle to be one of the eight qualifiers at the Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon, Portugal. In a bid to gain new audiences, sponsorship and television revenue, the Tennis Masters Cup was held in five different cities over the next 10 editions, including emotional wins for Gustavo Kuerten (at the Pavilhao Atlantico in Lisbon) and Lleyton Hewitt (at the Sydney Superdome in 2001 and the Shanghai New International Expo Centre in 2002).

Roger Federer, who holds a record six Nitto ATP Finals titles, won back-to-back trophies in 2003-04 when the tournament returned to Houston at the Westside Tennis Club. For only the second and third times, the event was held outdoors (also 1974 Melbourne). The Swiss superstar then reached three consecutive indoor finals at the purpose-built Qi Zhong Stadium in Shanghai, taking the title in 2006-07, and it was only a fifth-set tie-break loss to David Nalbandian in the 2005 final that denied Federer five straight crowns. Federer won 23 of 25 matches at the event during that period. “Qualifying for the 2002 Tennis Masters Cup at the time, was a huge deal,” Federer told ATPTour.com. “I was always following the Race, so in 2003 when I got a place again, there was a four-way battle for No. 1. I played Andre in the final and beat him in straight sets and it opened up my belief that I could beat the best players from the baseline. It was a real breakthrough tournament for me. Somehow those two tournaments in Houston were a great experience, quite incredible and I played some of my best tennis against James Blake and David Ferrer in the 2006 and 2007 Shanghai finals.”

Shanghai 2008
Shanghai's Qi Zhong Stadium provided a spectacular venue for the Tennis Masters Cup from 2005-'08.

After four years in China, the tournament adopted a new name: the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, following the rebranding of the ATP Tour for the 2009 season. In what would soon become the world’s most popular music, sport, comedy and entertainment venue, The O2 [then named the Millennium Dome] on the banks of The Thames in London, played host to a new era that harked back to Madison Square Garden in New York. Nikolay Davydenko surprised many to capture the biggest title of his career in 2009, during the height of a global credit crunch, when players first travelled in from their hotels, near the Houses of Parliament, by ferry. By combining world-class tennis with in-stadium show production, the event became a hot ticket, the other side of London from the All England Club, venue of The Championships at Wimbledon each July. Superstar footballers including the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Maradona and David Beckham, rubbed shoulders with music, acting royalty and 280,000 fans each year, across the 15 tennis sessions. The O2 also showcased high-intensity, world-class doubles and, most notably, fan favourites’ Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan, who won two of their four Nitto ATP Finals team titles in front of 17,500-strong sell-out crowds.

Federer, reflecting on his time playing at The O2, told ATPTour.com, “I had the chance to play in four different venues since 2002, and every time you come to a new place, you’re excited. The O2 is magic, the darkness in the room and making it all about the players. The atmosphere and energy was something else. The fans are everything… I also remember that scene when James Bond falls on the roof [in the film ‘The World Is Not Enough’], so it’s always been a very iconic stadium.”

Novak Djokovic, who won his first year-end title at Shanghai in 2008, dominated at The O2 in London in the first part of the past decade, winning four straight titles and clinching 18 of 19 matches between 2012 and 2015. “The Shanghai title helped me believe that I belonged at the top of the sport with the big guys,” Djokovic told ATPTour.com. “And since 2009, the [Nitto] ATP Finals has been a tremendous success in one of the best tennis arenas and atmospheres at The O2. It’s definitely one of the most special events we have in the sport.”

In 2016, Andy Murray reached the final on the back of a 23-match winning streak. While Djokovic was a match away from a record-extending fifth consecutive title, year-end No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings was on the line for both players. At the peak of his powers, Murray delivered in one of the most dramatic finales in the tournament’s history.

The Nitto Denko Corporation, a Japanese based manufacturer of multiple highly functional materials, has been the title sponsor in London since 2017, heralding a new generation of champions in Grigor Dimitrov (2017), Alexander Zverev (2018) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (2019). The Greek lifted the trophy just one year after his title run at the 21-and-under Next Gen ATP Finals, which is held in Milan. Few believed in 2009 that the Nitto ATP Finals would be a success at The O2 in November, more than four months removed from The Championships at Wimbledon, but more than 2.8 million spectators came through the gates across 11 editions of the tournament. After 50 years of superstar tennis, the Nitto ATP Finals will be held in Turin, Italy in 2021 and looks set to build upon its reputation of providing a global audience must-see, world-class tennis and a fitting finale to the professional tennis season.

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