05:05 AM GMT November 24, 2020
Stepping through dry ice to loud music and a capacity 17,800 fans, onto a court illuminated by a multi-display scoreboard, the world’s best players were front and centre right from the very first day in November 2009. The Nitto ATP Finals at The O2 in London, almost five months removed from the grass-court swing held on the other side of the capital, was deliberately different. Through cutting edge show production and world-class tennis, more than 2.8 million tickets were sold over the past 11 years as the stars of the ATP Tour immediately recognised the gravitas of playing at an iconic venue, harking back to the duels of Madison Square Garden in New York between 1977 and 1989.
Through three contact renewals, and outstanding title sponsors in Barclays – for the first eight years to 2016 – and now the Nitto Denko Corporation, a Japanese based manufacturer of multiple highly functional materials, the year-end championship in London quickly became a must-see — and must-be-seen at — global showcase. Not only for sports-loving fans, who snapped up more than 250,000 tickets each year, but for likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and long-time fans’ favourites Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan, who made it a priority each season to secure a place among the elite eight singles and doubles teams. But the showpiece also attracted major brands and celebrities.
Arriving early, often straight from the final event of the regular season at the Rolex Paris Masters, ATP Tour glitterati attended the launch parties and posed for official group photos at iconic venues such as the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, the Natural History Museum or Battersea power station, and prior to this year’s edition due to COVID-19 restrictions, were ferried by boat from their Westminster hotel. As London hosts the Nitto ATP Finals for the 12th and final year, prior to moving to Turin, Italy, in 2021, The O2 provided world-class tennis players the opportunity to compete on the same stage as rock stars to ensure an unforgettable experience.
Federer, who has won two of his six crowns at the season finale in London, told ATPTour.com, “The O2 is magic, the darkness in the room and making it all about the players. The atmosphere and energy is 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.”
Djokovic, who in 2020 finished year-end No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings for a sixth time, told ATPTour.com, “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.”
A view of The O2 arena, with a capacity 17,800 spectators at the 2019 Nitto ATP Finals in London. Copyright: Wonderhatch/ATP Tour
Thirteen years ago though, while the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder may have rocked The O2 to sell-out crowds, the question was: could the Nitto ATP Finals?
In July 2007, as Etienne de Villiers sat beside the executives of the All England Club, the Lawn Tennis Association and venue owners AEG, just two weeks after a Bon Jovi concert at The O2, to announce that the season finale would return to Europe for the first time in nine years, the ATP Executive Chairman and President was optimistic.
The doubters — and there were many — asked, how could you sell 17,500 [until 2012, when the capacity increased to 17,800] tickets twice per day for eight days in London, in the middle of November? It was a task that didn’t faze the highly experienced Brad Drewett, the ATP Chief Executive Officer for the International Group, and Chris Kermode, the managing director of the season finale. In the years to come, both would succeed de Villers as the leading powerbroker in the sport (Drewett in 2011 and Kermode in 2014).
With the power axis of men’s professional tennis shifting to continental Europe, through the outstanding performances of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, not to mention the rise of Murray, the ATP Tour took a calculated risk. By moving the Nitto ATP Finals from Asia to a central time zone and into a key tennis market, the tournament became more conducive to global broadcasters. However, the event needed to be produced differently from The Championships at Wimbledon and the Fever-Tree Championships at The Queen’s Club, both deeply rooted into the English social summer.
Twelve months ago, Kermode, who led the ATP Tour between 2014 and 2019, admitted, “No one would believe it would work as well as it has. This event became a proper spot in the sporting calendar. It’s a great arena and a great place to hold tennis. We had an opportunity to present it in a very, very different way. Some of the stuff we were trying at the time had never been done before. And now it’s become the template for every single indoor event around the world. I’m very proud of that.”
The O2 in London, venue of the Nitto ATP Finals since 2009, is the world's most popular music and entertainment venue. Copyright: Getty Images
While the Millennium Dome was built between 1997 and 1999 on wasteland and the site of a former gas works at a cost of nearly £700 million, the arena had to be fully refurbished by new owners AEG. A title sponsor for the year-end championship was required and it proved to be tricky, with an impending global credit crunch on the horizon.
Around the time of de Villiers' announcement, John Beddington, the founder of the Rogers Cup and Tournament Director of the season finale between 1972 and 1976, was seeking out opportunities in the Middle East and Spain for Barclays, who intended to pull out of sponsorship of the English Premier League football.
“When Etienne put up the idea of moving the event to the Millennium Dome, Barclays were considering getting out of football and they might need another event in England," Beddington told ATPTour.com. "Barclays agreed and got all the financial divisions to support it and in May 2008, I finalised the agreement with Barclays, that was left unsigned. One week later, I had a call from Paul Idzik, who said there were serious problems in the financial world. 'Can we get out of this deal?’ And I said to him, 'If you get out of this deal, I'll never work in tennis again and your name will be mud.' He said, 'Leave it with me.'
"For 24 hours, I was on tenterhooks. I called Etienne and said, 'You said you can't get this signed, until the ATP Board signs off on it. If we don't get this signed within the next 24 hours, it may go away.' I then had a call back from Barclays and Paul Idzik said, 'We really need to get this done, before it gets worse'. So I got everyone together. We met for breakfast the next morning and signed it.”
It was the start of a terrific eight-year partnership until 2016, including two contract renewals between the ATP Tour and Barclays, who helped to promote the event, by bringing on board three-time former champion Boris Becker, a resident of Wimbledon, as an ambassador and activated a search for Barclays ball kids. Tying into the 2009 ATP Tour rebranding with the FEEL IT — the intensity, ferocity, speed and passion — campaign, also helped to bring superstar players closer to new fans of the sport.
“We’ve had two great title partners, who have fit well with the tournament for it to be successful,” Adam Hogg, Event Director of the Nitto ATP Finals, told ATPTour.com. “We had a great eight years with Barclays and the growth of the tournament was in part due to their support and their activation around it. Moving ahead now we have a great partnership with Nitto, there is a real symmetry between the organisation and the event, in terms of its innovation and looking ahead to the future. The proof is that Nitto love the association with the event and will continue to sponsor it when it moves to Turin next year. They have also come onboard as a partner for the ATP Tour.”
The official group shot for the 2009 Nitto ATP Finals in London: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal (both seated), then (L to R) Juan Martin del Potro, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Fernando Verdasco, Nikolay Davydenko and Robin Soderling. Copyright: Getty Images
The abiding memory for many ATP Tour staff is standing in the vast entrance hall of The O2 on 22 November 2009 and witnessing the first 17,500 flag-waving and banner-holding fans, many with their faces painted, moving through into the arena to watch the very first session, when Murray took on Juan Martin del Potro, and a doubles clash that shared centre stage.
After four editions of the tournament at the purpose-built Qi Zhong stadium in Shanghai, the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, as it was first known after a rebranding of the ATP Tour in 2009, was unashamedly loud. Corporate hospitality provided by MATCH was sold out and early arrivals could watch their favourite players practise on court in the 7,000 square-metre Fan Zone, which subsequently got acquired by AEG for retail stores in the years to come, as The O2 became the world’s most popular music, entertainment and comedy venue. The wind also whistled around the interior white marquee, with its yellow 100-metre towers, in the early years on the Greenwich Peninsula, meaning jackets were an absolute necessity.
The O2 was the perfect venue for the era of superstar tennis. Whether it was the outstanding quality of Nadal’s 7-6(5) third-set tie-break win over Murray in the 2010 semi-finals, Stan Wawrinka's superb tussle in the 2014 semi-finals that ended in Federer's favour 7-6(6) in the deciding set tie-break or how Djokovic emerged as one of the game’s all-time greats during the first half of the 2010s, a period in which he also became a legend of the Nitto ATP Finals. Djokovic feasted on four straight titles from 2012-2015, winning 18 of 19 matches – against only the best players in the world – during that stretch. It also became commonplace in London to see the Serbian presented with the year-end World No. 1 trophy, which he received this year for a record-tying sixth time.
There was also the best of Murray in 2016, when, at the peak of his powers, he completed an epic round-robin win over Kei Nishikori and saved one match point against Milos Raonic in the semi-finals, which finished after a tournament record three hours and 31 minutes at 5:38pm as evening session ticketholders waited patiently outside the arena. Having overturned a huge deficit to Djokovic in the FedEx ATP Rankings that year, the British No. 1 came into the electric atmosphere of a winner-takes-all final against his great rival to decide year-end No. 1 and the titlist. Murray held his nerve, much to the delight of the capacity crowd, for his 24th straight match win and a place in the history books.
In the final year of Barclays title sponsorship in 2016, Andy Murray celebrated claiming year-end No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings and also the season finale title with victory over four-time defending champion Novak Djokovic at The O2 in London.
The Nitto ATP Finals at The O2 has also witnessed new stars breaking through. None more so than Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat Dominic Thiem in a thrilling 2019 title match, only one year on from the Greek lifting the Next Gen ATP Finals crown in Milan. For Hogg, who will continue his Event Director role when the season finale moves to Turin in 2021, last year's final stands out. "When we watched last year a new generation, Tsitsipas and Thiem, the atmosphere and passion for both players was amazing," said Hogg. "Greek and Austrian flags, chanting and bringing in the tribal support. That first-set tie-break was spine-tingling and it’s what we always wanted, combining top-level entertainment with the latest technology and innovation in front of capacity crowds."
Right from 2009, it wasn’t just the fans inside The O2 that had a greater insight into the prestigious tournament, but global television audiences could watch live as the players left their personalised locker rooms and walked along a corridor to the court. The cutting-edge show production, pre-match player choreography, special effects and screen content that was directed by the Wasserman Media Group, was showcased from the giant television screens suspended over the illuminated blue court. And the heart beat that boomed around the arena awaiting a Hawk-Eye decision added to the suspense and set the tone for performances of the very highest level.
“The tournament has continued to grow and what we produce around the court, the use of innovation and technology has continued to evolve, even more so this year without fans, in order to enhance the broadcast,” says Hogg. “It’s tied into the way we position the event, it’s ever evolving and the use of technology is critical to fans in the arena or sitting at home watching the matches.”
With the arena normally being used each week for a big rock band, comedy show or awards gathering, it has always been an impossible luxury to construct the court well ahead of time. Right from mid-September, the player facilities start to be constructed, and eight days before the first scheduled match, the ATP Tour takes possession of The O2 arena to begin the construction of the court. This week, the Nitto ATP Finals is sadly being played behind closed doors, but features Electronic Line-Calling and Video Review — for suspected not-ups, foul shots, touches and other reviewable calls — for the first time in tournament history.
As the clock ticks down on the 12th and final year in London, the legacy of celebrating the very best of men's professional tennis at The O2 will endure. Having the event in a central time zone and a key market was perfect for not only the players, coming at the end of the European indoor swing, but also stakeholders and the fans, who purchased more than 2.8 million tickets since 2009. For many, travelling on the Jubilee line to North Greenwich underground station became an annual pilgrimage and as the Nitto ATP Finals next week transitions to Turin, London will be a tough act to follow.