Tennishead opinion: LTA must continue to bring the best to Britain
The O2 Arena has been a brilliant venue for the Nitto ATP Finals and has helped to widen the appeal of tennis, says Stephen Towers
Twenty-five years after Clare Wood and Monique Javer led Britain to a clean sweep of Fed Cup victories in a zonal competition in Nottingham, women’s team tennis will return to our shores next year.
Bath University will be the venue as Britain and seven other teams will do battle in Europe/Africa Zone Group One. One winning country will emerge from the competition and go into a play-off for a place in the World Group. For British fans it will be a rare chance to watch the likes of Johanna Konta, Heather Watson and Katie Boulter in action.
Scott Lloyd, who is in his first year as chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association, has so far lived up to his pledge to bring more international tennis to Britain, albeit on a comparatively small scale. Earlier this year the LTA staged two additional Challenger tournaments in Glasgow and Loughborough, even if the quality of the fields in both were ultimately disappointing.
The Fed Cup zonal competition, which has been held in Estonia for the last two years, can be rather a low-key event, but given the lack of opportunities for British fans to watch the country’s best women outside of the grass-court season, the LTA are to be commended for bringing it to Bath.
Now, however, British tennis faces an even bigger challenge. Will London continue to host the Nitto ATP Finals once the current deal to stage the year-end event at the O2 Arena expires after the 2020 tournament?
Some people within the Association of Tennis Professionals believe it might be time to take this showpiece event to another part of the world, but others point to the huge success of the competition in London. Each year the tournament attracts some 250,000 spectators to a brilliantly staged show in a world-class venue. Most of the players, the majority of whom are Europeans, love coming to London.
There is unlikely to be any shortage of cities bidding to stage the tournament after 2020. A number of venues in the Far East and Middle East in particular would no doubt be prepared to invest heavily in the event, which could be an important factor in the eventual decision. The year-end finals are an important source of revenue for the ATP.
At the same time, the ATP will be fully aware of how successful the competition has been since it switched from Shanghai to London in 2009. If it moves to a less familiar outpost will it retain the same high profile, particularly at a time when the golden era of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal is surely drawing towards a close?
The LTA played an important part in bringing the tournament to London and it is to be hoped that the national governing body will be doing all it can to keep it in Britain.
It always used to be one of the ironies of British tennis that the country staged the world’s most famous tournament but gave the impression that it had little interest in the sport other than during Wimbledon or the build-up to it.
The year-end ATP finals have gone some way towards changing that. Go to the O2 Arena in November and you quickly appreciate that the audience are very different to the crowds who go to Wimbledon or Queen’s, or Edgbaston or Eastbourne, during the grass-court season.As we all know, to get Wimbledon tickets you generally need to be lucky in the annual ballot or to be a member of a club. Tickets for the O2, however, are both freely available and reasonably priced.
With the change in the format of the Davis Cup, there are likely to be even fewer opportunities for home spectators to watch world-class tennis in future years, which makes keeping the year-end event in London even more important.
It may be, of course, that the ATP decides, however persuasive British voices might be, that it is time for the event to find a new venue and audience. Even in that scenario, however, it could be the case that there will be other opportunities as a knock-on effect. For example, if the year-end finals moved to a city that currently stages one of the season’s nine Masters Series tournaments, that event could be up for grabs.
The LTA needs to be alive to these possibilities. Bringing the Fed Cup to Bath as a one-off is a start, but if tennis is to continue to thrive in Britain we need more events to follow.