FOR 50 years, the Nitto ATP Finals has been a landmark event on the ATP Tour’s calendar. Tennis’ greatest champions have competed in the tournament, which has rotated through 14 different cities. In 2002 in Shanghai, the tournament became the most-viewed international sporting event ever staged in China at that time.
The city began hosting an event in 1996 — that tournament later became known as the Heineken Open — which intrigued the local government. “This is amazing. We want more of this kind of thing,” Charles Humphrey Smith, the Managing Director/International of Juss Event, remembers an official telling him at the time.
Juss Events, China’s largest sports and events management company, was then allowed by the government to bid for what was then called the Tennis Masters Cup. The state-owned organisation was successful and in 2002, the tournament was held in Shanghai for the first time.
“It’s very seldom that an event acts as a pivot-point in the sport,” Smith said. “For us in Asia, and obviously for the globe, hosting the Tennis Masters Cup in 2002 under the global tennis world’s watchful eye was a defining moment in tennis, and has led the way to some amazing new things that have grown both the men’s and women’s sport.”
It’s not often a major city closes down its biggest highway for anything, let alone a tennis tournament. But Shanghai did so in 2002 for the Tennis Masters Cup. The organisers had built a stage overhanging the Huangpu River, which flows through the city. The players, escorted by a film crew, were driven to that location on The Bund. Thousands of police officers shut down all the ramps leading to the area, but there was a problem: Marat Safin was late and the ceremony was being filmed for live TV.
“He needed to get in the van with the players to go to the stage and they had the Chinese jackets on and everything,” Smith said. “Three minutes is a lifetime when you’re shutting down an entire city artery. Finally… we found Marat, put him in a car [and] the highway was still shut down.”
The world’s best tennis players — including World No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, former World No. 1 Andre Agassi and rising star Roger Federer — wore colourful Tang jackets as they posed with Pudong and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in the background. It’s an iconic picture that still resonates today.
One of the biggest operational hurdles for the first edition of the tournament in Shanghai was that there was only one existing stadium downtown, which needed a significant renovation. Former long-time Tennis Masters Cup Tournament Director and ATP Chairman Brad Drewett was taken through the city to inspect stadiums with the Shanghai Sports Commission and Smith. Drewett often recounted the story that when they were shown the recently built exhibition halls, he told the Shanghai Sports Commission the ceilings were too low. They replied that would not be a problem and ensured that the one hall used for the Tennis Masters Cup 2002 was significantly taller than all the other halls. After that meeting, officials connected Smith with a Chicago-based architect, who said: “I don’t know who you are, but I’m supposed to do whatever you want.”
The Shanghai New International Expo Center became the venue for the 2002 Tennis Masters Cup. Hewitt would beat Juan Carlos Ferrero in a thrilling five-set final after three hours and 51 minutes in front of nearly 10,000 fans.
“The atmosphere in that arena was probably the best I’d ever seen for a tennis event because it was intimate, the sound was great and the playing conditions with the singles court looked fantastic on TV,” Smith said.
Shanghai had only bid to hold the event for one year, but the government immediately knew it wanted to bring the tournament back.
“It was a proud moment both for tennis and the Shanghai Organising Committee,” Smith said. “The government pressed the button and said, ‘Let’s build a new tennis centre. We don’t want to just have this. We want to have tennis at the highest level forever.’”
That led to the construction of the iconic Qizhong Stadium, with its Magnolia flower-shaped roof featuring eight petals. Eight is a lucky number in China, and the theme continued with eight singles players, eight doubles teams and eighth private locker rooms for the players. In 2004, Federer flew to Shanghai to open the stadium.
“He did it because he saw China as the future for him as well. He is as beloved as any foreign athlete in China. The guy has been amazing,” Smith said. “He made that decision on his own that China was a place that he wanted to better-known and market himself, and it’s been a very mutually beneficial relationship over the years.”
It was fitting that when the Tennis Masters Cup returned to Shanghai in 2005, Federer was enjoying the best season of his career. He reached the championship match with an 81-3 record for the year. The Swiss crushed Gaston Gaudio 6-0, 6-0 in the semi-finals and appeared primed to win a 25th consecutive final and match John McEnroe’s historic 82-3 tally from 1984.
In round robin play, Federer had defeated World No. 12 David Nalbandian in three sets. He won two tie-breaks to take a commanding lead against the Argentine in the championship match, inching closer to a third consecutive Tennis Masters Cup crown. But Nalbandian pulled off a memorable comeback to triumph in a fifth-set tie-break for the biggest victory of his career.
“I joked during the trophy ceremony, ‘Roger, don’t worry, it’s not your last final. You’re going to win a lot of tournaments, so let me keep this one,'” Nalbandian recalled.
Federer did not let the title slip through his fingers in 2006. After eliminating rival Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals, he only lost seven games against big-hitting American James Blake in the championship match.
“There’s nothing I could have done. He played too good,” Blake said. “I’ve probably run out of adjectives to describe him on the court, to talk about his excellence. He’s just unbelievable. Steps it up even more in finals. I definitely think I could have played a little better. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t know if it would have mattered today.”
Federer triumphed once again the following year, dismissing Nadal in the last four for the second consecutive season. The Swiss dominated David Ferrer for the trophy. But in 2008, he failed to reach the semi-finals at the event for the first time in his seventh appearance. That allowed Novak Djokovic to break through and claim his first of five triumphs at the tournament in its final year in Shanghai.
Part of the agreement between the organisers and the ATP allowed for the organisers to purchase an ATP Masters 1000 license following the departure of the season finale. Since 2009, the city has hosted the Rolex Shanghai Masters.
But it was the year-end championships that proved the viability of the market not just for tennis, but for professional international sports. Jonas Bjorkman won the 2006 Tennis Masters Cup doubles title alongside Max Mirnyi, and competed at the Shanghai event from 2005-08. The Swede remembers watching the culture grow over the years.
“It is very unique because it is one of the few places where you have fans queuing at the hotel for hours just to get those selfies or autographs and then they will be queuing for hours on site. If they missed a few players [at the hotel], they would try to catch them there,” Bjorkman said. “It was a very different atmosphere compared to other [Nitto ATP] Finals [locations]… Towards the end you could really see how everyone started to understand tennis more and got into it more. It was a great experience to be there playing for many years.”
The love of the fans became apparent, and it still resonates today. Whenever the ATP Tour visits China, fans always have gifts prepared for many players in the draw. Tennis players are rock stars in China. Djokovic was blown away by their support after he lifted the trophy in 2008.
“There are so many letters and so many presents and souvenirs that I got from Chinese fans,” Djokovic said. “I haven’t experienced that ever in my career. Kids, as well as adults, waiting for me for 20, 30 hours, overnight. I mean, this just shows how much respect and appreciation they have for you as an individual.”
There isn’t currently a Chinese man inside the Top 100 of the FedEx ATP Rankings. But the Tennis Masters Cup’s five years in Shanghai brought about an explosion of tennis to China. The 2019 ITF Global Tennis Report states that 22.5 per cent of tennis players in the world are located in China.
“It’s remarkable that this has led the way for this domestic shift for tennis versus ping pong, badminton, or other sports,” Smith said. “Tennis is a very popular sport in China.”
Agassi made his final Tennis Masters Cup appearance in 2005. Although the American only completed one match due to an ankle injury, the American saw the importance of what having the event in Shanghai could mean for the future.
“This is not just an important tournament,” Agassi said. “It’s an important area of the world, and one that I think the game can benefit a lot from.”
The Brad Drewett Trophy
In 2013, the spectacular trophy presented each year to the Nitto ATP Finals champion was renamed The Brad Drewett Trophy, in honour of the former ATP Executive Chairman and President, who passed away in May of that year after a battle with Motor Neurone Disease. The Australian, who won two ATP Tour titles and reached World No. 34, served as Tournament Director of the tournament from 2001-2011.
“Brad was unique and had very good perspective from all sides of the tennis world,” said former Nitto ATP Finals Tournament Director Andre Silva. “He had a vision and believed in the event. He believed it was one of the greatest events on the tennis calendar and he worked very hard to grow its legacy.”