November 23, 2021 9:11:46 am
By Christopher Clarey
There is a massive world map in the atrium of the five-star hotel in Turin where the leading players stayed during the ATP Finals that ended Sunday.
It was not the ideal metaphor. Though men’s tennis is undoubtedly global, with tournaments on six continents (no Antarctica for now), it is not at the moment an intercontinental sport at the top.
As the 2021 tour season ends, the top 10 in singles is exclusively European: from 34-year-old Novak Djokovic of Serbia at No. 1 to 20-year-old Jannik Sinner of Italy at No. 10.
Though there were some men’s tour executives who believed that it would have been a smarter growth strategy and safer financial decision to take the ATP Finals elsewhere — see Tokyo or Singapore — it is certainly in tune with the times that the tour’s year-end championship remained in Europe.
The surprise was that it came to Turin. The ATP Finals were in London at the O2 Arena from 2009 to 2020, serving as an annual second helping of big-time tennis for a major city and major media hub that already had Wimbledon.
But Turin, the new host for a five-year run, is a very different and more risky play. Though Turin is the capital of Italy’s Piedmont region, it is only the country’s fourth most populous city behind Rome, Milan and Naples. It has a tennis culture — clubs and courts are common — but does not have a regular men’s or women’s tour event and has never produced a major tennis star, although Lorenzo Sonego, 26, a Turin native currently ranked 27th, is training and playing hard to change that (he has victories over Djokovic and 2020 U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem).
Fiat, the carmaker that once dominated the city, has moved on, leaving an economic void. Turin has its strengths: fine wine and food, an Egyptian museum, an elegant city center and the soccer club Juventus. But what gave it the edge for indoor tennis was the Pala Alpitour, the largest, most up-to-date indoor arena in Italy. It was built to host ice hockey at the Winter Olympics in 2006, and Turin’s leaders were eager to rekindle the Olympic spirit and raise the city’s international profile with another significant sports event.
That may be more challenging than they think. The ATP Finals is arguably the most prestigious annual men’s tennis event outside the four Grand Slam tournaments. Only the top eight men qualify in singles, and it is a goal and talking point throughout the season as well as one of the biggest paydays and ranking boosts available. An undefeated champion gets 1,500 ranking points: more than any tournament outside the Grand Slam events, whose champions get 2,000.
But the ATP Finals are still nowhere near as big a fishbowl. Winning is important for a champion’s legacy but not essential. Rafael Nadal has never managed it, yet no one is about to take him off the short list of the game’s greatest players.
Three of the past five ATP Finals champions — Grigor Dimitrov, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev, who won in 2018 and again Sunday — have yet to win a Grand Slam title.
But with Nadal, Thiem and Roger Federer out of action for extended periods as they recover from significant injuries, Turin got the best of what was available. No. 1 Djokovic, No. 2 Daniil Medvedev and No. 3 Zverev all reached the semifinals after coming through their round-robin groups, and all expressed satisfaction with their new playground even if Medvedev did grumpily and briefly compare it to a minor-league “challenger” event during his opening match when he had trouble getting the balls delivered to him at the pace he prefers before serving.
There were certainly more significant issues, some beyond organizers’ control. The coronavirus pandemic made advance planning a challenge. Prize money was cut in half — from $14.5 million to $7.25 million — largely because of the reduced arena capacity. Though Turin had been projecting a 75% limit, the Italian authorities ultimately settled on 60%, which turned away hundreds of fans on short notice. Once inside, there were long lines and a shortage of concessions (the sponsors seemed to be doing just fine).
But the enthusiasm was real and audible, even with just over 7,600 fans in the stands. It was real in Turin’s historic center as well, where shopkeepers put tennis rackets in their showcases and windows and the city turned Piazza San Carlo into a tennis village with big video screens and a small-scale court.
Is it better to take an event like the ATP Finals to a world city where it will be at most a sideshow or to bring it to a more modest place like Turin where it can and likely will dominate?
Option No. 2 has its charms.
“The Turin idea was that the city would really embrace the event, and we would have done even more if there had not been COVID,” said Andrea Gaudenzi, chairman of the ATP Tour. “Overall, I think we have to improve a few things, especially in the fan experience outside the arena when you come without the corporate ticket. But overall, I’m personally pleased with the on-court experience.”
The potential downside is that you create waves in a small pond instead of ripples in vaster uncharted waters that might help grow the game long term. With the Big Three nearing the end of their careers, men’s tennis is surely in for a lull.
But after all the empty stadiums of the pandemic, buzz is an even larger virtue, and Italy is abuzz over tennis and rightly so. When Turin and the Italian Tennis Federation began lobbying for the ATP Finals in 2018, Sinner and Matteo Berrettini had not yet broken through (and Gaudenzi, a former Italian star, had not yet become chairman of the ATP).
As it turned out, Berrettini, 25, a Wimbledon finalist this year, qualified directly for Turin and when he had to withdraw after one match with an abdominal injury, Sinner was ready to step in as the alternate. The atmosphere when he played was the best of the week.
“We never could have imagined that two Italian players would take part in the first ATP Finals in Turin,” said Angelo Binaghi, president of the Italian Tennis Federation.
That is quite a bonus, and in light of Sinner’s and Berrettini’s youth and talent, it may not be a one-time bonus.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.