The Halle Mark
by Mark Winters|
An ATP tournament in the town of Halle once seemed like a far-fetched idea, but through the vision of the Webers, the Gerry Weber Open has developed into a world-class event and celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2012.
After hearing that a small German town known primarily for its scenic Teutoburger Forest was planning to hold its inaugural grass court tournament in 1993, the first question that came to mind was, “Why?” It made little - or, as some said, no - sense for the ATP to grant Gerhard (Gerry) Weber and son Ralf’s request to launch an event in Halle.
“Some thought it was an April Fool’s joke,” admitted Dr. Guido Kriete, a long-time tournament volunteer. “The announcement that Gerry Weber planned to hold an ATP professional tournament was surprising to most of the people in this area.”
“Some thought it was an April Fool’s joke”
“Up to that point in time, we had only hosted two smaller Challenger tournaments,” Tournament Director Ralf Weber explained. “Therefore, it was our goal to meet, in particular, the demands of the ATP, the players and ZDF (our TV broadcaster). Today, I can say that everybody was motivated and we made a successful premiere. Moreover, with Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and Petr Korda there, the three world stars attracted crowds of spectators. Our objective was to achieve a sold out Centre Court every possible day. And we succeeded.”
Nine years ago, Zeljko Franulovic, at the time, the ATP vice president of Europe and now the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters Tournament Director, said, “You have to ask: ‘How can you have a top grass court tournament in Germany? How do you do it in a small city?’ I have come to the conclusion, what the Webers have done is a miracle.”
This year, the unique Gerry Weber Open celebrates its 20th anniversary. Despite facing off annually against the historic AEGON Championships, held during the same week at The Queen’s Club in London, Halle has become globally significant, featuring stars like Roger Federer, who has a lifetime contract to appear at the tournament. Knowing that “names do matter”, the Gerry Weber Open added to its preeminence by reaching an agreement with Rafael Nadal to make three appearances, beginning with the 20-year milestone.
“We signed Roger Federer, in 2000, as an 18-year-old junior,” Ralf Weber said. “I could not anticipate that he would, afterward, have such an unparalleled international career. With his participation, he confirmed the international reputation of the Gerry Weber Open. After all, Federer won our tournament in 2003 for the first time, then triumphed in Wimbledon for the first time.”
Federer, who would go on to score the Halle/Wimbledon double on four more occasions, said of Halle’s 20th anniversary, “This is going to be a true tennis celebration. Besides being an important setting for the grass court season overall, it would be great, if I could win the grass court Slam - the competitions in Halle, Wimbledon and the Olympic tournament.”
In truth, the tournament’s success has been all about practicality. Gerry Weber and his partner, Udo Hardieck, are savvy businessmen. Having established their award-winning clothing manufacturing company in Halle, they have built institutional name identification based on trust and familiarity. Those who live in the area feel that they play a significant role in the tournament. Simply stated, it’s theirs. They each have a vested interest.
“We signed Roger Federer, in 2000, as an 18-year-old junior”
Dr. Kriete, like so many of those involved, uses vacation time each year to work at the tournament. “When I heard that an ATP grass court tournament would take place in my hometown, I found this was a great idea and I wanted to support the effort,” he said. His wife Kirsten (Schliek) Kriete, whom he met through volunteering at the tournament, added, “Working at the tournament is like going on holiday. You always see the same people from the community that you have worked with in the past.”
Among those they regularly see on site are Gerry and Ralf Weber, who seem to be omnipresent. Nary an hour goes by without a sighting of the duo. Their concern with each facet of the event is just one reason that Halle has an outstanding reputation.
When listening to Ralf Weber share his countless tournament recollections, it’s not surprising that his most vivid memory is the moment they decided to construct a roof. “It was 16 June 1993,” he said. “That day, it rained incessantly and not a single match could be played. We were all quite frustrated. But, at the same time, the idea was born to provide the Gerry Weber Stadium with a roof.
“The construction of the retractable roof has really been decisive for the advancement of the Gerry Weber Open. We, hence, could guarantee to the audience, to the stars and the TV broadcasters daily matches on the Centre Court. This realisation here in Halle, in the end, has found its continuation at Wimbledon.”
Once the roof became a reality, they tackled another enhancement: to offer a perfect lawn. “By introducing a transportable lawn on pallets, we succeeded in having an innovation unique throughout the world, which is unparalleled up to today,” said Ralf Weber.
The same rye grass used in The Championships lawns is rooted in Halle, and the individual responsible for court care and playability is Phil Thorn, whose father Jim was the well-respected lawn keeper at Church Road, SW19 for years. One thing Jim didn’t have to worry about was raising grass that could withstand the rigours of indoor play. Phil has creatively accomplished the task by developing a palate system to grow the grass behind the Tennis Club Blau-Weib, the tournament’s home. Then, just before the tournament begins, the massive slabs are fork-lifted into the 12,400 seat Gerry Weber Stadium.
“What the Webers have done is a miracle”
“The expansion of the Gerry Weber Stadium to a multifunctional arena was always related to the lawn,” Ralf Weber explained of the facility, dominated by the dark green and purple hues of The All England Club. Adding to the site’s splendour are covered practice courts, along with a the state-of-the-art sports park/hotel/multi-purpose complex.
“Everything is so convenient,” American James Blake said on his last visit to Halle. “You don’t need to worry about anything. It’s so relaxing, which is something that doesn’t happen often. Usually, you are worried about when you have to leave, about the traffic, what’s the weather going to be like. You don’t have to worry about that with the roof. It’s a good tournament because it’s different from a lot of the others.”
Over the years, there’s been talk of covering Court 1 and, should it become possible, holding a WTA tournament. “I think the tournament will keep on growing because it is not just tennis, it is an event,” Dr. Kriete said. “It has become ‘tennis-tainment’ with big music stars giving concerts after play has finished to give spectators time to settle down after a great day of tennis.”
Ralf Weber stated, “With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, we have two sports characters in the tournament, renowned worldwide, and we hope for a long partnership with both of them. Moreover, we constantly check our infrastructure for the tournament and in doing so, tackle new ideas and innovations. The aim is not only to maintain the tournament’s status, but, also, to enhance it. It’s the only way for us to guarantee the future so that we can continue in mobilising world stars for the Gerry Weber Open.”
Given the genius of Gerry and Ralf Weber, and the commitment of the Halle community, it will be interesting to see what innovations will be forthcoming. As Guido Kriete said, “When Gerry Weber and his staff are involved you should never underestimate – anything is possible.”
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