Gerry Weber Open Celebrates 25 Years On Tour
Looking back at events of the past 25 years reveals that the world was in many ways very different more than two decades ago. In 1993, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk were the Nobel Peace Prize winners. The European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement were established. Bill Clinton became President of the United States.
From a tennis standpoint, much has changed as well. The inaugural Gerry Weber Open made its debut in Halle, on 14 June 1993. Some initially were sceptical of the staging of a grass-court event in the North Rhine-Westphalia countryside. Holding it at the same time as the historically respected Queen’s Championships, the long-time tournament in London, seemed risky. It may have looked like an impractical venture to many. After all, Queen’s had been contested in one form or another for well over one hundred years at the time.
From the vantage point of 25 years on, though, it is clear that bringing a tournament to Halle was a very good idea. Gerhard (Gerry) Weber, the hugely successful clothing manufacturer for whom the tournament is named, along with his son, Ralf, managed to set a formidable “How to do it” standard when it came to organising a tennis championship.
They have built the event from the ground up, and it has become better and better each year. The upward swing of the attendance figures pendulum substantiates the claim. (It must be noted that Gerry Weber’s business partner, Udo Hardieck, has played a quiet, out of the spotlight role, since the event’s inception.)
The success of the tournament is largely because of one thing – teamwork. Halle is home for the Webers, who have used their personable and eclectic management skills to foster local passion. They knew the city and they knew the people. The people are the key to developing the tournament’s indestructible foundation.
Annually, members of the community set aside work vacation time in order to be involved. Their commitment is unwavering.
The Halle event was acknowledged as the ATP World Tour 250 Tournament of the Year in 2008. That award, in essence, was a tribute to the support of nearly every individual residing in the area. It is the reason the Gerry Weber Open is the “People’s Tournament”.
During the spring, the weather in Europe varies dramatically. Rain is one of the factors that can plague tennis events. In 1994, an innovative step was made in the design of the Gerry Weber Stadion. A retractable roof that could be closed in 90 seconds became an essential part of the structure. It guaranteed that there would always be tennis.
No longer would players have to huddle in the confines of the locker room or in a covered area somewhere at the tournament site, nervously playing cards or listening to music, waiting for the drops to dissipate.
The Gerry Weber Open became an ATP Word Tour 500 tournament in 2015. Nevertheless, many tennis fans may look at it as “The Roger Federer Open”, because the Swiss maestro has claimed the singles title eight times. (On three other occasions, he was a finalist.) Between 2003 and ’06, he won four consecutive Halle championships and followed that with four straight Wimbledon victories.
In 2005, he became the only contestant to claim both the singles and doubles trophies (with countryman, Yves Allegro) in the same year’s tournament. Overall, players from seven countries have taken the singles title.
Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia is second in the championship count with three. (Interestingly, a U.S. performer has yet to win the tournament. In fact, Mardy Fish has been the only finalist. He lost to Federer, 6-0, 6-3, in 2004.)
Competitors from 17 countries have claimed the doubles title, but only Raven Klaasen of South Africa and Rajeev Ram of the U.S. have been two-time winners (in 2015 and ’16). Last year, Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan made their first Halle appearance, losing to Klaasen/Ram, 6-4, 7-6 in the semi-finals.
When the Bryans, who have won 112 career titles in their long on-court partnership, first saw names on the Halle doubles trophy, they said, almost in unison, how much they would like to be included on that list before they bow out of tour competition.
From the very beginning, Tournament Director Ralf Weber creatively sought to make the tournament a festival for players and spectators alike. His formula has been simple. After tennis concludes each day, the crowds move from watching matches to an area with a concert stage. It is situated a few steps away from the Stadion Court and has proved to be a great place to enjoy contemporary entertainment.
The twins play more than tennis as fans of the Bryan Bros. Band can attest. Last year, the twin Americans were very captivated by Weber’s “Tennis-tainment” concept. During the tournament, the brothers stayed at the Gerry Weber Sport Park Hotel, which is actually a resort-like setting only a short distance from the site of those nightly shows.
Mike said, “We left the windows open and we could watch the tennis on the back courts and see what was happening when the music started. We even listened to a German Coldplay cover band called 'Goldplay'”.
The Halle facility, featuring the deep green and purple shades that adorn the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC), is designed to take care of all the players’ needs so they can concentrate solely on tennis. They don’t have to worry about transportation to the tournament since everything is within easy walking distance from the hotel. That, also, includes the covered practice courts.
Mike Bryan underscored the importance of the close proximity of everything in the complex. Even when competitors are not scheduled to play on the Stadion Court, they can wait out a bit of rain comfortably. He said, “It was great to be able to relax on your own bed instead of on the ground... when it rained.”
The tournament’s reputation for all of its stellar amenities draws the game’s top performers. The quality of the playing surface is top notch, as well. Lawns, whether they are merely a backyard green spot or a soccer playing pitch, are tricky to maintain. Just imagine what it would be like to have to make a surface optimal for tennis play on three uncovered outside courts and then another one that can be and often is covered during a tournament week. It’s difficult and, at times, a perplexing task.
Phil Thorn is responsible for guaranteeing that the playing surface is lush. Since his father, Jim, maintained the lawns at the AELTC, he had a head start. Phil lived with his father there and helped him with his work. Given his background, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that grass-court care is part of his DNA. Having been involved with the Gerry Weber Open from the very beginning, Thorn has encyclopedic knowledge of the necessities that the surface requires.
At the 2016 championships, he said, “The Stadion Court grass is grown on pallets on the grounds at the tournament site. Four hundred are used to fill the space and they weigh about 800 kilos (1764 pounds) when they are dry and up to a ton (2000 pounds) when they are wet. I am always trying to make the surface on the Stadion and outside courts consistent. Every year, some changes are made. If a court remains the same for too long, thatching increases then the surface and the bounce of the ball is affected.”
Like a master chef, he has recipes that have proven successful, but he is always looking for ways to make his final product better. A year ago, he said. “I used combinations of grass before, but in 2016 I used pure rye. It was sown into the courts and I am pleased with the result.”
Ever candid, Thorn admitted, “I walk around and I rarely look up at the sky. If I do, I’ll do it very quickly. Everything I’m concerned about is on the ground.”
Thorn’s job is complex and unrelenting. He does, though, receive some assistance. He explained, “Prior to the tournament I have 10 students who help me in preparing and caring for the entire facility. During the event, the number rises to 45.” Smiling, he added, “During the rest of the year, I have three and a half people, (including Thorn), working.”
Of the tour’s playing surfaces, eight-time champion Roger Federer likes grass the best. He has said that it takes a short time to adjust to the low bounces and having to get down for every shot, but after those adjustments become part of a player’s mindset, the surface is cushion-like and much easier on the body.
In 2010, the Gerry Weber Open made a unique arrangement with Federer, and signed him to a lifetime contract. Ranked No. 1 at the time, he admitted that it felt a bit like he was getting married. Moreover, he said that he was very pleased with the agreement because of how well he got along with Ralf and Gerry Weber. He noted, “I have always been happy here. (I) played successfully and gained momentum (before) going into Wimbledon.”
At the conclusion of the 2016 tournament, Ralf Weber said, “When it comes to ideal, the semi-final between the ‘Super Talent’ (as he called him) Alexander Zverev and Roger Federer was really perfect. The youngster triumphed 7-6, 5-7, 6-3, but Federer remains storied in Halle. He is the leading figure in the history of the tournament. He is the face of the Gerry Weber Open. He just loves this place, the fans and the special atmosphere. It is good that the tournament has a lifetime contract with him. We have an exceptional partnership.”
The planning for this year’s tournament began immediately after Florian Mayer defeated Zverev in last year's all-German final 6-2, 5-7, 6-3. Gerry and Ralf Weber have established a truly magical event, and its “Silver Anniversary” promises to be even more breathtaking.
That anniversary is special for a reason. Even though it seems as if it is a tick in time, looking back, it is a milestone that can be a reminder of all that has come before. The 2017 Gerry Weber Open will be celebrating the past and the present, all the while, looking toward to the future.