“This amazing crossroads” - Chris Kermode on the Nitto ATP Finals and the future of men’s tennis

With the ATP confirming a new title sponsor and a longer stay in London for its season-ending ATP Finals, executive chairman Chris Kermode talks through his expectations for that event and for men's tennis, on the brink of a generational shift.

“This amazing crossroads” - Chris Kermode on the Nitto ATP Finals and the future of men’s tennis

Since moving to London's O2 Arena back in 2009, the ATP World Tour Finals has established itself not just as an unmissable season finale for elite men's tennis, but also as a major global sporting event in its own right. On Thursday, at an event at the top of the city's tallest building, The Shard, the ATP confirmed that the tournament would be staying on in the UK capital until 2020 with a new title sponsor - Japanese chemical technology corporation Nitto Denko.

ATP executive chairman and president Chris Kermode was at the event with Nitto chief executive Hideo Takasaki, Alex Hill of The O2 operator AEG Europe, and tennis legend Boris Becker, for whom one of the first-round groups in the rebranded Nitto ATP Finals will be named. With the tennis community ready for the second Grand Slam of the year at Roland Garros and the men's game on the brink of generational change, Kermode spoke to SportsPro about the continuing prospects of the tour, its players, and its major championships.


When was the decision taken to stay in London and what was the motivating factor behind it?

We’d done a process of looking at all the options. It was a time to step back and reflect. The event’s been hugely successful here in London. Over two million people have attended and 100 million people watch it on TV – it’s been a massive success story.

We stood back and said, “You know, we should look at other options around the world.” We had interest from four or five big global cities. And it’s one of those where the decision was made, really, where you weigh up five or six factors. That’s obviously the business of the sport, the financials, but it’s also about a statement for the sport, the people attending, the media, time zones, the city itself and the statement that makes.

You throw that all in the mix and London still came out as the best place to host this event.

Does the fact that you’ve become a kind of anchor for The O2 help in that regard?

Yeah. I mean, The O2 has become, certainly in the UK, the most iconic indoor venue. It’s primarily known as a music venue and for one week of the year we turn it into, I think, one of the best sporting arenas in the world.

We did a partnership with them when we started this event in 2009 – and people have very short memories but in 2007 and 2008 when we were working on this, there were many, many doubters that this event would work. There were doubters that the O2 Arena would work. That soon was put to bed because it became so successful, so quickly. AEG did a phenomenal job with the acts that were brought in.

People still said, “Tennis isn’t going to work in the East End. It’s primarily a west London market. Tennis in the UK is a summer sport, it’s Queen’s and Wimbledon, and in November, are people going to go?” And it was a risk at the time, but we proved everybody wrong. In the first year we had over 250,000 people attend the event, which for a one-court tennis event is extraordinary. It is the biggest, most successful indoor tennis event in the history of the sport, and long may that continue.

"Nitto had been to the event last year and they fell in love with the event, it was as simple as that."

You’ll have been in London for 11 years by the time this new term ends. Will it be difficult to return to that discussion about whether the event should move around again?

No, I don’t think so. We take each cycle on different merits: timing, global economies, the desire for the event round the world, is it still there – I bet it will be – and we’ll weigh it up again. But I think it’s healthy to have the competition among cities and I’m glad we’re in a position where we do have choices.

How did the partnership with Nitto come about?

They approached us. They had been to the event last year and they fell in love with the event, it was as simple as that, and at the time they didn’t even know that our previous title sponsor was leaving. So the timing was perfect.

You’re moving from a household name – a high street and high-end banking group – to an organisation which, while it’s an enormous conglomerate operating at a real scale, isn't necessarily going to be known to customers and fans. How different is the challenge for you as a rights holder to deliver value for them through the sponsorship?

Our starting point is that they were very, very keen to get involved, so we weren’t hassling them to come and be involved. They came to us, which is always a great start. But I think the synergies between the ATP Finals and the company are that they’re both very forward-thinking, looking for innovation. They want to grow. They’re a huge, huge company but they are a B2B business. And over the next few months we’ll find out and deliver what they actually want from this event.

Is there anything to be read into the fact that this is a Japanese company and not a London-based company, as Barclays was?

No, not really. I think it’s a reflection on the event. When it started in 2009, I think it was seen for the first year as a London event. Then it became a national event, then it became a European event, and now it’s a global event. So the global interest in the Nitto ATP Finals, I think, is just a reflection that around the world there are companies now who want to be a part of it.

What does it say about the kind of partnerships that you’re going to want to bring in now, over the next cycle, across everything that the ATP World Tour does?

We want to partner with brands who want to activate with us. It’s not just a question of writing a big cheque, it’s having a partner that wants to work with us and that we can build our brand at the same time as theirs, and tell our story to a wider audience.

"I think it’s a reflection on the event. When it started in 2009, I think it was seen for the first year as a London event. Then it became a national event, then it became a European event, and now it’s a global event."

Looking at the success of the ATP Finals, is there anything you want to do with other ATP World Tour events in terms of branding, the consistency of how they’re presented and so on? Are there other properties that you can build up?

The most consistent property that we have is our premier partnership, which is on the nets, which is Emirates. That puts a sort of consistent thread through all the 62 events around the world. But I think, equally, what I don’t want to do is have all the events look the same, because that’s the unique part of the sport. They’re played in different, glamourous locations around the world and I think you have to have that character as well. Obviously on the nets, the thread is that we have ATP World Tour on the nets again so you know what you’re watching, and I think that works really well.

What’s the future for other events on the ATP World Tour calendar? There’s not just the Masters series running through the year, but also the NextGen championship for which you obviously have some high hopes.     

So we have three categories of tournaments: the Masters 1000s, the 500s, and the 250s. What we’re looking at is trying to find some mechanism which incentivises growth. We’re very conscious that we want the tour to grow, and we need investors to come in and feel that they can make their events bigger. And that’s what we’re looking at at the moment.

With the NextGen Finals in Milan this year, this is something we’re doing for the first time where we’re just testing this whole raft of innovation. It’s been quite an interesting process because obviously the tennis purists are all panicking that this is going to happen on the tour very quickly, and as many times as I can I assure people that it’s not. But this is the prime event and location to try things out.

What I don’t want to be doing is standing here in five years’ time saying, “Shall we talk about a shot clock, or shorter sets?” If we try it, maybe some ideas are terrible, maybe some are good, but I think until you do it, you don’t know. And we have to be open-minded enough to try it.

How closely do you watch things like the Tie Break Tens when you’re considering that kind of innovation?

I’m not just looking at tennis options. There’s been Turbo Tennis, there’s been Super Set Tennis, there’s been Tie Break Tens; other sports like golf are looking at it; all sports are looking at ways of protecting themselves for the next generation of fans.

"You have to bring your personality to the sport, and that’s what we’re looking to do."

We’re going into the second Grand Slam of the year, but without the winner of the last one being present. We’ve just had  Alexander Zverev record a significant title win in the Italian Open. Where do you see the tour generationally at the moment? Is there the strength in depth to replace the players who’ve been dominant for so long or do you feel that people are yet to get to know some of those who will be doing that?

I think we’re at this amazing crossroads of the sport. We’re coming to the end of probably the greatest generation of players I’ve ever seen, with four names dominating – five, if you throw Stan Wawrinka in there as well. They’ve become iconic sports stars. They’ve transcended tennis; they’ve become global sports stars. So it would be foolish to say that they’re not going to be missed, because they are.

However, we’re at this amazing period where the next generation are coming through. You mentioned Sascha Zverev – a huge talent coming through. You’ve got Nick Kyrgios playing amazing tennis. There’s a whole raft of players coming through, and what’s interesting, for me, as a global sport – as I said, we have 62 countries round the world, 62 events round the world – is these players… if the next generation all came from one area of the globe, it’s tough to sell it as a global sport, but the kids that we’ve got coming through are from a huge, geographically diverse spread. So you’ve got Australians back in the game, you’ve got loads of Americans, you’ve got Asians, you’ve got Europeans, you’ve got South Americans. So it truly is a reflection of the global nature of our sport.

They’re coming through playing different styles, with different personalities, and I think that we’re at the most exciting juncture of the sport, because we’ve got the old guard with the new guard coming together, and they’re battling it out.

From your perspective as the organisers of the tour, to what extent do you just send these young players out to express themselves on court for fans to find them, and to what extent do you need to actively foreground them?

When I speak to players, the message is very simple: “When you step on the court, you have to remember that people are paying money to come and see you.” So it is a sports entertainment and people can express it in many different ways – so it’s not just about being a certain type of player – but you have to bring your personality to the sport, and that’s what we’re looking to do.