As the best of the best in the tennis world descend on the sleepy German town of Halle for the 20th annual Wimbledon warm up event – the Gerry Weber Open – we take a look back at how this unlikely ATP tournament came to be.
Back in 1993, the thought of any major tennis star heading to this small town in former East Germany to compete in an ATP tournament was almost laughed at – “some thought it was an April Fool’s joke”, reported Dr Guide Kriete, a long-standing volunteer at the tournament. Tennis insiders were puzzled as to why the ATP had granted the Webers – Gerry and his son, Ralf – permission to launch an official event in this quiet town, which was primarily known for its leafy and scenic forestry.
In the early nineties, the town had hosted two smaller Challenger tennis tournaments, but the vision and ambition of the Webers to develop professional tennis in their home town enabled them to “meet, in particular, the demands of the ATP, the players and ZDF (our TV broadcaster)” by establishing its first official grass court tournament. And with Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and Petr Korda in attendance for the event’s premier, the real success of the event was clear for everyone to see.
It’s the Webers’ vision and astute business sense that has been pivotal in transforming the event from a possible one-hit-wonder to one of the European highlights on the ATP world tour calendar. Although their efforts have been described as “a miracle” by Zeljko Franulovic, former ATP vice president of Europe and current Monte-Carlo Masters Tournament Director, it is undoubtedly the practical efforts and innovations introduced by Gerry Weber and his business partner Udo Hardieck that have really had the biggest effect on the long-term success of the tournament. Constant improvements have been made to the stadium in which the event is held, including the installation of a retractable roof and the use of locally-grown rye grass to cover the laws, and they have made every effort to sign some of the world’s greatest tennis players.
Beginning with a teenage Roger Federer in 2000 and currently including world number 2 Rafael Nadal, who has been contracted to make three appearances at the event starting with the 20th anniversary this year, this particular event has always attracted a roster of tennis stars that puts it on equal footing with the more traditional AEGON Championships held at The Queen’s Club in London. Federer has been a long-time supporter of the event, winning it a total of five times and going on to score title wins at the corresponding Wimbledon Championships, and when asked about the tournament’s 20th anniversary confirmed that it “is going to be a true tennis celebration”.