How do you turn a couple of backwater tournaments on the international tennis circuit into showbiz? DITA DE BONI investigates.
Months before the media's slavish attention to Anna Kournikova's slick brown thighs and Goran Ivanisevic's fiery outbursts, teams of professionals have slaved the year away in relative obscurity to bring world-class tennis tournaments to the Stanley St courts backing on to the laidback, leafy setting of Auckland's Domain. The antics of the tennis-playing stars also play their part in drawing the crowds to the women's ASB Bank Classic, finishing today, and the men's Heineken Open, beginning Monday.
Because it is primarily a business - especially for the sponsors - its main draws are the big names that can be attracted to Auckland each year, skimmed from a pool of players that international venues fight over like kids with cake.
Certainly, some of the organisers have the honour of rubbing shoulders with the Russian bombshell or baring the brunt of Ivanisevic's explosive temperament one-on-one.
But the more mundane stuff includes ordering 450 dozen tennis balls ( then returning them because they were slightly the wrong size), resurfacing the court using brushes flown over from Australia to replicate exactly the courts the players experience across the ditch, organising a huge team of volunteers (including the gender-neutral "ball people" and "ball kids") and, of course, the hotels, facilities, ticket sales, umpires, food, drink, corporate hospitality and everything else the multimillion-dollar event needs to keep it up to the calibre of world-class tennis tournaments.
Tournament director Graham Pearce reckons the file on next summer's event is open before this summer's is shut.
Glitches occur, but the main aim of the exercise seems to be to keep the sponsors happy, and this year they are well pleased. Both the ASB Bank Classic and the Heineken Open have attracted big names and generated much excitement - even though Heineken-owned DB Breweries was initially worried that its tournament would lose spectators to that other sporting superstar, Tiger Woods, riding his gilded golf cart into the formerly unassuming township of Paraparaumu around the same time.
They needn't have worried. DB sales and marketing general manager Rene van der Graaf observes, in a molasses-thick Dutch inflection, "Sport is close to a religion in New Zealand, so it's important to be associated with it".
And if sport is a religion, tennis is one of its oldest prophets. The game came to New Zealand with the first European settlers in the early-1800s. The Parnell Tennis Club (established 1872) is the second-oldest club in the world. Tennis is the third-highest participation sport in New Zealand.
"The only opportunity our sport has to create real tennis awareness and excitement is with these tournaments," says Pearce. "Because it's a global sport, the good players are less likely to play here - we don't have the domestic focus that netball and rugby have. So it's important to get profile and to get local kids to come along and play and get involved."
The New Zealand Open has been a venue on the international Association of Tennis Professionals' schedule since the late-80s, requiring it to meet strict professional standards.
"From the days of amateur fundraising and homemade afternoon teas the Heineken Open has come a long way," says Auckland Tennis' website.
It may well have added that the days have also long gone where players drove their own cars to and from the airport, a fairly ad hoc draw system was in place, and the country's largest cigarette producer and sponsor for 25 years - Benson & Hedges - distributed T-shirts, caps and, no doubt, its product.
Cigarette companies can no longer support major events, but corporate sponsors are the crucial element in drawing an international tennis open to New Zealand, says Pearce. Ticket sales only cover around 50 per cent of the cost of staging the tournament.
"The key thing to realise is that this event is one of the few left in New Zealand that we could actually call a 'global event' - the [two] tennis tournaments and the Rally of New Zealand. Around 75 per cent plus of the costs of putting on the Heineken Open are paid in US dollars - prizemoney, administration and appearance fees, official fees and the like - they are all driven by the circuit. We could not afford that on our own. And if we ever lost this type of event we would not get it back because it is too expensive. So it's critical to retain it and to keep the sponsors happy."
While the cost of staging the Heineken Open is not specified, a lot of humming and hawwing suggests the final tally comes in well over $1 million.
"In other parts of the world they certainly get paid much better appearance fees," says Pearce. "Over the years we've been at pains not to get ourselves paying ridiculous appearance fees, and neither do the Australian tournaments that we compete against, so expectations tend to be in accordance with the size of the market."
Considering the tournament's top-seeded player, Marat Safin, makes about $US1.2 million ($2.87 million) a year, it's a likely bet he's not coming to New Zealand to add significantly to his fortunes. Players' fees are not specified. Safin and others, including reigning Wimbledon champ Ivanisevic, Michael Chang and Dominik Hrbaty instead come to Auckland to prepare for the Australian Open, the exclusive Grand Slam event which directly follows the Auckland fixture.
"Our event is one of the first of the year. They've had their holidays, so the top-seeded players come here to prepare," says Pearce. For that reason, conditions on the court in Auckland are matched exactly to those in the Australian Open's home town of Melbourne, even to the extent of using the same brush-strokes when resurfacing the court.
The process of getting players to New Zealand is a matter of haggling with agents from the world's top sports management companies, such as industry giant IMG, as well as some argy-bargy between venues.
The players themselves are ranked by international governing bodies, in the case of men, by the ATP. On the first day of the year, the world's top players each have "zero" points, accumulating them by playing tournaments throughout the year. The Heineken Open (unlike a Grand Slam event) really is "open" in that any player can apply to play and the top 23 of those are selected to fill slots on the draw. Four more positions remain open for the winners of a tournament held in the days before the Open begins, three for wildcards and two for late qualifiers.
The days of local players featuring significantly on the main draw are gone. They are now more likely to be wildcard entries.
The calibre of international player that comes to Auckland with expectations of conditions he might get anywhere in the world requires military-like precision in organising the event. There are two management teams: the "sponsors" team, which this year includes people from DB Breweries, Vodafone, Mercedes Benz and Auckland City, and an army of PR, advertising and brand management types.
The second team is Auckland Tennis' on-court crew who manage the stadium and coordinate the 150 or so volunteers. Included is a player-liaison group whose members are on call to satisfy the players' whims for movie tickets, golf passes, drycleaning, or whatever else they desire.
But they are generally not prima donnas, says Pearce. "They are professionals who travel all the time and are used to staying in hotels. But we do get them back, because they find the atmosphere of Auckland neat and relaxed, and they don't have the pressure of really big cities."
He doesn't remember any outstanding bratty behaviour during his 14-year association with the event. Apart from a couple of players suffering food poisoning one year, the most catastrophic thing to go wrong was in 1996 when games scheduled at night were plunged into blackness three times, the last time requiring seven hours of maintenance work.
"We now have generators coming out of our ears," he says. "These sort of issues you prefer not to remember."
Asked if the event has become a bit more bland for all the planning and wrangling over superstars, Pearce admits there is a danger that people perceive today's players as "lacking in personality". He is adamant they are all interesting people with diverse interests, "but they're only here for a short time and have a strict focus".
Considering most of the top players live in the tax haven of Monte Carlo, are cosseted and managed by teams of agents and seem to have fairly typical pastimes associated with their lifestyle - sailing, classic car-collecting and the like - it is easy to see how their reputation for being spiceless off court may have evolved.
But tennis doyen Tom Kiely, who oversaw the men's and women's tournaments between 1985 and 1994 and has been involved with Auckland Tennis for many years, says it's not correct to describe the modern, professional era of tennis tournaments as "bland".
"With the greater purchasing power, there is a vastly improved quality of player. It's much more professional and the tennis is better - far superior to what it used to be. We are in different times. The way the competition is run and the prizemoney attracts greater talent and different expertise."
In his day, often the top players would be eliminated in the first and second rounds, which was "very unfortunate". They would then go on to do well in Melbourne.
Sponsorship has also changed with the times - the money required today far exceeds that of the past. While Benson & Hedges and BellSouth, former main sponsors of the event, were "excellent", Kiely says Heineken has upgraded the event. Substantial money has gone into catering and entertainment, a move he says is "most commendable".
Heineken (DB Breweries) is open about the fact that sponsorship now reaches far beyond court signage, caps and T-shirts. DB's Rene van der Graaf, who has worked for Heineken in its native Holland and in Spain, says the idea of the company's involvement is to deliver an experience to punters - not necessarily one which is exclusively about tennis.
The DB team has travelled to Australian tournaments and picked up ideas about courtside and off-court entertainment. This year it will offer a fashion show ("for the ladies"), a jazz band playing on court in between games and a DJ on the final nights.
"Brand recognition isn't really an issue. Tennis here is considered to be slightly upmarket, slightly premium, so that's an important part of Heineken's positioning in the market. But in terms of the actual sponsorship, fortunately or unfortunately it is difficult to isolate the impact of having or not having a 'Heineken' Open - so to some extent it's just common sense and gut feel. We do some tracking in terms of asking consumers if they have noticed our sponsorship of the event, but it is difficult to get a black and white answer."
Van der Graaf likes the laidback feel to the tournament. The overall appeal of tennis to Australians and New Zealanders is one reason Heineken remains with the game in the Asia-Pacific region while decreasing its sponsorship in Europe.
Pearce says to his knowledge nowhere else in the world are corporate box-holders served courtside, as if at a restaurant, as they are in Auckland.
"It's a key thing for the lifestyle feel of the event. Because overseas the corporate boxes are away from the court, people are taken away from the main event. We like to keep everyone around the court, and the players thrive on it.
"The whole ambience of the stadium which is tucked into the Domain with the trees ... spectators can reach out and touch the players, and occasionally the player will end up in the box! It's unique and is not replicated around the world to that extent."