ATP Tour: The Story Behind Hamburg’s Fall From Grace

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There’s no the question that Hamburg is one of the most historically prestigious events on the ATP tour. The tournament had its first edition in 1892 and was for a long time a staple of the ATP Masters Series, an unavoidable stop in the road to Roland Garros. It was also the first Masters Series event that Roger Federer ever won, when he beat Marat Safin in the 2002 final. You’d be hard-pressed to find an ATP event with a longer and richer tradition than Hamburg.

And yet, the 111th edition of the tournament will be played this week, and you can only find two top 30 players in the draw: Pablo Cuevas and Albert Ramos, hardly two of the sport’s biggest names. This is hardly an isolated occurrence, as the tournament’s field has only been getting weaker and weaker by the year, with the one exception being 2015, when a struggling Rafael Nadal took a wildcard and ended up winning the tournament. So what exactly led to this sad demise?

Back in 2007, the ATP advanced with a plan to restructure the entire tour from 2009 onwards: the planned was called “Brave New World” and the idea was to have 12 “big tournaments”–the four Grand Slams and eight Masters 1000 events (thus rebranding the Masters Series). But rebranding wasn’t the only thing the ATP had in the works for the Masters events; they also intended to demote Monte Carlo and Hamburg to 500 events, while creating a new Masters event in Shanghai and changing the surface and position in the schedule of the Madrid Masters. Both the Monte Carlo tournament and the German Tennis Federation (which owns the Hamburg event) filed lawsuits against the ATP in a US court based on a breach of monopoly/antitrust laws. The Monte Carlo case never went to court, with a settlement between the tournament and the ATP being reached within four months: Monte Carlo was allowed to keep its Masters status, but player participation would cease to be compulsory, hence its current isolated status as a “non-mandatory Masters 1000.”

The Hamburg case, on the other case, did go to court in July of 2008, with the ATP and the tournament unable to reach a settlement that would please both parties. The plaintiff’s (Hamburg’s) exact claim was: “The ATP has artificially taken control of the supply of men’s professional tennis players and of men’s professional tennis tournaments. It has done so to establish a favored class of tournaments, in which the ATP has a significant proprietary interest, while relegating all of the ATP’s other member tournaments to a disfavored status.” In short, Hamburg accused the ATP of corruption and favoring certain tournaments over others according to their own (monetary) interests; they believed the ATP had no right to demote the tournament and sued men’s tennis governing body for 39 million dollars, in a case that could have had a ripple effect across all sports had Hamburg won.

While Hamburg’s case did undoubtedly have some merit, US courts are generally not kind to the “little guy” in this kind of dispute, and it didn’t help the tournament that they were found to be lying on some specific issues, namely their attendance figures. The ruling was unanimous in favor of the ATP. The German Tennis Federation did appeal to the Court of Appeals, but they had no success, as the 45-page court verdict started the tournament’s inexorable decline. The case also put a massive financial strain on the German Tennis Federation, as after they won the ATP demanded compensation for the legal costs.

You’d think sacrificing two of its most historic tournaments in favor of a tournament run by Ion Tiriac and a tournament in Shanghai would be seen by many as the ATP sacrificing the sport in favor of their own pockets, but most people aren’t even aware of the events that led to Hamburg’s demotion. Whether there’s a direct cause-effect relation or not, it’d be hard to argue the ATP’s plan has failed to make the sport more popular across the globe. What it did to Monte Carlo and especially Hamburg is something most casual tennis fans don’t necessarily care or even know about.

The ATP’s “Brave New World” bears the same name as the famous Aldous Huxley dystopian novel, where a totalitarian government controls people through science and technology and human individuality dies. One can only wonder how accurately the Hamburg tournament organizers/German Tennis Federation feel that describes their own situation…

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