Tennis: The Singapore Swing

Players competing in the Singapore Tennis Open include 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic.
Players competing in the Singapore Tennis Open include 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic.PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Tennis fan Man Yong Le barely remembers what he ate for lunch yesterday. But he remembers the thrill he felt seven years ago watching Simona Halep play in the WTA Finals at the Singapore Indoor Stadium - his first live tennis match.

"Seeing that level of play and competitiveness, I was blown away. From the speed of the ball to the whole ambience, everything was mesmerising," said the 23-year-old.

He can experience that thrill again when top male players take the court at the OCBC Arena in the Singapore Tennis Open, an ATP 250 tournament, from Feb 22-28 - if spectators are allowed.

The tournament was added to the calendar by the ATP on a single-year licence "to create increased playing opportunities, in the face of scheduling challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic".

Players competing include 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic, Canadian top seed Felix Auger-Aliassime and Briton Daniel Evans, who won his first ATP title at the Murray River Open this month.

Alison Lee, executive vice-president of the international region and Challenger Tour at ATP, said that adding an ATP event in Singapore made geographical sense as many players will be going to Europe or the Middle East for the next part of the season after the Australian Open.

She told The Straits Times: "The single-year licences also allow us to explore new territories which can only be beneficial for the sport in the long run... Singapore is an important market, and it is great to be able to return with an ATP tournament after more than 20 years."

This season's ATP Tour features 61 events, with a majority of the tournaments in Europe (35) and the United States (seven). There are six events in Asia, with China (four) and Japan the other hosts.

The Singapore Tennis Open is the first top-level male tennis tournament held here since the 1999 Heineken Open.

Safe to serve

Experts pointed to Singapore's success in containing the coronavirus and its ability to host major sports events, such as the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix, as reasons it was chosen.

Assistant Professor Leng Ho Keat at the National Institute of Education, who conducts research in sport marketing, said: "Singapore is already well-known to the world for its ability to organise large-scale events. During the pandemic, the country is also recognised for its ability to control the spread of the virus."

James Walton, sports business group leader for Deloitte South-east Asia, added: "Outside of the current situation, Singapore is the city that previously hosted the WTA Finals (2014-2018), bid for the ATP Finals and hosted a few Davis Cup matches so we have a real appetite here for tennis...

"Any city that hosts know they're not going to turn a profit because there's no ticketing or merchandising so it was key to have a willing city that really wants to host."

Short-term loss, long-term gain

Lee noted that in general, operation costs have increased during the pandemic because of the implementation of protocols.

Adrian Staiti, president of Asia-Pacific in Sportfive, estimated the cost of holding such an event to be in the seven figures, with limited or no ticket sales and extra costs related to Covid-19.

Sportfive, previously known as Lagardere Sports, has organised several major sports events in Singapore such as the WTA Finals and golf's SMBC Singapore Open.

But despite the potential financial losses, the long-term benefits might outweigh the cost as Singapore gets to restart live sport and put itself in the running to host more - or bigger - events.

Staiti, 46, said: "Hosting this will give the ATP a comfort level that we as a city have committed to having them here and we'll do what we can to ensure the best experience for their players and us doing that in difficult times hopefully paves the way for future collaborations with them."

Three ATP 250 tournaments were converted to ATP 500 events in 2015: the Halle Open in Germany, the Queen's Club Championships in London and the Vienna Open. Before that, the Swiss Indoors in Basel was converted in 2009 while the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships became an ATP 500 event in 2001.

Lee said opportunities to host a permanent event will depend on the relocation or sale of an existing event, subject to approval by ATP.

"The number of permanent tournament licences in this region is not something we would be ordinarily looking to increase, given the considerable number of events on the Tour," she added.

Over 25 countries have a stop on the ATP Tour.

Dr Wong King Yin, a marketing lecturer at Nanyang Technological University, likened Singapore to a student looking for internship opportunities.

She said: "Although you're getting low pay compared to a normal position, you're testing something and building up your competence and experience. For Singapore, this can help build up our profile in organising such events."

Pointing to the example of the World Economic Forum set to be held here in August, Walton added that are wider implications beyond sports.

"The sooner we start to show these things are happening safely, the sooner business travel and tourism will be likely to return to the country," he said. "If we can demonstrate that... tennis players can come and there's no outbreak, it becomes a lot easier to encourage other people to come here and hold events, even after the pandemic."

Mixed martial arts and e-sports events with an international field have already returned. And while the 2021 SMBC Singapore Open has been cancelled, the HSBC Women's World Championship, badminton's Singapore Open, Singapore Grand Prix and Singapore Rugby Sevens are all set to take place this year.

Intangible benefits

Having a professional tennis tournament in our backyard can also inspire future and current generations of players to take up or continue pursuing the sport.

Citing the example of an increase in demand for swimming lessons after Joseph Schooling won the 100m butterfly gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Asst Prof Leng said: "Hosting major sports events can lead to greater awareness of the sport, in this case, tennis. This could eventually lead to greater interest and participation among the masses in tennis, and inspire the young to play tennis."

Staiti added that besides spectating, having more engagement activities will also help.

"They also have to engage with the community like getting into tennis centres around Singapore and let people feel touched and part of what these stars bring to the table.

"Doing clinics and grassroots activities is going to be difficult with Covid-19 but in the long run, if you continue seeing these stars and being engaged by them, you will be inspired."