Sofia and Antwerp join Rio Olympics to host thriving men’s tennis in 2016

The profile of tennis, looks sure to take another step upwards as the stars bid not just for Grand Slam glory but for gold

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis

The men’s tennis tour is going from strength to strength, judging from the figures in the ATP’s latest press release.

During these straitened times, there are probably few global sports that can boast growth in viewing figures of 10 per cent in a year—a record-breaking 2015 totted up in excess of 1 billion viewers globally—as well as an all-time record of 4.5 million fans attending ATP events.

All of which is not surprising, perhaps, when men’s tennis is enjoying what most fans regard as a golden era that boasts some of the most intriguing, contrasting, and often-played rivalries in decades.

Roger Federer, at 34, continues to add numbers to countless pages in tennis’s records books, while Novak Djokovic’s dominance of tour and rankings in the last couple of years has set ever-rising standards that former top-dog Rafael Nadal has pursued with extraordinary determination in the face of injury and surgery. Three very different personalities playing who play very different styles of tennis, and each commanding passionate followings from fans and huge respect fellow professionals.

Then there’s Andy Murray, who has won Great Britain’s first Wimbledon, Olympic and Davis Cup titles almost 80 years.

Kei Nishikori joined Li Na in helping to take tennis to a vast new Asian market, time and again becoming a ‘first ever’ in men’s tennis—most notably the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam final and to qualify for the World Tour Finals.

And now a new wave of young challengers is starting to shake things up: Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis from Australia, teenagers Borna Coric from Croatia and Hyeon Chung from Korea, Dominic Thiem from Austria, Jack Sock from the States. Who among them, or among others making their moves further down the rankings, or among a clutch of late-bloomers will be winning titles and topping the rankings by the time Olympic year has given way to 2017 and 2018?

The ATP calendars, just released up to 2018, can provide no guidance on that front, but they do continue to evolve nevertheless.

The bedrock is unchanged: the four Grand Slams and nine Masters provide the foundation upon which the 13 500s and 40 250s are built. Indeed 2015’s bolstering of the short grass season—shifting Wimbledon to create an extra week, promoting Queen’s and Halle to 500s, and switching Stuttgart from July clay to June grass—has been one of the most significant changes in many a season.

But there are moves into new markets that will see the men’s tour play 32 different countries—though interestingly, the men’s tour has yet to match the number of Asian stops on its tour match that the women now have. Instead, the shifts since last year, and continuing through to 2018, centre on Europe along with Mexico and South America

Croatia loses one of its two tournaments, Zagreb, which relocates to become Bulgaria’s first ATP event in the capital Sofia, an indoor tournament in the first week of February.

Colombia loses its Bogota tournament to Mexico, in the shape of the Abierto Mexicano Los Cabos, part of the pre-US Open hard-court swing. Mexico’s ATP500 Acapulco event switched from clay to hard courts in 2014. This follows the switch last season of Chile’s Vina del Mar to Ecuador’s Quito.

The struggling Valencia indoor, held in the same week as the Basel 500, dropped to a 250 last year and has now been supplanted by the Vienna 500. The place formerly occupied by the Austrian capital—the week before Basel—has been filled by a new 250 in Antwerp, Belgium.

In 2017, the grass swing will be bolstered by a yet-to-be named additional grass tournament alongside Nottingham.

There is also a modest change to the clay swing with the move of Casablanca to Marrakesh. In 2015, this season also added Istanbul to the ranks, and Geneva replaced Dusseldorf.

The post-Wimbledon picture for 2016 is a confusing one, with three weeks concertinaed into two ahead of the Toronto Masters, in order to make way for the Olympics in Rio in the week beginning 8 August.

Some tournaments are bound to lose players who go deep into Olympic week: the new Los Cabos event is actually in the same week, making it a particularly tough debut for the Mexican venue! The Cincinnati Masters, which follows the week after Rio also looks vulnerable.

But every cloud has a silver lining. Those annual viewing figures, and the profile of tennis, looks sure to take another step upwards as the stars bid not just for Grand Slam glory but for gold.

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