Hamburg: A Fallen Giant on the Tennis Tour

By James Steel

When flicking through the ATP and WTA schedule it’s hard not to notice the tournament in Hamburg sticking out in the post-Wimbledon clay season. The tournament is sandwiched between the likes of Palermo and Bastad in a part of the season that most big names sit out. The tournament has had greater times and was once the lynchpin of the main clay season tour before Roland-Garros. While the tournament might now lack the relevance of a 1000-level event before a major, Hamburg had its heyday. Could it breathe a new lease of life into the tour even after its downfall? 

The site

The tournament is located in the Am Rothenbaum arena in the central northern area of Hamburg. The main centre court was completely redesigned in the latter part of the 2010’s and was reopened in 2020 with a reduced capacity of 10,000 (down from 13,200) with revamped seats to boost spectator comfort. A pixelated colour scheme was used around all four areas of the stadium and the entrance plaza was redesigned to make it more spacious and easier for fans to navigate around the site. Also in the main stadium, a retractable roof was fitted with the refurbishment to allow matches during rain (a frequent occurrence in northern Germany). It’s also a unique design with a main centre point where the roof material is stored – the material spreads out like a spider’s web to protect the court from the rain. (It also leads to an interesting shadow on the court when it’s very sunny.) The site also holds three seated outdoor courts, though they haven’t received the same levels of investment as the main centre court and thus are starting to show their age. If you were a player, you’d be praying for a centre court scheduling at the event. 

The high point

The tournament has been running in many forms since 1892 and at its current site since 1924. It received ATP Masters 1000 status at the start of the Masters Series era in 1990 until it was removed in 2008. During this time Hamburg occupied the third and final masters 1000 slot in the build up to Roland-Garros. Due to this the vast majority of the top 50 players in the world attended the event, including the majority of the world’s top ten. This was most apparent in the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal finals in the 2000s, whetting the fans’ appetite for rematches at Roland-Garros. Hamburg was the only big clay event where Federer had the edge against Nadal, with Roger picking up four titles –the most in the Open Era – to Rafa’s two. Other notable winners include Stefan Edberg, Andrei Medvedev and Guillermo Coria. 

The downfall

Though Hamburg lost its Masters 1000 status in 2008, the event’s downfall began three years earlier. In 2005, the Qizhong Forest Sports City Arena in Shanghai hosted the Masters Cup for the first time (they would then host it again in 2006, 2007 and 2008). The event was a huge success and really placed Shanghai on the sporting map. But with only a four-year contract, the venue wanted a more permanent arrangement with the ATP that would see big names flying into Shanghai for many a year into the future. This was intensified when the O2 Arena in London was given the rights to the renamed World Tour Finals. 

Because of this and serious financial backing from Chinese investors, the ATP struck a deal with the venue to host a Masters 1000 after the U.S. Open along with a revamped September schedule that included two ATP 500s in Beijing and Tokyo and two ATP 250s in Thailand and Malaysia. This, however, created an imbalance on the ATP circuit: There were already two indoor Masters 1000 events post U.S. Open. Adding a third Masters event plus an Eastern swing would overload the schedule. Something needed to go.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic shake hands following their insane 2008 Hamburg semifinal. You’ll scarcely see matches like that at the Hamburg tournament today, and not just because the legends are getting old. Screenshot: Tennis TV

So it was a toss up between Madrid and Paris for the tournament that was going to lose its Masters 1000 status. In the end it was decided that Madrid was the tournament that would need to go, but the Madrid organisers came back to the ATP with a counteroffer. The venue would change, not the status of the event. It would move from being an indoor hard court event in the autumn to becoming an outdoor clay court event in the spring. This was amenable to the ATP as tennis was a huge market in Spain and losing the only 1000-level event in the region could have consequences to the sport’s popularity. Another change would be the introduction of a WTA 1000 series event to be played the same week. Given that the ATP and WTA aims were for more mixed venue events, this helped seal the deal. 

The move to add Madrid into the main clay court swing held the same issues that Shanghai had with coming into the Autumn part of the season: event congestion. As such, the ATP needed to remove one of Monte-Carlo, Rome and Hamburg from the schedule. All events submitted reasons as to why they should remain on the calendar and the financial contributions they could offer and Hamburg came out with the worst offer. It was removed and Rome took its spot in the calendar with Madrid taking Rome’s spot, Monte-Carlo remaining unaffected in its slot at the start of the clay season.

Hamburg was allowed to remain an ATP sanctioned event, however. They were downgraded from the Masters 1000 status to the ATP 500 status. This could’ve saved the event from losing too much appeal to big name stars as Barcelona was an ATP 500 event and regularly attracted many top ten players, but the ATP also took the opportunity to move the event from the main clay court season in April/May to the post-Wimbledon clay season in July. This was the major hammer blow for the event’s appeal: This time of year rarely saw top 10 players playing on the post-Wimbledon clay. The main players who played these events were clay court specialists who were rarely ranked inside the world’s top 10. Rafa vs. Roger became a distant memory for the event. 

This is where the event has stayed since 2009. There was a brief Rafael Nadal reappearance in 2015, but barring that it’s been the same clay court specialists using the event to boost their ranking before hitting the North American hard court swing. In 2021, a WTA 250 event was brought to the same venue, but the problem of its spot in the calendar remains. The event was also used in 2020 as a pre-October Roland-Garros build up tournament and had a major uptick in top quality players to the event, but barring future pandemics and/or massive rescheduling shifts, this was a one-off. 

The future

Looking ahead, there may be a slight revival to Hamburg’s prestige. Roland-Garros will host the tennis in the 2024 Olympic Games. The August Olympics fall perfectly in the schedule for the post-Wimbledon clay tournaments to function as warm-ups. So expect an ATP 500/WTA 250 like Hamburg to attract many 10 ten players looking to get matches on the clay before going for Gold in Paris. However, post-2024, it doesn’t look like much will change for the event in terms of growth. The same clay court specialists will grace the July clay in northern Germany and it will be difficult to attract top 10 players to the event.


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