TEL AVIV—For 18 years across three decades, Tel Aviv crowned champions as a regular ATP Tour stop. Among those to triumph in the city included Jimmy Connors, who celebrated his 109th and final singles title in 1989. Six years earlier—the man Connors would later beat in one of the most infamous tennis matches of all time—Aaron Krickstein, became the youngest player in ATP history to win a title (a record that still stands today).

When it was announced over the summer that China would not stage any tournaments for the third year running, single-year licenses were awarded to fill the gaps across September and October. Tel Aviv was among the six cities to be selected by the men’s tour.

Peter Johnston, managing director of this week’s Watergen Tel Aviv Open, spoke with to discuss his team’s short runway to pulling their ATP 250 event together. Johnston also addresses bringing Novak Djokovic to town, beginning the event with zero fans to uphold the observance of Rosh Hashanah, and ambitions beyond 2022.

Can you tell me a little bit about how the event came together? Obviously, when the Chinese Swing was canceled, that opened up some weeks for other cities to get a shot at staging a tournament.

JOHNSTON: Yeah, well that's right. On the ATP Tour generally, demand has exceeded supply. So that's why we've seen a bunch of new locations. And Tel Aviv has this strong appetite to get tennis back. It's got proud tennis history, so it worked well in the sense of once China was canceled, that we put our hands up to fill the void.

Dominic Thiem took a wild card as part of his heavy fall calendar; he was edged by Marin Cilic over three sets in the second round.

Dominic Thiem took a wild card as part of his heavy fall calendar; he was edged by Marin Cilic over three sets in the second round.


When did you find out there would be an opening and how does the process work of receiving a coveted single-year license?

JOHNSTON: In terms of registering interest with the tour, we were watching what happened with the China situation and that wasn't really evident until around Wimbledon time. But you flag interest, then you propose what you can do, what you could host. A key part of the matter is identifying where you think you can logistically fit into the calendar. You have to be conscious of the swing.

Then it's a matter of presenting what we could offer, what prize money we commit to, what's the site, the hotel, the delivery team? You get assessed. If you tick all the boxes from the tour, the board approves and then the process begins of implementing.

Are you aware of how many candidates are bidding for these available weeks?

JOHNSTON: You always know there's going to be candidates that are going to be around and that's why I think all you can do is identify what your proposition is and put your best case that's going to appeal to the players. Like prize money being a million dollars, because you know it's competitive.

Did you look at any other periods on the calendar or was this the one week you focused on making work?

JOHNSTON: Part of this process was also getting feedback from the tour on where you're most likely to get a tick. Again it gets down to calendar flow and we felt like this worked well on the back of what was the week prior. For example, you have Novak coming here from London, and after, he's on his way to Astana. That fits, versus trying to go around the Antwerp, Stockholm time. That’s a different proposition.

Djokovic defeated Vasek Pospisil Friday night to reach the semifinals.

Djokovic defeated Vasek Pospisil Friday night to reach the semifinals.


I was going to ask… How critical was it to bringing a champion of Novak Djokovic’s caliber to your market?

JOHNSTON: Well, he was a good example. Every tournament wants the best they can get and for us, it was a little bit of the question, ‘How often does he play a 250??’ Very rarely. This time of the year in the calendar is usually very full in normal years in terms of playing opportunities, on the back of when you get into US Open, players are already tired. They've been playing a whole year. So they're cherry picking their playing opportunities.

But in Novak's case, it was a one-timer where he's missed two Slams. Once it became evident that he wasn't going to the U.S., we approached him and said, ‘Look, please give this your consideration and it can work for your schedule.’ And then he does his own thinking. It's all about proposing. You rarely get an approach the other way. You really have to be out on the hunt.

I imagine you had strong awareness of Novak's past positive experiences in Israel? He spoke very openly about them in pre-tournament press.

JOHNSTON: Yeah, very much. I'd say that was a contributing factor. I always knew his original managers were from here. I know he has a real fondness for the country. It’s still the sum of all the parts, because for him ultimately, it's picking what's the schedule he wants to play till the end of the year to achieve the goal he wants, which is play Turin. But certainly, if weighing up whether to play here or the other tour events this week, that was probably a factor that did influence.

One unique consideration I think is important to address is the timing of this tournament. There were no fans at the start due to Rosh Hashanah. Can you talk a little bit about respecting local customs and not sending the wrong message externally?

JOHNSTON: When you do events in different countries, first of all you have to be compliant that you acknowledge what the country's culture, rules, conditions, every aspect going in. And so therefore you try to create a framework which can coexist within what those conditions are. You're trying to present an image to the world, as well as domestically. We've got a large broadcast audience, so the beauty here has been that the show, from a playing point of view, can still go on. We can get the event done in the same time, comply with the local conditions.

I think one of the most enjoyable parts of this week was Tuesday night. We opened the gates after a really good day schedule in the day session where we couldn't have spectators, and were able to see a full house. That's great and you build around what's put in front of you.


Was there ever a proposition of playing outdoors given the beautiful weather? Or did the indoor swing that the ATP already in place drive the playing environment?

JOHNSTON: It's a great question because actually initially, we thought we would play outdoors. There was some flexibility around the tour of whether we were indoors or outdoors. We then identified this venue as being our best facility given the notice that we had to put it on. As a general view, I think you can do a lot with an event indoor. There’s more security around your scheduling. You position indoor events more like it's a theater. I think that played well here ultimately. We felt like we would've got approval indoors or outdoors.

How important is it for you to get this right, to show that Tel Aviv has the goods to showcase professional tennis in a more permanent setting?

JOHNSTON: There is quite a deal of pressure in year one to put on a good show. Ultimately, you want the players to go to Kazakhstan next week and the following week saying, "I had a great Tel Aviv. I hope they do it again.’ That's what you're trying to create. So you're putting a lot of pressure initially on everyone to perform well. We never get a second chance to make a first impression. The locker room is the number one place to get your marketing done. But it's not easily earned.

As for the city, you try to showcase through the broadcast. Vignettes of what's happening around town. It's been interesting to hear the players' feedback, like Marin Cilic talking about going to Jerusalem. I know Novak was very keen as well. There's a tourist deep in every player, particularly some of the ones that have been on the tour for a long time, which is pretty cool. And I think Tel Aviv has encapsulated that.