LINZ, Austria - The Upper Austria Ladies Linz has been a staple of the WTA calendar for three decades, and not even a global pandemic would stop the second longest-running WTA indoor event - or its tournament director Sandra Reichel - from celebrating its 30th edition in 2020.
"It may be the toughest tournament to put together when you look at the last 30 years," Reichel noted over the phone on Thursday. "It’s not a challenge to organize a tennis tournament, but the circumstances under which they had to be held were certainly challenging, because health and safety naturally had to be top priority."
Our @sandyeurope is celebrating her 20 year anniversary as TD 🥂— WTA Linz (@WTALinz) November 13, 2020
Thanks for everything, Sandra! She is the head 🤯 and the heart ♥️ of our #wtalinz family!@wta | #sandrareichel #teamplayer pic.twitter.com/MAZ9HYnNzn
Tournament director for 20 years, Reichel is inexorably linked to the Ladies Linz; her father Peter-Michael first created the tournament in the early 90s and she herself played it as a wildcard. Throughout an uncertain season the duo had remained optimistic that the tournament would not only take place, but fans would fill the famed Centre Court arena.
"After the second lockdown two weeks ago, it became a very difficult situation. We’d outlined a concept that included 1000 people in the stands. That was first reduced to 500 and ultimately it went down to zero. Within one week, we had to stop everything and re-plan the entire event. Still, we never wanted to give up."
Employing the protocols drafted by the WTA, the tournament was approved by both national and regional Austrian governments provided it take place without fans, challenging Reichel and her social media team to bring the event to those watching from afar.
"We made it a priority that, because we knew we couldn’t have our typical fans, we needed to make other accommodations. On one hand, there’s the TV broadcast, but there’s also the element of social media that we could use to generate an atmosphere. Our social media team is in place and doing a great job of showing fans aspects of our event that they may not get to see because they’re not at the site."
We are going to play “Eye of the Tiger” for Aryna’s Walk on Court 🐯😀. She doesn’t know yet 🤫— WTA Linz (@WTALinz) November 14, 2020
We played it to her in the press conference before, and last night she had it turned 🆙 in the car shuttle back to the hotel 🎶☝️@WTA @SabalenkaA #wtalinz pic.twitter.com/zAAnqltkll
Fun videos featuring top seeds Aryna Sabalenka and Elise Mertens, French Open semifinalist Nadia Podoroska, and Dayana Yastremska have popped up on the tournament's official platforms, and post-match activities have given the look and feel of a typical tournament - even as strict health protocols are enforced behind the scenes.
"I’m always very nervous when the phone rings, thinking it could be a doctor calling to tell me someone has tested positive. There’s always this feeling, which isn’t normal when you’re usually running an event.
"Still, it’s a great sign for tennis and sport in general that we were able to organize event under these conditions. We never gave up, tried our best, and took calculated risks. I hope it was the right decision; so far, I believe it was, to show the world that sports can still take place. Perhaps we can also project positivity, confidence, and optimism to the world."
Reichel has already felt that positivity in the form of player feedback, and from getting to celebrate 30 years of unforgettable matches.
"I think we can be proud that to be the second oldest indoor event on the WTA tour. It sends a strong message for the tour to have tournaments with such enduring tradition. Of course, there have been ups and downs; one year, you may have a lot of withdrawals, but even in those years, we always had great finals and champions.
"Just last year, we had Coco Gauff winning as a lucky loser, and we’ve also had Victoria Azarenka win as World No.1, or Maria Sharapova. We’ve had finals like Lindsay Davenport-Venus Williams back in 2000. Petra Kvitova and Dominika Cibulkova both won Linz and then went on to win the WTA Finals, which was unbelievable. There have been so many special moments that when people ask me to pick one, I cannot!"
Reichel, who also serves as tournament director for an ATP event in Hamburg, credits a combination of innovation an authenticity with Linz's longevity.
"We were very early to incorporate LED banners on court, as well as Hawkeye. This year, we used Hawkeye Live. We’ve always tried to be innovative, down to the dark grey color of our court, as well as the look and feel of our arena.
"At the same time, Austria is a small country, and our region is very traditional. We always try to include sponsors from the region, as well. If you come here, you feel that family atmosphere, which was always one of the most important aims from us."
That unique dynamic has brought loyal players back year after year.
"I got to know both generations of the tournament and the tournament directors," recalls former World No.3 Nadia Petrova, who won her first singles and doubles titles in Linz. "We got to know each other so well so it was like almost coming to a home tournament because everything was organized very well. We were all welcome there and every need was met. I loved the city and extra things that they would organize for players to keep it interesting. They really went out of the way to make it a nice tournament there."
Above all, Reichel has allowed the tennis to do the talking, a winning strategy as the 30th anniversary reaches an assuredly thrilling conclusion.
"Everybody says tournaments need more entertainment, and I think what we learned from this year is that it’s not necessary to crowd so many things around the tennis. Our Center Court is the heart of the tournament, and yes, we make use of innovations like Hawkeye Live – I’d like to use it next year – and we’re doing things for and around the players, but I think we’ve learned we can minimize attractions we may typically have during the week. Tennis is the main topic, and we don’t need too many sideshows."