From securing a venue and selling tickers to hosting a player party and arranging activities, organizing a WTA tournament can be challenging under ideal circumstances. Throw in a global pandemic and those tasked with setting the stage for the tour’s top athletes had to innovate more than ever before, all with an eye on ensuring the health and safety of the players, their teams, and tournament staff.
“I wouldn’t say I’d like to have another year like this!” admitted Milena Zubkova, Assistant Tournament Director of the TEB BNP Paribas Tennis Championship Istanbul. “It’s best when the players are free and can see the nice areas of the city, and we can organize a lot of off-court events.”
A former player turned broadcaster, Zubkova first helped organize the WTA’s event in Istanbul - which debuted on the calendar back in 2005 and hosted the WTA Finals between 2011 and 2013 - in 2014, and had been eager to return as the Turkish Tennis Federation partnered with noted talent agency Octagon for this year’s edition.
“Originally it was planned for April, and obviously because of the pandemic, everything was shut down and all events were on hold. At the end of July, we made the decision that we could hold the tournament in the first week of September, so we had two months to organize everything. It was extra stressful for us because we were working in a brand-new facility, which was home not only to the Turkish Tennis Federation but also the Ministry of Sport. Construction was ongoing while we were adapting to the new COVID protocols.”
Though the event coincided with the second week of the US Open, it nonetheless drew a solid field that included two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and former World No.5 Eugenie Bouchard, who stunned the Russian in a second round thriller en route to a runner-up finish against resurgent Romanian Patricia Maria Tig.
“Of course, we had doubts whether the tournament could happen because the rules and restrictions in Turkey were changing every two weeks. Cases were rising in the country leading up to the tournament, which is ultimately why we had to eliminate spectators from our plans about two weeks before play began.”
For longtime WTA Supervisor Laura Ceccarelli, there was little adapting to be done as she prepared to make her Tournament Director debut at the J&T Banka Ostrava Open in October.
“It was a new tournament, and so we started completely from scratch,” said Ceccarelli, now Chief Operating Officer of APG, a sports management agency. “I think that helped us create the perfect COVID environment – not in a superspreader sort of way, but in the sense that every detail and protocol was accounted for, and knowing that this would be different from any tournament we’d ever encountered in the past.”
A fixture on the WTA scene for over two decades, Cecarrelli was named co-Tournament Director of the Zhengzhou Open, which debuted on the calendar in 2019, but the Chinese government’s decision to cancel all international sporting events for the year left APG looking to fill the gap in the schedule.
“We got in touch with Perinvest Group, a company we’d worked with before. They are also a player agency, and we told them that, among all of the countries, the Czech Republic is doing well in terms of COVID numbers, and if we can think about a country where there a lot of amazing local players, it would have to be Czech. They immediately jumped at this possibility, and told us, ‘If you could run one of your events here with us, we will for sure help you out and work together.’”
Press conference of the WTA Premier event that will be held in Ostrava in October. @karomuchova7 and @KaPliskova should take part. Up to 5000 of fans might be allowed to enter the arena. pic.twitter.com/dzDtd5nJrC— Karel Knap (@Karel_Knap) September 17, 2020
The WTA approved the event to take place following Roland Garros, leaving the team five weeks to unveil the Czech Republic’s first-ever Premier experience, one that ultimately featured the first all-Belarusian final between Victoria Azarenka and Aryna Sabalenka.
“We wanted to ensure ourselves of an exclusive hotel, so the players could feel as though we'd created a cocoon for them, where they could feel like they were opening the door to their home and feel completely safe, and like it was time to put the pajamas on and sleep because they were home!”
One of the biggest challenges came down to transport; where Zubkova outlined a Mission Impossible-esque scenario of fast-tracking players through Istanbul’s airport baggage claim, Ceccarelli and her team soon found themselves without a local airport when the Leoš Janáček Airport Ostrava was shut down.
“We had to look at alternative methods of transport; in one, players flew to Prague and drive, and in another they could fly to Katowice or Krakow in Poland. We had to then boost all of our transportation operation, because we were no longer just picking players up at an airport, but instead pick them up five hours away!”
Once on the ground, players at both tournaments found their hotels – each picked for their proximity to site - transformed into one-stop shops to make their bubbles as comfortable as possible.
“Normally players and their guests would only stay at the hotels to sleep and have breakfast, and everything else would be done at the facility: practice, gym, matches, players lounge, physio,” Zubkova explained. “We had to organize all of those things at the hotel instead, which made it tough to even find a hotel that could meet all those requirements. We organized a private gym at the hotel and keep our guests separate from the hotel guests. We were really lucky in that there weren’t a whole lot of non-tournament hotel guests.
“We, along with the WTA, recommended players stay at the hotel at all times, and only come to the facility for practice or matches. Still, the weather was beautiful, and the players did want to be out in the fresh air; it’s a tough life for them, being in a bubble all the time.”
Similar maneuvering was done in Ostrava, culminating in what Ceccarelli called “the fun room.”
“The hotel had a large convention space meant for 900 people, and we filled it with all kinds of games, ranging from a ping pong table, Playstation video games, a photo booth, and driving arcade games, the kinds I’d never played in my life! Suddenly, I was in Ostrava playing in the fun room in the morning and evening, and the players and their teams were free to spend time there, challenging each other.
“This is a tough time for everyone; I feel it myself, with the lockdown and the numbers constantly going up and down. It’s very draining, mentally and physically. That’s why we wanted to try and offer the most comfortable atmosphere for all involved, especially the players who had already been through a lot of difficult times this year. They’d gone from not being able to travel and compete to returning to tennis in this still sort of unusual situation that can be quite stressful.”
The energy lost from an absence of spectators in the stands required the most ingenuity to replicate, but not even that would stop the likes of seasoned Tournament Director Sandra Reichel at the Upper Austria Ladies Linz, where Sabalenka maintained her Ostrava momentum with a second straight title over doubles partner Elise Mertens.
“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 tried to create a special walk onto the court and give the impression that there were thousands of people watching in the stands,” Ceccarelli echoed of Ostrava. “Even if there was no one there clapping, we wanted to do all we could to make them feel special in this atmosphere.”
Zubkova recalled fans calling the tournament “begging to be let in to watch the tennis,” and similarly noted the importance of relying on digital media to connect fans and journalists with the event.
“We didn’t have any in-person press conferences, which did end up being a good thing, because they were all done online. A lot of members of the media were able to attend from around the world despite not being on-site. This might be something we’ll continue to make use of, even after the pandemic.”
Unsure of where Ostrava may fit on the 2021 schedule, Ceccarelli was optimistic for a return – of both tournament and fun room.
“At the end of the day, things felt pretty comfortable, and from what the players said and wrote to me and the team – both in person and on social media – it looks like they were happy, and we nailed it!”