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Rihanna to Rafael Nadal: Tennis' popstar makeover

By Tom McGowan, CNN
updated 12:00 PM EST, Thu November 24, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Since 2009, London's O2 Arena has hosted the ATP World Tour Finals
  • The event is played out between world's top-ranked male singles and doubles stars
  • The O2 is predominantly a music venue, playing host to artists like Rihanna
  • The O2 Arena's deal to host season-ending event runs until 2013

(CNN) -- For most of the year London's O2 Arena, located on the south bank of the famous River Thames, plays host to the world's biggest music acts.

But since 2009, the venue has also spent one week in November staging tennis' season-ending showpiece -- the ATP World Tour Finals.

The event pits the world's top eight male tennis players and doubles pairings against each other in a round-robin contest, with an unbeaten winner pocketing a check for $1.63 million.

But before the elite of the game can do battle on the court, the O2 must be transformed from a concert venue to a world-class tennis facility. That's where World Tour Finals tournament director Chris Kermode and his team come in.

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"The build time that we have is very short," Kermode told CNN. "Rihanna was here on Tuesday night until midnight and we moved in at 1am in the morning on Wednesday.

"We had two days to turn the O2 Arena from probably the greatest music venue in the world into the greatest sporting venue in the world."

The electric blue court, neon digital displays and dazzling lights give the 17,500 fans packed into the O2 an experience which is poles apart from the regal aura which surrounds the grass courts of Wimbledon -- located just 10 miles away.

"The O2 is pretty much a music venue," explains Kermode. "Laying the court might sound quite basic but it's actually quite time consuming.

"We stage it in a very different way. So there's big screens, there's light shows, lots of digital boarding around the court.

Rihanna was here on Tuesday night until midnight and we moved in at 1am in the morning on Wednesday
Chris Kermode

"We build a 7,000 square meter fanzone, we also build a sponsors village with a practice court in the middle. So there's a lot to do in a very short space of time."

The work done transforming the O2 is certainly appreciated by the fans who flock to the week-long tournament. The 2010 event saw over 250,000 spectators come to see the action across the seven days of competition.

Tennis fan Thav Phouthavong was taking in the action on Thursday and was struck by the transformation the venue had undergone.

"It's my first time here at the O2 (watching tennis) but I've been to music gigs here," he said. "It's completely transformed with the tennis memorabilia, practice courts and fan zones. Normally it's an empty space."

Spanish spectator Luis Rodriguez was also impressed with the arena, saying it surpassed previous tennis experiences in his homeland.

"It's my first time here," he said. "I've been to the Barcelona tournament before, I prefer this. The size of the O2 is a lot bigger and better. They've got restaurants, it's really spacious and there's a lot more to do."

Prior to the event moving to London in 2009, Shanghai served as the location for what was then called the Tennis Masters Cup. Kermode explained how the timing was perfect for the O2 to take on the mantle from the Chinese city.

World Tour Finals in numbers
28 - The hours taken to lay down tennis court at the O2

7,200 -The number of tennis balls to be used this year

2,500 - The number of children who tried out for the 30 ball kid spots

253,123 - The total number of spectators last year

2,750 - The number of meters of string used to restring the players rackets in 2010



"The chairman of the ATP was looking where to take it from Shanghai and decided bringing it to the UK, and London, was a good move. The O2 was just about to be opened; it was a perfect synergy to match the two together."

In addition to giving tennis a futuristic face-lift, Kermode also believes hosting the World Tour Finals at a venue such as the O2 opens the sport up to a wider audience.

"Where the O2 has been so successful is the acts that they've had over the years has made this venue a destination venue in it's own right," he said of the arena which has been converted from the Millennium Dome attraction.

"So what we've managed to create here is almost attracting a new audience to tennis that historically maybe couldn't get tickets to Queens and Wimbledon. People who had maybe never seen live tennis before. So we've got the core tennis fans and we've got sporting fans who are seeing the game for the first time."

Neil Harman is the tennis correspondent for British newspaper The Times. He is full of praise for the show put on by the O2, saying the way in which tennis has flourished at the arena is reminiscent of when the finals were played at New York's Madison Square Garden between 1977 and 1989.

"To my mind it's a very natural venue for tennis, much like Madison Square Garden was in terms of an indoor venue," said Harman.

"The way it's set up, the way the tennis court itself is spot-lighted ... There are certain places you feel tennis was made for and I think this is definitely one of them."

Harman is also convinced the event is creating new fans for the sport, with tickets more obtainable than they are for one of the tennis' four grand slams.

There are certain places you feel tennis was made for and I think this is definitely one of them
Neil Harman

"Very few people get to go to Wimbledon. Here, there's more of a sense of the general population getting in and being able to feel the pulse of the sport.

"To get that close to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal is something special. The whole thing is designed to draw people into the sport and I think that's what we need to do.

"It's not a surprise to me that places like Madison Square Garden, like the O2, although they are ostensibly concert venues, with a bit of imagination, a bit of thought and a bit of foresight, can be transformed into great sporting venues."

The O2's deal to host the World Tour Finals expires in 2013, with the ATP yet to make a decision on where the event will move onto next.

Wherever the tournament ends up, Harman believes the O2 Arena has raised the bar and helped increase tennis' global profile.

"It's setting a benchmark; the next venue has got to step up. When it moves from here, and I'm sure it will because the message of tennis has to be global, it's going to be a very tough act to follow.

"Everywhere across the world we have to portray the message that tennis is a superb sport to come and watch, but very few do it as well as this."

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