For the first time in Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships history, the tournament is being held indoors, with players competing at the Musushino Forest Sport Plaza. This year, the Ariake Tennis Forest Park is being renovated in preparation for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. But the event has not missed a step.
“Of course it’s different, but it’s a nice tournament,” said Richard Gasquet, who is playing this tournament for the seventh time. “The stadium is great. Many people are watching it so of course it’s still a great tournament and I’m very happy to be here.”
And while there is a smaller capacity at this venue — more than 6,000 fans have poured in on each of the first two days of the main draw — it doesn’t necessarily feel that way. Since Sunday — the final day of qualifying and ATP Sunday, featuring the ATP World Tour star’s practices — all tickets have been sold out.
“We love our fans. These people really love tennis. They are not chasing only Kei Nishikori. They love the players, they love tennis, they love watching doubles, too. Even as you saw on Sunday, it was packed already,” Tournament Director Nao Kawatei said. “ We had more than 5,000 people watching the qualifying event, and from Sunday the tickets were sold out already for the whole week. We managed well. There were many people who couldn’t get tickets, but we appreciate all the spectators and tennis fans in Japan.
“Even some of the players said, ‘This is bigger than Ariake!’ No, it’s actually smaller. They said, ‘Oh, it’s nice to move back to Ariake, but we don’t mind playing here.’ This is what I heard from players.”
While as many as 11,700 fans filled Ariake last year on a single day, the intimate setting in the arena, with the stands completely packed, has made it a pleasure for the players to compete.
“It’s good to be here. I’ve played well here over many instances. I enjoy the tournament here. This is a change of venue this year but I think they’ve done a great job in adapting it, adjusting for the fact that the old stadium is getting renovated for the Olympics,” said former World No. 3 Milos Raonic. “It’ll be exciting to be there again next year. But I really have a good time here, I try to come here when I can and it’s been good to me.”
A few years ago, the original plan was to never leave Ariake. But once it became apparent the site would not be ready for 2018, Kawatei asked the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Governor Yuriko Koike for another option. The problem was that all the other gymnasiums in the city were unavailable, so a new idea was presented: the Musushino Forest Plaza, where badminton will be played during the Olympics.
“This one was brand new. No one had booked this facility. So the Tokyo Metropolitan Government gave us priority. Instead of not using Ariake, they said, ‘Would you like to use this facility’?” Kawatei said. “But nobody saw this facility because it was not open, it was brand new. We just saw a picture of this facility. That was a big decision for me, to decide on this facility. But everything worked out okay.”
Since this tournament had never previously been held indoors, Kawatei and his staff had to figure out how to arrange the courts. In the 1970s and 1980s, Seiko World Super Tennis utilised three courts. But Kawatei decided to use two courts, positioning Arena 1 and Arena 2 perpendicularly to one another, with stands in between. That is not a coincidence.
“I got the idea from the New York Open,” Kawatei said. “I went with five or six staff to New York. We went there from qualifying and checked everything, how they use the venue, so I learned from the New York Open.”
Kawatei arranged to bring in courts made by GreenSet in Barcelona, Spain. Eight of the Top 25 players in the ATP Rankings are in the draw, and the ATP World Tour 500-level event is off and running successfully.
“In the beginning we were concerned about the capacity. But when we set up everything, we prepared the whole year for how we could set up the venue and everything. We got very confident before the event started,” Kawatei said. “We’re very happy having a good venue.”
Photo Credit: Hiroshi Sato