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Cruel Summer

Fingers crossed for better tennis weather this January.

Cruel Summer

Feb 21, 2024 Sport

On paper, there aren’t many better highlights in the local sporting calendar than the ASB Classic. Sunshine, glamour, a decent field of athletes. But tennis is, quite famously, not played on paper. Last ‘summer’ in Auckland meant more of the tournament was spent indoors than out, one of the main drawcards ended up leaving in tears, and once again we were left having to watch someone who could have been a New Zealander flying the flag for the United Kingdom.

The ASB Classic, officially known as the WTA Auckland Open and the ATP Auckland Open (women’s and men’s respectively), has had a long and storied history that predates tennis’s open era. It also has the distinction of being the only time of the year that top-level pro tennis is played here, so it’s a fortnight that is cherished by those who haven’t decided to decamp to the bach.

The forecast for the 2024 edition of the tournament, which starts on New Year’s Day, is looking promising, although really, compared to last year, anything would be classed as promising. The tournament had attracted the likes of Coco Gauff and Emma Raducanu, with the latter on the comeback trail after an injury-hit season following her breakthrough US Open win in 2021. It’s fair to say Raducanu did not enjoy her time in Auckland, after rolling her ankle on the substitute indoor courts she claimed were dangerous. Of course, this kickstarted yet another round of headlines about the tennis centre at Stanley St needing some sort of roof, something that was brought up with the then-newly-elected mayor Wayne Brown when media were invited into his corporate box. Brown certainly seemed open to the idea, but, unsurprisingly, nothing has come of it.

Apparently Raducanu had a few more words to say about what she thought about the tournament on the way out — understandable, given that the injury meant she missed the Australian Open, the Grand Slam event that the Classic is essentially a warm-up act for. Ironically, she’s been reported to be open to returning to Auckland for another crack. But while it will be nice to see Raducanu come back and create some better memories, an even more intriguing storyline continues with the return of Auckland-raised Cam Norrie.

If you’re not familiar with Norrie’s backstory, it’s a classic might-have-been for New Zealand sport. After his family moved here from South Africa when he was three, the prodigious talent represented his adopted country as a junior. He reached the world’s top 10 in juniors, but never got any sort of proper funding from Tennis New Zealand. Unsurprisingly, his parents didn’t fancy the idea of shelling out tens of thousands of dollars a year in travel costs to get their son the chance he deserved, so Norrie moved to the UK at age 17, moved into the Lawn Tennis Association’s national centre and started his ascent up the world rankings. Now 28, Norrie has ranked as high as eight in the world and is currently 18 — 426 places higher than the highest-ranked New Zealand man, veteran Rubin Statham, one of only four Kiwis in the top thousand. In the women’s, it’s even more dire, with Monique Barry sitting at 624. Somewhat embarrassingly for Tennis New Zealand, this isn’t even the first case of this happening lately, either. Ben McLachlan, from Queenstown, took full advantage of his mother’s heritage to start representing Japan at age 25. McLachlan promptly won two doubles titles in Auckland in the following years.

Norrie came within a match of winning his ‘home’ tournament last year, before falling in the final to experienced Richard Gasquet. The 2023 Classic was the first time the tournament had been held since 2020, after two years off thanks to Covid, with a change in tournament director as well. Nicolas Lamperin took over from the popular Karl Budge, with Lamperin’s first event at the helm unfortunately involving watching centre court slowly turn into a swimming pool for much of the time. That, and defending the tournament’s reputation after Raducanu’s critique. Lamperin comes over as a pragmatist, well aware of the ASB Classic’s challenges and unique appeal. Previously, the Frenchman was a player agent — a pretty useful background when it comes to attracting big names and up-and-coming stars.

There have been plenty of those over the years. Björn Borg won a title at Stanley St way back in 1974. Rafael Nadal reached the final in 2004. Now Lamperin’s prize piece in the jigsaw puzzle is Gauff, the reigning champion and current world number three.

Gauff is not yet 20, but you wouldn’t know it by the way she carries herself in press conferences. Tennis players are generally good at dealing with the media, but she has assumed a hugely significant mantle. Gauff currently is the top-ranked American player, in an era where it seems like the world’s largest sporting economy is turning its significant attention towards a generation of huge promise. American tennis had the Williams sisters carrying the flag for them for what seemed like forever — arguably the ASB Classic’s high-water mark was having Serena Williams not only play in, but win, the tournament in 2020 — but since they took long and deserved steps back from the court, there hasn’t been the sort of superstar power that only a US athlete can give a sport. Gauff has that promise, and is clearly a fan of Auckland, having first come here as a 15-year-old.

She’ll be joined in Auckland by Ben Shelton, not quite as high profile but still tagged as a future superstar. His appearance at the 2023 ASB Classic (the first time he’d ever left the United States) kicked off a breakout year for the now 21-year-old, who reached the quarter-finals at the Australian Open and then the semi-finals at the US Open.

While all that is happening on the court, plenty will be occurring off it. Over the past decade, the tournament has fashioned itself into being the best fan experience of any sporting event in the country, with a new stand and hospitality area that stretches all the way up into Auckland Domain. So there’s plenty to do and look at while you wait to take your seat, or want to spend some time on the way out.

Now all we need is for the sun to show up.

This column was published in Metro N°441.
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In the Autumn 2024 issue of Metro we celebrate the best of Tāmaki Makaurau — 100 great things about life in Auckland, including our favourite florist, furniture store, cocktail, basketball court, tree, make-out spot, influencer, and psychic. The issue also includes the Metro Wine Awards, the battle over music technology company Serato, the end of The Pantograph Punch, the Billy Apple archives, a visit to Armenia, viral indie musician Lontalius, the state of fine dining, and the time we bombed West Auckland to kill a moth. Plus restaurants, movies, politics, astrology, and more.

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