Tennis: Battersea power showtime

To screams and shouts, Big Top tennis is about to be served in the park. Andrew Longmore meets the ring master

Andrew Longmore
Sunday 22 February 1998 01:02

GIVEN the reclining posture of the British game for most of the last decade, it is appropriate that the man behind the return of big- time tennis to London this week should be in the sofa business. Jeremy Dier owns the Sofa Factory (outlets in Brighton, Chichester and Guildford) and has the unhurried approach of someone who has road-tested his products well. Any more laid-back and he would be auditioning for a Slumberland ad.

"Most people who've looked at this have said we must be losing our minds, but I'm already looking at how we can improve on it for next year," he says. Confidence was never Dier's problem as a player. "I just wasn't good enough," he says. He reached No 8 in the British rankings but found his forte lay behind the scenes, in organising tournaments for the Lawn Tennis Association, then managing clients for International Management Group, where his wife worked as an accountant.

Though the last few years have been spent resurrecting the fortunes of the family firm, his mind was always set on running his own show. When the Milan tournament came up for sale, Dier gained provisional backing from Guardian Direct, the insurance brokers, and TSW, sponsorship consultants and events organisers, plus moral support from the LTA. Greg and Tim did the rest, with the help of a few ear-catching rumours about tennis under the big top and a five-figure bill on his mobile phone.

"For a while, I was this guy on the end of a mobile who happened to own one of the biggest tournaments in the world," he recalls. "If you think, we put this concept together between Wimbledon and the US Open when the whole world is on holiday." By September, after two months of haggling, the pounds 1.8m equation still did not balance. But a month later, the Association of Tennis Professionals ratified the event; five minutes later, ProServ, the sports management company, agreed to help underwrite the pounds 500,000 event. And the amber light turned green. "Before then, we must have said 'Is this going to happen?' a million times. After that, it was a case of 'It's going to happen, let's go'. The only question was 'where?'

"We didn't want to go back to Wembley [home of the Benson and Hedges for 12 years]. We wanted to take tennis to the people not the other way round. So we thought about Regent's Park and Hyde Park." It was John Feaver, LTA tournament director, who suggested Battersea Park and a concrete acreage quaintly known as the British Genius Site where eight erratically used courts already stood. Building began on 2 February, 10 days later a centre court with a capacity of 5,000 had risen along with the hospitality areas, media centres, food hall, shops and general bric-a-brac of the modern ATP-regulated event. Even the dimensions of the courtside flowers are set down in the book of measurements.

The appearance of a royal flush of grand slam champions, two current, three former - Pat Rafter (US), Petr Korda (Australian), Richard Krajicek (Wimbledon), Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Sergi Bruguera (French) - in the field of 32 reflects well on Dier's reputation and the drawing power of Cool Britannia. "With Greg and Tim it's right we should have a big indoor tournament in London again," Dier says. "They've been the stimulus behind this and me wanting to do a tournament here. There is no better place for either of them to win a tournament than on their own patch and I want people to get involved, to scream and shout not just applaud politely." The spirit of People's Day transported to SW11.

So when does Dier begin to scream and shout? "I'll be excited on Monday when the tournament begins and a little apprehensive. All of us will. But I've never had a sleepless night about it, never thought 'What have I done?'" On Friday, the draw produced mixed fortunes. The unseeded Henman was drawn to play Krajicek in a repeat of his triumphant fourth round at Wimbledon, while Rusedski, the No 4 seed, has an easier task against Marc-Kevin Goellner. But the pair are in separate halves of the draw, sustaining Dier's dreams of the perfect all-British finale to the inaugural Guardian Direct Cup.

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