Podcast: The Detail

The tiny tennis tournament that punches high

The Detail's Sharon Brettkelly today talks to ASB Classic tennis tournament director Karl Budge about the staggeringly good fields he's assembled for 2020 - and asks how he does it 

The prize money is a fraction of other internationals, the stadium is small by comparison, and players have to travel for hours and hours and hours to get to Auckland.

So how has ASB Classic tennis tournament director Karl Budge managed to assemble a staggeringly good line-up for both the men’s and women’s events this summer? There will be five grand slam singles champions in the women’s event, and absolute star-power headline grabbers such as Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki and 15-year-old sensation Cori (Coco) Gauff.

Earlier this month the event was named the best in the world for its tier in the WTA awards. It recognises excellence of staff, organisation, fans and a wider dedication to the sport and its athletes.

It also won in 2014, 2015 and 2016 – all with Budge in charge.

And while the women’s event tends to sweep all the headlines, the men’s is just as impressive.

He denies his ability to nail players down to a visit is because of his ability to schmooze – saying he’s actually quite shy. And it’s certainly not about treats or prize money.

“Serena Williams actually owns the Miami Dolphins ... so what money can I ever wave in front of her that’s ever remotely going to make any difference?”

It’s actually about the little things.

Little things like his discovery that 2016 winner Sloane Stephens loved the scent of a particular type of candle – Ecoya’s vanilla bean.

Now whenever she comes to Auckland, Budge will race into her hotel room five minutes before she arrives to light that candle, so when she walks in she’ll be greeted by the scent.

Things like providing balls the day players arrive in Auckland, not when the tournament rules say they have to be provided. “It’s what … a few grand? I don’t know why all the tournament directors don’t do it.”

Things like making Caroline Wozniacki’s restaurant bookings for her. (“Caroline I don't think would have ever booked a restaurant in her time in New Zealand.")

Things like opening up Stanley St on Christmas Day if that’s when the players want a hit-around.

A jar full of lollies in his office … a fridge full of beer for the coaches.

Things like standing courtside when players enter and leave a match. “A lot of my friends and people in the industry laughed when I started standing courtside at the start and finish of every match,” he says. “I’ll be down there and you’ll see it all year with every single match that goes on centre court.

“I wish the players good luck going on, and I commiserate or congratulate them coming off.

“My friends say, ‘You just do that because you want to get on TV’ but it’s got absolutely nothing to do with it. I do it because now that’s one more touch point I’ve got with that player … it’s one more piece of the relationship. If you’re going to say ‘no’ to me I want it to be a slightly more awkward ‘no’ than it would be to another tournament director.

“If I can get that we’ll win”.

Auckland, and New Zealand, wins as well. For $200,000 of council funding annually the tournament generates an estimated $19 million in GDP.

Tennis is only the country’s ninth most popular sport, but Stanley St is New Zealand’s most-watched stadium. In a recent rain break in the US Open, last year’s final from Auckland was replayed – watched by millions around the world.

In the US alone, 38 million people will be watching when Serena Williams goes out to play.

In our podcast today, find out how Karl Budge banked some emotional blackmail to get her back to Auckland, after her stormy press conference in 2017 when she told the world she was going “somewhere better”.

ASB Classic tournament director Karl Budge talks to Sharon Brettkelly on centre court at Stanley St. Photo: Alexia Russell

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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