Viki Mendelssohn dreamt of bringing a major tennis event to Edinburgh. Stuart Bathgate hears how she made it a reality
MANY of us have daydreamed about bringing world-class sport to our own neighbourhoods. Viki Mendelssohn has turned that dream into reality. The owner of Edinburgh-based PR firm Big Blue, Mendelssohn is the tournament director of Brodies Champions of Tennis, an event sponsored by law firm Brodies in the capital from 20 to 23 June in which John McEnroe, Goran Ivanisevic and other legends of the sport will compete. But this is not a simple case of her applying, and being appointed to, a plum job. Instead, Mendelssohn has masterminded the whole thing herself from scratch.
Eighteen months ago, there was no tournament. Eighteen months ago, if you had said the words “John McEnroe” and “Edinburgh” to someone, they might – had they been of a certain age – recalled that the three-time Wimbledon champion played in the capital once in the late 1980s.
But they would not have predicted that he would be back this year. Or that he would be playing at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh Academicals’ home ground and the venue for the first ever rugby international. Or that Ivanisevic and Tim Henman, whose Wimbledon semi-final battle lasted for three rain-drenched days in 2001, would renew that old SW19 rivalry on Scottish soil.
But Mendelssohn did. She may not have had the cast list finalised back then, but she did have a clear picture of what she wanted to achieve, and the perseverance to put it all into practice.
“It all began around the time my father died,” she says. “I think at times like that you start to look at yourself, your mortality, and what you want to do with the rest of your life.
“I’d always had the entrepreneurial spirit – my family say it must come from my grandfather, Alex Mendelssohn, who owned Jewish bakeries and jewellery shops up at Tollcross. I set up my own business when I was in my twenties, I’ve helped start up three rugby clubs, and I worked on the Homeless World Cup as well. I was kind of looking at all that and thinking, ‘What do I want to achieve in my career? What is closest to my heart?’
“The time between my dad passing away and me speaking to the ATP Champions Tour was only three or four months. Obviously, I knew about the tour before, and I’d been down to London, to the tournament at the Albert Hall. There had always been talk about tennis coming to Scotland, and it just hadn’t quite happened. But I spent the summer researching it, speaking to people I knew in the industry, and understanding what the pros and cons were.”
The principal pro was that everyone Mendelssohn spoke to agreed that bringing a tennis tournament to the capital was an excellent idea. And, while some of her Scottish contacts might have thought it was no more than an idea, the crucial breakthrough came when the ATP Champions Tour agreed that the event she proposed should be part of their calendar.
Formed in 1997, the Tour reunites some old rivals from the world of tennis. Each individual tournament is allowed to recruit some players as wild cards, particularly to help with local interest, but otherwise the rules for qualifying as a player are very strict: each entrant must have been a Grand Slam finalist, been world No 1, or won the Davis Cup with his country.
“The main message that came out from the ATP Champions Tour was that nobody had spoken to them before about putting an event on in Scotland, and they thought I would be a good partner for them because of my sponsorship experience and what I’d been doing for the last 15 years,” Mendelssohn says. “Jan Felgate, the chief executive of the Tour, used to work in Edinburgh, and she could remember the Scottish Grasscourt Championships at Craiglockhart in 1989, when McEnroe played Jimmy Connors.
“She said, ‘I love Edinburgh, I worked there, I know the city really well – I think it would be a fantastic opportunity and I think that Scotland would embrace it.’ Things were getting under way at the perfect time. The Olympics had just been, Andy Murray had won a gold medal, and tennis in Scotland has been enjoying an upsurge.
“There’s obviously a long process that you have to go through: all the contractual stuff, finding a venue, planning the tournament schedule. Sponsorship was one of the key things, because these days you can’t fund an event just by relying on ticket sales. So, after we had the Tour agreement signed and sealed, the main thing from then on was trying to get the title sponsor. That proved pretty difficult – there were a lot of people who said, ‘it’ll never happen’ – a lot of disbelief that I could deliver.
“I think perhaps there have been so many people who have said, ‘We’re going to bring X, Y or Z to Scotland and they’re going to take part in my event,’ and they didn’t deliver. So that was maybe why the reaction was, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll see it when we believe it.’ But that just spurred me on. Then Brodies came along, we had some really good conversations, and they signed up as title sponsors in January of this year. From then on, everything seemed to slot into place.”
And just as signing a title sponsor makes it easier to attract other businesses, so securing the participation of a key player helps attract some of his rivals. In this case, McEnroe was that key player.
“To get John over the line was all down to him being really interested in coming back to Scotland. It suits his calendar, because it’s the week before Wimbledon, where he’ll be working as a TV commentator. And he had comfort from the Tour that I was a good operator.” The other crucial decision was the venue. Having helped set up Edinburgh Accies women’s rugby club in the early 1990s, Mendelssohn knew Raeburn Place well, and was confident that Stockbridge was the right part of Edinburgh to host the event.
“We’d looked at Inverleith Park, but they had flooding issues last year. And I looked at Craiglockhart, but you couldn’t put a roof on the centre court there, and there’s not enough space for facilities. I even looked at covering over Craiglockhart Pond and making a flotilla of bars – we went through every scenario with so many venues.”
But Raeburn Place it was, and, crucially, there will be a roof. As with any outdoors event in Scotland, whatever the time of year, the main worry is the weather. You cannot ensure four consecutive sunny days – but you can ensure that there will be no rain delays by covering the court. “Play will continue whatever the weather. The court is covered, there are covered areas in the bar, and we’re building a covered piazza as well. If all we worried about was the weather, nothing would ever happen. You’ve got to stick your neck out and do the best you can, which is what I’ve done. And the long-range forecast for that weekend is good.”
Eighteen months ago, the long-range forecast for Mendelssohn’s chances of bringing her idea to fruition was altogether less optimistic. Now, after so many obstacles have been overcome, it seems only right that she should enjoy her place in the sun.
• The Brodies Champions of Tennis tournament is part of the official worldwide ATP Champions Tour, established in 1997. This is the first year of a three-year agreement to host the event in Edinburgh.
• Raeburn Place, Edinburgh Accies’ ground – the venue for the first international rugby match in 1871 (Scotland v England) – will host the event over four days, from Thursday 20 to Sunday 23 June.
• Capacity is 2,549, and play is guaranteed each day as there will be a roof over the court.
• To compete on the Tour, players must have been world No 1, won a Davis Cup, or played in a Grand Slam final. Each Tour event is also allowed two wildcard entrants from its own country and one from elsewhere.
Nine players will compete in Edinburgh:
• Three-time Wimbledon champion and four-time US Open champion John McEnroe
• Wimbledon 2001 champion Goran Ivanisevic
• French Open champion and former world No 1 Carlos Moya
• Davis Cup winner and Wimbledon and US Open finalist Mark Philippoussis
• Australian Open finalist Thomas Enqvist
• French Open finalist Mikael Pernfors
• Wildcards: Olympic finalist Wayne Ferreira and former Great Britain No 1s Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman
• For a full schedule of matches and how to buy tickets, see www.championsoftennis.com