The Nitto ATP Finals, which celebrates its 50-year anniversary in 2020, has witnessed world-class tennis, changes in format and location, but the tournament’s prestige remains just the same. NittoATPFinals.com spoke to two former doubles titlists, seven-time champion Peter Fleming and two-time winner Mark Woodforde, who both left an indelible mark on the sport.
Alongside John McEnroe, Fleming dominated the doubles tournament when it was held at Madison Square Garden in New York. The pair claimed seven consecutive titles at the event from 1978 to 1984 and dropped just one set in 14 matches.
For Fleming, who grew up just an hour’s drive away from the venue in New Jersey, and McEnroe, a proud New Yorker, playing at Madison Square Garden gave them the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of their idols. Both players grew up as fans of the New York Knicks and New York Rangers, who play their home games at the iconic Manhattan venue.
“It was really exciting because Madison Square Garden was the mecca of sports that I loved growing up,” said Fleming. “The New York Knicks were a huge favourite, as they were with everybody in the New York area because in the late 60s, early 70s when I was in high school, they were world champions. They were such a charismatic team and such an iconic team. I remember my Dad taking me to the Garden to watch [Ken] Rosewall versus [Rod] Laver and Arthur Ashe and the rest playing when I was a little kid, so it just had such huge emotion. To go there seven years and not lose was a thrill.”
When Fleming and McEnroe dominated the tournament in New York, they played just two matches each year. The tournament was contested as a regular knockout event, with four teams starting the tournament in the semi-finals. The tournament expanded to six teams for their final three title runs, but the pair received a quarter-final bye on each occasion.
That format meant that Fleming and McEnroe had no time to find their form or adapt to conditions. They needed to be ready from the first match against one of their five biggest rivals.
“In a normal tournament, you might play an unseeded pair that would allow you to ease your way into the draw and into your form,” said Fleming. “In this case, you had to get started right away.”
The Port Washington Tennis Academy graduates played together on the ATP Tour for the final time at the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in March 1987. Just three years later, McEnroe played a pivotal role in the formation of another legendary doubles pair in the history of the Nitto ATP Finals.
After seven tour-level appearances alongside Woodforde between 1988 and 1990, which included a title run at the 1989 US Open, McEnroe sat down with the Aussie to explain why they would no longer be playing together and shared his advice for the future.
“He recommended that I keep playing doubles as often as possible. He listed four or five points,” said Woodforde. “[John said], ‘I think you should play with an Australian. I think you should pair up with a right-hander. I think you should pair up with someone younger and I think you should pair up with someone that has a passion to be a real tennis player.’
“John and I understood that because we spoke the same language. A real tennis player meant someone who played singles and doubles each week and didn’t specialise in singles or doubles. As he was saying these categories, I had some names in my head but as he kept going down the list, my list kept getting smaller. It was almost like, ‘Well, Todd Woodbridge’. Later that year, I asked Todd whether he was interested in playing… Thankfully he said yes.”
Between 1991 and 1999, Woodforde and Woodbridge, known as ‘The Woodies’, made nine consecutive appearances at the Nitto ATP Finals. Unlike Fleming and McEnroe, the Aussies played the tournament at a range of venues during a period when the Nitto ATP Finals singles and doubles competitions were played in different locations (1986-2001).
“[The Nitto ATP Finals] was always on our list. [It was] an achievement that we would equate to finishing No. 1 or holding onto the No. 1 spot as long as possible… It was an achievement to actually participate in the year-ending finals,” said Woodforde.
Woodforde’s most cherished memory of competing at the tournament came in his second appearance in Johannesburg in 1992. Just one year after falling to John Fitzgerald and Anders Jarryd in the semi-finals, the Woodies earned an opportunity for revenge in the 1992 championship match.
Woodforde and Woodbridge led the final by two sets, before the defending champions turned the match in their favour and forced a deciding set. But the Woodies were handed an unexpected opportunity to regroup, as Fitzgerald and Jarryd halted their own momentum by leaving the court for a bathroom break.
“We were playing one of the all-time great doubles teams in the final of the year-end championships. It was big for us,” said Woodforde. “They won the fourth set and Todd and I started to get a little jittery and a little panicked that we had blew this two-set lead… We looked across and Fitzgerald and Jarryd went for a bathroom break.
”That took a lot longer than a normal change of ends at the end of a set… We jumped on that fact, that they didn’t want to keep the momentum going, get stuck into a fifth [set] and see if they could get an early break. It allowed us this extra time to breathe and relax. It brought us together.”
To win the tournament for the first time was a huge moment for the pair, but it also represented a shift in power. Woodforde and Woodbridge ended the year as the No. 1 team in the FedEx ATP Doubles Team Rankings and Woodforde also finished a season at No. 1 in the individual FedEx ATP Doubles Rankings for the first time.
“There was pride at winning the championship, but importantly [we did it] by beating a pair that we held high on a pedestal,” said Woodforde. “It was almost like the baton had been passed over from Fitzgerald, who had really been Australia’s leading doubles player for a number of years.
“I don’t know if you could say that he passed it over, because we took it. We wanted to take it and run with it ourselves. It was just a massive victory for us. For me, knowing that we finished as the year-end No. 1 team for the first time in our careers and, individually, I hit No. 1 on the Rankings. You can imagine the celebrations that took place that night in Johannesburg.”
Woodforde, who also won the 1996 edition of the event with Woodbridge in Hartford, has been impressed by the evolution of the event in recent years. The singles and doubles competitions came back together in 2003 and the doubles tournament has enjoyed strong support at its most recent home: The O2 in London.
Since 2009, more than 2.8 million fans have visited the tournament in South East London. The 17,500-seat stadium has provided doubles players with the opportunity to showcase their skills in front of packed crowds and a global TV audience. Each session at The O2 is comprised of one doubles and one singles match, allowing fans to enjoy both forms of the game with one ticket.
“I have been at The O2 and I do look at it with pride,” said Woodforde. “The fact that they are playing the year-end finals under one roof. I am jealous of it… I think it was an important, key move by the leaders of the Tour to separate the singles and doubles [events between 1986 and 2001], but now I am really pleased for doubles that it is back. The umbilical cord has been placed back in the relationship between singles and doubles… It helps the singles event and I think it gives the doubles players the opportunity to play in some major stadiums and major market areas like London. It has been such a success at The O2.”
Even for Fleming, who played at his ‘mecca of sports’, the tournament’s successful run at Madison Square Garden cannot compare to The O2. In one of the most recognised venues in entertainment, doubles has been a consistent hit with crowds at the London venue.
”When we were playing doubles, the crowds were nothing like the are at The O2 now. What has transpired for the Nitto ATP Finals at The O2 is nothing short of miraculous and I would kill to have played in years past with the crowds they have had,” said Fleming. “The end of the doubles matches have been virtually sold out. They have played in front of packed houses, almost 18,000 people at The O2. What a thrill that would have been.”