Gerhard (Gerry) Weber, a hugely successful women’s clothier, took what many believed was a huge risk when he “created” the Gerry Weber Open, now an ATP 500 series event. The tournament’s patron, who passed away on September 24th, had a significant impact on the tennis world as Mark Winters explains.
Having attended the Gerry Weber Open (now Noventi Open) since its inception, I felt a piece of my tennis life was lost when it was announced that Gerhard Weber had passed away on September 24th at a clinic in Münster, Germany at the age of 79.
I remember when our paths first crossed. It happened at the ATP World Championships, as the year-end tournament was called in the 1990s. It was held at the Festhalle in Frankfurt in 1992. Having heard that Weber was going to make a presentation about a new grass court tournament that would be held in Germany in 1993, my curiosity was thoroughly piqued.
At the time, the tournament was to be contested the week after Roland Garros. I decided to attend the press conference because, after all, Germany, wasn’t the home of “lawn play”, so I figured the media gathering would be more significant than a “fill the time break” sandwiched between round-robin matches.
That afternoon, I learned that the inaugural Gerry Weber Open – obviously named for the tournament founder – was going to be staged in Halle (Westphalia) the same week the revered Queen’s Club Championships would be taking place in London. As Weber, who looked very dapper, almost like a successful small town bank president, talked about his plans (through a translator), I began to realize that beneath his quiet demeanor lurked an individual who was quite audacious. I should have known that he was very bold and adventurous. He would have to be, to invest in what amounted to a scheduling face-off with the long-established Wimbledon warm-up that had begun in 1890.
At the time, I knew next to nothing about the tournament owner and even less about Halle. As it turned out, Weber was born in the town. His mother had operated a small shop in town that sold a variety of products including clothing. It seems the time spent working there sparked an interest in retail and fashion. The interest led him to become involved in the clothing business in 1965.
By the early 1970s, he, along with his childhood friend, Udo Hardieck, (who was also involved in the tournament until his death in 2018), had established a women’s fashion brand and manufacturing center that was based in Halle. At its peak, the company featured five stylish clothing lines, in affordable price ranges for everyone. The chic creations were sold at Gerry Weber retail outlets around the world.
Before the tournament’s location became well known, I had occasion to write several humorous tales about players going to the wrong Halle. As it turned out, there are several cities named Halle in Germany. Some competitors thought the city of Halle (Salle), near Leipzig, was the tournament site. In time, it became evident that Gerry Weber’s Halle was the town of 20,000 in the countryside of an agricultural region, just a short distance from a “Teutoburger Wald”, (a nature preserve), near the city of Bielefeld where there are more than 330,000 residents, and a major university, to boot.
Though our relationship was basically “nodding recognition”, I spent enough time around him during the tournament’s twenty-seven years to realize that Weber was innately savvy. He had remarkable “situational feel”. That is the only way to explain why he signed seventeen-year-old Stefanie Graf to be a Gerry Weber brand ambassador in 1986.
In 2010, Weber again showcased his “smart-risk” management style getting Roger Federer to agree to a lifetime contract with the tournament. Federer, who was ranked No. 1 at the time, admitted that it felt a bit like he was getting married. He added that by playing the Gerry Weber Open, he “gained momentum [before] going into Wimbledon”. (To date, Federer has won the Halle singles title ten times.)
During the spring, the weather in Europe varies dramatically. More often than not, rain is a companion of the season. In its first year, the tournament was nearly washed away. Fortunately, Weber’s creativity went well beyond fashion design and color combinations. He commissioned an architect to develop a plan for a retractable roof to cover the 12,300 seats in the Gerry Weber Stadion. By 1994, it was operational and it became just the second tennis event, after the Australian Open, to be able to avoid Mother Nature’s spring crying jags.
But, playing tennis in an occasionally roofed enclosure didn’t offer ideal conditions for grass court maintenance. Weber, a thoughtful problem solver, handled the dilemma by recruiting Phil Thorn. Thorn had worked with his father Jim, who had been responsible for the courts at the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
Young Thorn, who has overseen the care of the grounds at the facility from the beginning, developed a revolutionary idea. With Weber’s support, he grew grass for the center court on palettes, four hundred of which are carefully moved into the arena prior to the start of competition each year.
Weber was not only a visionary but he was an avid and crafty left-handed recreational tennis player. He became the head of TC Blau-Weiss, (where the Gerry Weber Open venue would be built) in the mid-1980s. Seven years later (1992), he organized a $25,000 ATP Challenger event on the club’s Terre Battue courts. His son Ralf, who looked like he had just finished graduate school at the Gerry Weber Open announcement in Frankfurt later that year, was the Tournament Director – a position he still holds with the Noventi Open.
Halle was part of Weber’s DNA. It was where he grew up. A factory and his corporate headquarters were there. His company employed thousands of people from the town and the surrounding area. He cared about the community. He was one of them. As a result, the residents adopted a “familial” feeling about the Gerry Weber Open. It was theirs. It directly reflected on the region, which is the reason that “locals” have always formed the backbone of the tournament’s staff. Annually, people saved their vacation time and used it to work at the event. They made the commitment because Weber had a commitment to his hometown.
That connection, relationship says it better, led to the Gerry Weber Open being named the ATP World Tour 250 Tournament of the Year in 2008. In 2015, the June championships became an ATP 500 series event and as before, the locals “played on”.
When you are around an individual once a year for more than a quarter of a century, you gain insight. Over that time, I formed some revealing impressions. As I look back, Weber was always very proper and never overly expressive, but beyond this exterior it was clear that he really cared. It could be seen in the way he treated staff members and season ticket holders.
Though, in recent years, he had been slowed by health issues, he remained personable and annually appeared at the tournament. He was a community activist who stayed in touch with local leaders and was aware of important local issues. He offered perpetual support to the TC Blau-Weiss and soccer club Arminia Bielefeld.
He was, indeed, a man of the people as Martin Fröhlich brought out at the end of his story, “On the death of Gerhard Weber: Someone who shaped the region”, which appeared in the newspaper Halle Kreisblatt on September 25th. Fröhlich wrote, “Even today some people think he was called Gerry Weber. He used to say, ‘No, that is the company. I’m Gerhard’.”
Gerhard Weber led an impactful life. He was the Halle tournament’s patron. Actually, archangel better defines his role. In both women’s clothing design and tennis, he was bold, incisive and courageous. More important, he was a class act. His spirit will be missed by the game and his lifelong neighbors.
Rest In Peace, Gerhard Weber.
Title photo: Federico Gambar