It’s game on at the National Bank Open presented by Rogers for long-time tournament director Karl Hale.
You can find him on the grounds during the 10-day tournament from 7:00 a.m. until as late as 3:00 a.m. the next morning, answering requests, meeting needs of athletes, sponsors and stakeholders and making sure the tournament runs as smoothly as possible.
“Every time you think you’re finished for the night, you get a text or a phone call from an agent or player or a staff member about something to do for the next day,” said Hale. “We just try to really make sure the players have a great experience to keep them coming back. There’s a lot involved in that. You want to make them happy and meet or exceed their expectations.”
The first fully open tournament in three years since COVID-19 shutdowns, the event grounds have been a buzz as it shapes up to be the best ever, says Hale. After the tournament was cancelled in 2020, like most sporting events, it has been a progression to get things back to normal. After running in a pandemic bubble last year, things have returned in full force this year with all the activities, food options and family-friendly brand activations. Hale admits after the past two years of interruptions, there’s a new appreciation for all the interactive festival-like elements that make the tournament special.
“It’s the busiest opening day I’ve ever seen at the gates,” said Hale. It’s just nice to see people back smiling and enjoying themselves and being grateful to have such a great event here in Toronto. It’s not a given that you have this event. It’s just nice to see everybody back, all the smiling, friendly and familiar faces that we haven’t seen for three years. We’re just grateful to be back operational and successful.”
A former competitive tennis player, Hale’s been tournament director since 2006. For him helping the team at Tennis Canada to execute a successful tournament has meant being a master at understanding people. His deep background and network of connections helps in the planning stages to draw the world’s best to the tournament year after year. The secret sauce to his success, he says, is kindness. Whether dealing with a member of staff or one of the sports’ biggest stars, it’s about treating everyone with the same kindness and respect and ensuring that Canada’s reputation for being a nation of warmth and care carries forward into the tournament.
“We try to be the friendliest tournament in the world,” said Hale. “We have a very intimate setting here. It’s eight acres so the people are very close in proximity. With our volunteers, staff, players and fans, we try to engage everyone and make it a really intimate and caring environment. We talk to the people and when you ask questions, we’ll walk you to where you have to go. If there are any issues with our players, we treat them the same way. We try to keep friendliness top of mind.”
Hale has seen a lot of changes with the tournament over the past 10 years and the biggest has been the competitive level of Canadian players. The women’s tournament in Toronto boasts Canadian defending champion, Bianca Andreescu who faced Serena Williams to win the event in 2019 before going on to do the same at the U.S. Open that year. The field this year also includes Canadian number one and 2021 US Open finalist Leylah Annie Fernandez and up-and-coming talent Victoria Mboko. The tournament he says has been instrumental in preparing players for stardom.
“Playing Serena here in 2019 was really important for Bianca because when she walked out on the court at the US Open and saw Serena, it wasn’t new. She had experienced that two weeks prior, so she was really relaxed and totally fine. The pipeline is continuing with these younger players and this tournament is the first place where people get exposed to them. This tournament really helps the Canadian players in many facets.”
Fresh off of their blockbuster hit autobiographical movie, King Richard, Serena and Venus Williams are back at this year’s tournament. Both in their 40’s the living legends could be competing in Toronto for the last time in their careers. It’s just one of the many reasons Hale says this tournament could go down in history as one of the most memorable.
“The two of them have a really special place with me and I have a very close relationship with them,” said Hale. “They’ve done so much for this sport and we want to give them a great (possibly) last experience in Toronto. The fans have reacted just incredibly since we announced that they’re playing, and ticket sales have gone through the roof. It’s just tremendous for us to have them here in Toronto.”