Enter the grounds of the NECKARCUP in Heilbronn and your immediate impression is one of a modern facility, built especially for a world-class tennis tournament.
Turn to the left and you'll find a corridor of entertainment, featuring a stage for concerts and comedy shows, and nationally renowned dining, including Thomas Gödtel's Tenno Sushi Lounge. Then shift to the right and stroll past the two main show courts, weaving through the VIP centre and a sponsor village that features a 3D printing machine.
On Thursday, the NECKARCUP celebrated its second consecutive 'Tournament of the Year' honour on the circuit, lifting the trophy in front of the home fans. The TC Heilbronn Trappensee was packed with the German faithful to witness the occasion, as tournament directors and founders Metehan and Mine Cebeci hoisted the award for all to see.
But despite its lush ambiance, this venue actually has quite a long and storied history. One of the longest on the ATP Challenger Tour in fact.
Turn back the clock more than a century and you will find this very stadium at the forefront of German tennis. Not only is the TC Heilbronn Trappensee the second-oldest tennis club in all of Germany, but it is also the third-oldest on the ATP Challenger Tour today.
Oldest Challenger Venues
|Ilkley Lawn Tennis & Squash Club
|Surbiton Racket & Fitness Club
|TC Heilbronn Trappensee
|Circolo del Tennis Firenze
|Tennis Club Perugia
Founded in 1892, it celebrates its 127th anniversary this year. Only the grass-court facilities in Ilkley (1880) and Surbiton (1881) have a longer legacy on the circuit, but Heilbronn boasts arguably the most colourful history.
The original site was constructed on the expanse of land adjacent to the current stadium, but during World War II, the city was the target of numerous bombings by the British and United States Air Forces. In April 1945, the U.S. military seized control of Heilbronn and the persistent air raids culminated in a nine-day battle. Located along the Neckar River, the city was an important battleground towards the end of the war.
The Cebecis say that troops from the United States army were stationed in the region immediately surrounding the city, which was nearly entirely destroyed by more than 1,000 allied bombs.
Following the war, the American forces helped the locals rebuild the tennis club, assisting in the construction of the current indoor facility that today houses three indoor carpet courts. During the tournament, the building is transformed into a sprawling player lounge, dining area and event offices.
Today, the surrounding region is home to hundreds of vineyards. Heilbronn is known for its bustling wine industry, with more than 1,300 acres of land dedicated to the craft. Tucked in the southwest corner of Germany, less than an hour north of Stuttgart, the city's tranquility provides players with an ideal setting for a tournament.
And that's exactly why the Cebecis established the event. In just six years, it has become one of the most premier stops on the ATP Challenger Tour, serving the players with all the amenities they need, from round-the-clock shuttle service to buffet lunches and dinners, a large warm-up and cool down area and six practise courts.
"This tournament is for the players," said Mine. "We know we provide a nice fan experience too, but our philosophy is 'players first'. If they are happy, we are successful."
The tournament has been fortunate to have a glittering list of champions, with four of the five winners going on to crack the Top 50 of the ATP Rankings. World No. 5 Alexander Zverev lifted the trophy in 2015, with Jan-Lennard Struff, Nikoloz Basilashvili and Filip Krajinovic also featuring in the winners' circle. Last year, 17-year-old Rudolf Molleker became the youngest Challenger titlist in 2018 with his maiden title in Heilbronn.
Moreover, the NECKARCUP is well advertised and promoted in the region, with live media coverage from multiple outlets spanning the entire week. From online publications to newspaper, TV and radio, the tournament is covered from top to bottom. And the public has taken notice, with nearly 6,000 people filling the stands throughout the week.
Metehan's father, Erdogan, was an iconic figure at the club for many years. He served as the chief tennis intructor since immigrating from Turkey and taught Metehan how to play as a child.
"My father was one of the first tennis teachers to come from Turkey to Germany. He moved in 1972 and helped grow the club. At first, there were only six courts, but it has grown to nine, with three also indoors. And when we first started, there were 200 club members and now we have 740. They are all here for tennis."
In 1988, Metehan moved from Turkey to Heilbronn at the age of 17. One year later, he and Mine met in the city and in 1990 they were married. Today, they live in Heilbronn and with their 21-year-old daughter helping with tournament operations and their 16-year-old son working as a ball boy, it truly is a family affair.
"You feel at home here," said Germany's Dominik Koepfer. "The player area is the best you will find on tour. There's plenty of food, enough bikes and a great place to cool down and warm up. You have your privacy too, which is important. They pick you up from the train station and airport too, which is 40 minutes away. You don't get that at all Challengers. Transport is every 30 minutes and the hotel is very good. There are enough practice courts too. It's just a great tournament, which really helps this time of year."
"It's always great to play at home and this is my fourth time here," added Oscar Otte. "Every year the tournament is improving and getting better. The whole organisation is great and the player area is a really high level for a Challenger. There's also a lot of spectators supporting the Germans. We all like to play here. For me, it's the best Challenger."