Kristoff Puelinckx is a Belgian executive with a degree in civil and chemical engineering from the University of Ghent. Savvy and entrepreneurially active, he was a partner in a technology consultancy and lived in Dubai to promote the Delta Partners firm in the telecommunications industry. In 2015, he became the founder and CEO of Tennium, a firm that was born as a tennis tournament manager and expanded its business by representing players and financing their careers. The Barcelona-based company has been the majority shareholder of the Buenos Aires ATP since 2017, in addition to being the owner of the Antwerp (also category 250 like the Buenos Aires), which takes place this week.
“The tour today is like the economy and societies of the different countries. Tennis is a mirror of that: with limitations, financial pressure, a drama for everyone “, Puelinckx expressed to THE NATION, from Belgium.
Of course, the X-ray of the circuit is more extensive. “For months everything was stopped, now tennis has come out of confinement, there were tournaments canceled, but others are going ahead, which is good news. You have to try to live with the virus until you have a solution. Life goes on and in tennis it is no different. That there have been two Grand Slam and that other tournaments can be held is great news, it helps local economies, to keep the tour going ‘on the road’, there is work for collaborators and companies in the world. It is good that there are people who want to take the risk, organize events and ensure that the tour progresses “, contributed Puelinckx from the Lotto Arena, the closed multipurpose stadium in Antwerp where the fifth edition of the contest is held. [Diego Schwartzman fue finalista en 2016 y 2017]. Belgium, with more than 250,000 cases and 10,500 deaths, is the 10th European country worst hit by Covid-19. The tournament (European Open) is taking place, although with restrictions for the public, of course. “We allow 30% of the total capacity, which is similar to that of the central stadium in Buenos Aires, with 5500 people. Here we receive about 1500 people per day,” he said.
-Is the tennis market viable without an audience or with reduced capacity?
-It’s like asking a restaurant today if it is viable how they work. It’s more of a survival issue. It is as the English say: ‘We try to do our best’. And it is also a matter of responsibility: you have to keep tennis alive because if everyone cancels their tournaments the sport is dead. For tennis to stop for a year or a year and a half would be really dramatic. So I think playing like this is an act of responsibility and support for the players. Its viable? Well, it is very difficult without an audience. You have to cut expenses a lot, you have to organize in another way, but the important thing is that there is tennis. And if there are organizers who lose money or do not win as before, then that tennis continues and hope that the virus passes quickly. I think that in 2021 it will still be difficult, but you have to be there, it is like any business, a restaurant, a supermarket or a screw trade. Everyone is trying to survive to be there when times improve. There will be people who will end up going out of business, but others who will remain there. Viability is difficult, but you have to be.
-Is there no fear that there are tournaments or organizers that are definitely out of the way?
– It could be, although the operators that are in tennis are quite solid companies. I don’t know of any who are bankrupt right now, for example. That they are suffering, cutting expenses, sending people home temporarily, well, yes, each one tries to survive in the way they can, but I don’t know of any that have collapsed, as has happened in other industries. The tournaments added a new expense, that of health protocols, it is relevant money. But it is also true that other costs have fallen. For example, the prize money has been adjusted, as there is less audience you have less expenses for service personnel. Guarantees that were paid to players are no longer paid. Infrastructure costs are much more limited, it is being much more cautious.
-What look do you have of what was done, at least up to here, in terms of the sanitary bubbles of the tournaments?
-A lot of work has been done, but, in the end, it depends on the responsibility of each one. You go to one tournament, to another, they ask if there is a bubble and of course we have, but the answer is that each one is responsible for their own safety. You do not have to go to parties or drinks when you are now on the tour. It is not necessary to leave the hotel, shopping, to the movies. Protecting yourself from Covid-19 is the responsibility of the player himself, because bubbles are not 100% effective.
-Players and coaches were concerned about the “false positives” that can leave them without competing.
-I don’t think that’s the biggest concern. Things are done well, there are double tests. The biggest concern is health, avoiding Covid and being able to play, that there are tournaments and they can work. It’s their job, let’s not forget. In the same way that many people are suffering and their work is canceled, they have the same concern. The situation in general and the continuity of the tour is what worries. There are talks and discussions continuously, there are different groups that meet for Zoom, I have the committee with the ATP 250 organizers and we meet, also with the ATP board, there is communication and we try to help each other. There are people who compete, but more at the management level, and we want the tour to work well. I spend a lot of time on the phone with different people from ATP. There are changing scenarios and we try to anticipate what may happen.
-The tournaments reduced the prize money. Should the players, many of them uneasy about it, understand the situation?
-The tournaments are not the ones that lower the prize money. It was a joint decision with the ATP board, the players and the tournaments. Obviously for tournaments it would be better to make an even more aggressive reduction, but a balance was sought. The deal is good because it allows tournaments to take place. There is a different distribution of the prize, because for example in our tournament the first round pays the same as in 2019 [6565 euros], so that players who have a lower ranking and have a harder time passing the round, do not suffer as much. Those who take the reduction the most are the top, but they are the ones who can take it the most.
-This year the ATP of Buenos Aires was made before the cancellation of the tour due to the pandemic. What do you see for 2021, also taking into account the critical Argentine economic situation?
-Our hope is to carry out the tournament, as always. Argentina has had its problems in the past as well. It is true that now the situation is very serious, but sport has always lived in Argentina and we have the support of people to come to watch games, of sponsors …, it is the advantage of having a tournament with history. As far as I know there was no sponsor to tell us that they don’t want to continue next year. It is a very important event for the sponsors. The question is more at the health level, but I believe and hope that the tournament can be held. Work is already underway on that.
-The tournament has been around for 20 editions and has its loyal sponsors, but has none of them informed you that they will not join you in 2021?
-The situation is difficult for everyone. There is no denying it. There is a lot of history, a relationship with the sponsors for a long time, there is a conversation with each one and depending on how the tournament is done, with an audience, without an audience, an agreement or the other will be reached. The conversations are positive.
-Will they bring foreign figures or do we have to wait for an austere tournament?
-It’s too soon to say that. We are going to have to see the situation in Argentina, travel worldwide, there are many issues there. We always look for a strong team, bringing in good players. The last time we agreed with Matteo Berrettini [NdR: en febrero pasado, el italiano era 8°] and in the end they had to be terminated, but the agreement was there. We will try to have a powerful tournament. Just having the Argentines would be spectacular. See play Diego Schwartzman, much more now that it has entered the Top Ten, it would be spectacular, everyone will want to see it. But it is too early to know the list.
-The Argentine soccer championship will begin shortly, but without an audience. Can the Argentina Open be expected to be the same way?
-No, I wouldn’t say this. If we see what has happened in the rest of the world, at the pandemic level, Argentina started later, it is about three months behind Europe, where there were tennis tournaments with small audiences and very strict measures. It’s possible. Here in Belgium, for example. So, I don’t know why it couldn’t be done like this in Argentina. We know how to do it, creating safe bubbles, at a distance, with masks, working hand in hand with the health authorities. Here, in Bélica, we have reached an agreement; it is also indoors, which is worse. Now we have the knowledge. We will have to start talks with the government, with the City, to see how it can be done, if the situation is extreme and they leave us or not. But if they let us, we have the policies to do so. I do think it will be with a small audience. I find it difficult to do it completely, it is almost impossible, although you never know.
-What do you think will happen before, in January, with the Australian tour?
-I think it will be complicated. I have no certainties, but I think it will. They have been working for many months, they have learned from the other Grand Slam and from tournaments, they are very prepared. The players will have to go many days before, enter a bubble, I don’t know if in Melbourne, where I get the feeling that the whole tour will be done.
-How firm is the possibility of a women’s Argentina Open?
-It is an issue that we are actively looking at and I think there is a possibility. We are talking to the WTA and we will see how it could fit in. We are talking with some partners, trying to see the interest of the government, I think it would be a very good thing, especially with the recent results [NdR: sobre todo con la explosión de Nadia Podoroska en Roland Garros] and the girls who are climbing. Yes, it could be very interesting and we are studying it. It will not be for the first half of 2021. And for the second it will depend on the situation of the Covid. We have not yet reached a conclusion.
-What do you feel when you see the economic, political and social news of Argentina from Europe?
-It is very different from how things are done there than, for example, here in Belgium or in Spain, where we manage the Godó [el ATP 500 de Barcelona]. Each country has its peculiarities, neither good nor bad. You just have to understand how a country works and how to operate. I have lived in many places, I cannot know which is better or worse, the important thing is to adjust to the local culture and operate in that way, but always with professionalism. We have a team that knows the market. The perfect place does not exist.
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