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Tennis aces feel like rock stars at season-ending London showpiece

By Tom McGowan for CNN
  • The ATP World Tour Finals is the last event of the 2010 tennis season
  • Tournament features the top-eight male players in both singles and doubles competitions
  • The event is taking place at London's O2 Arena for the second year in a row
  • Unlike at grand slam tournaments, the matches are played over the best of three sets

London, England (CNN) -- Packed with 17,000 fans pumped up by the sounds of British punk band The Clash, London's O2 Arena seems a million miles from the genteel grass courts of Wimbledon.

The All England Lawn Tennis Club, situated just 10 miles away, is well-known for its illustrious visitors and longstanding traditions as host of the sport's premier event.

But the O2, this week staging the world's best players for the second time, is helping the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals tournament make a name for itself alongside the four grand slams.

The multi-purpose venue, sited on the banks of the River Thames and originally the ill-fated Millennium Dome exhibition center when built in 1999, regularly hosts big-name rock concerts and other top entertainment events.

This week the tennis stars in residence have taken to the court to the strains of 1979 punk anthem "London Calling" before doing battle on an electric-blue indoor court.

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Mike Bryan, who along with identical twin Bryan forms the world's number-one ranked doubles partnership, hailed the atmosphere generated as unequalled by any other venue.

"I think this is our favorite tournament of the year," the 32-year-old told CNN as he seeks to defend his doubles title.

"This is a pretty special atmosphere. There's nothing like it. Indoors, when you have the intros, you're walking in with smoke, lights, music -- you have goose bumps.

"We feel like rock stars. It's the best showcase for doubles of all time. We're trying to make the most of it."

It's a far cry from bowing to acknowledge the royal box at SW19, but does this round-robin event rank alongside the French, Australian and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon?

Six-time major winner Boris Becker believes the finals -- where matches are played over three sets -- may place less strain on the players physically compared to five-set grand slam ties, but the presence of the eight best players in the world ensures a higher level of quality throughout the tournament.

Behind the scenes at the ATP World Tour Finals

"To win a grand slam takes two weeks. There are 128 players and more difficult best-of-five-set matches," the German told CNN.

"On the other hand, this is the tournament where the best eight compete against each other, so every match you play, the quality is higher than the first couple of rounds of a grand slam.

It used to be called the Masters and the player who wins on Sunday can call himself the master of tennis
--Boris Becker

"Potentially it is higher than the whole tournament, because you don't necessarily meet someone of the same caliber that there is here. Physically it is easier, but the quality of tennis has to be higher here."

The former world number one -- who won the tournament three times before retiring in 1999 -- thinks the tournament offers one player a unique position within the sport.

"It used to be called the Masters, and the player who wins on Sunday can call himself the master of tennis. He has beaten everybody in one week and for that moment he will be called the master of tennis.

"Most of these guys have won a grand slam or been in the final of a grand slam, so it has a different impact on you as a professional player."

Becker backs Federer to be year-end champion

The 43-year-old, who won 49 singles titles in his career, also claims there are too many mediocre indoor tournaments in tennis and that it needs events like the one at the O2.

"We want to see Nadal play Federer here, we want to see the top guys play each other here day in, day out. I don't remember the last time there was an indoor event where we had this many top players playing against each other. Ideally, you would want to have a fifth major indoors."

Neil Harman, Tennis correspondent for British newspaper The Times, accepts the tournament is a big event and worthy of its place in the calendar, but he believes comparisons with the four grand slams are unrealistic.

"It is a major tournament, but it's not in the context of a grand slam," said Harman.

"I think the year-ending championships have got a place all of their own. This is a completely separate entity worthy of its own place.

"For the players [to win], it's a momentous achievement. To be able to win five matches against your fellow top players in the world is a tremendous achievement, but totally different to a slam."

ATP World Tour Finals preview

Harman is impressed by the ultra-modern O2 venue, believing the event has brought tennis to the attention of fresh spectators as the sport shrugs off its old-fashioned reputation.

"Here is a sport a lot of people dismiss, but I think a whole new audience has been drawn to tennis. I think it is absolutely superb that we can have, in the middle of November, a quarter of a million people come and watch tennis.

"The staging of it is so good and the arena is perfect for it. There have always been indoor venues, but this is the newest of them and it's been a spectacular success. There is a place for indoor tennis and this is right up there among the best places we've had in the sport."