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How tennis 'conquered the world'

By By Alex Thomas and Chris Borg, CNN
updated 12:14 PM EST, Wed November 26, 2014
  • Chris Kermode is chairman of the Association of Tennis Professionals
  • His challenge is to continue bringing the game to new fans worldwide
  • Kermode believes tennis in Asia is booming, both on and off the court
  • He feels the players coming through mean the game has a great future

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(CNN) -- He's one of the leading movers and shakers in the tennis world -- and he has set his sights on world domination.

Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) chairman Chris Kermode believes tennis has never been in better health, with spectator numbers booming and new players bursting through to challenge established crowd-pullers Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.

That fan interest was evident at London's O2 Arena this month as crowds of up to 17,000 packed the venue to watch the world's top eight do battle in the ATP World Tour Finals.

After next year's edition, the event could be on the move as Kermode and his colleagues look to bring live tennis to more fans worldwide.

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"We are one of the few sports that does have a truly global footprint -- it's played globally, the interest is global," the 49-year-old Kermode told CNN's Open Court.

"You look at our top stars now and they have almost transcended their sport and become global icons."

The challenge now for Kermode is to discover if there's any part of the world that hasn't fallen in love with tennis.

"We've got to look at our own business and try to extend the boundaries of where we can get into new markets, new territories, new audiences --we've just got to explore everything," added Kermode, who is approaching the end of his first year as ATP chairman.

"What we did in London with the ATP World Tour Finals was to try and attract an audience that maybe had never seen tennis before.

"To see it live is very different from seeing it on television, and being indoors highlights the drama and the dynamism of these top players.

"We wanted to put something on that was very different to Wimbledon in order to attract this new audience," said Kermode referring to the grass grand slam, which emphasizes a more traditional approach to the game.

A former player who has been involved in tennis for the past three decades, Kermode believes interest in the game in Asia, both on and off the court, is surging, with the emergence of Kei Nishikori as Japan's first-ever top 10 male player a key factor.

"I think it's just the beginning in Asia," says the ATP chairman.

"The calibre of men's tennis is so strong -- the depth is just extraordinary -- that I think it would be successful in almost any region now, but when you have that domestic player it adds the wow factor.

"Kei Nishikori is very aware of that. He is a young kid, he is a lovely lad... but that level of expectation on his shoulders, it's a whole country looking at him, that's pretty tough."

Kermode's enthusiasm for growing tennis is based on a belief that he took over at an opportune moment -- "I inherited the game in probably the best health it's ever been," he says -- and a fascination with what lies ahead.

"We've got this mixture of the old guard of players and the young guns coming up, so on the court our product is the most exciting it's ever been for years," he explains.

"We are doing an internal review of the business, but last year we had record crowds, and this year we are going to beat that record again."

It's not just crowds that are on the up.

According to Kermode, television audiences for tennis are increasing, "digital has gone through the roof," while the sport has grown commercially by 200% since 2009.

The ATP chairman is particularly intrigued by the potential changing of the guard -- what happens when Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray are displaced from the top of the tree?

But he doesn't see that as something to worry about, arguing the field is now so strong that other players will step in to provide box-office appeal.

"We talk about the young guns coming in, and there are so many of them, but the old guard aren't going down easily," says Kermode. "Roger is there and that's after people had written him off a couple of years ago.

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"Lots of people talk doom and gloom about how tennis is going to be finished [when the current big four finish their careers], but I heard that when I grew up in the John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg era.

"Everyone said it would never be the same again, but then along comes an Andre Agassi, along comes a Boris Becker. There is always someone."

And the secret of these players' appeal?

"Sport is a very simple business model -- it's about caring who wins over someone else, and that's all it is," Kermode explains.

"If you don't care, it's not that interesting. If you know a bit more about their lives, I think that helps as well -- you buy in to them as a person."

If his vision of the future for tennis is correct, people will soon be doing just that all over the world.

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