Venue for Conventions and Dog Shows Has a New Attraction: The Davis Cup


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Flanders Expo, an arena in Belgium where the Davis Cup final will take place this weekend.

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Jason Cairnduff/Reuters

GHENT, Belgium — In many ways, the Flanders Expo exhibition center is a standard multipurpose building. Last week, a trade fair for food service outlets and institutional caterers filled its cavernous halls. In the past, big music acts occasionally came through.

Now there seems to be a steadier mix of conventions and miscellaneous events on the schedule, including February’s popular Flanders Dog Show (Nelson of Gentle Mind, a white-and-brindle whippet, won best in show in the last edition).

This weekend, though, Flanders Expo will be under atypical examination. Andy Murray and Britain’s Davis Cup team will be sliding around on a makeshift clay court here on the outskirts of town, trying to defeat Belgium and win tennis’s biggest team competition.

Under normal circumstances, it would be a quirky combination of event and place. But given the recent Paris terrorist attacks and this city’s proximity to Brussels, which has been under lockdown this week because of another terror threat, the venue has become both an object of scrutiny and a symbol of life moving on.

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“We have had sporting events before,” Etienne Verhaert, the venue manager of Flanders Expo, said, listing such offerings as indoor karting and a boat show that features “areas where you can even go sailing inside.”

But, Verhaert conceded, “This is certainly the most important.”

Security for the Davis Cup was always going to be high. Given the heightened state of anxiety in Belgium, however, it was not surprising that the International Tennis Federation announced some elevated measures for the estimated 38,000 fans expected for the two singles matches on Friday, a doubles match on Saturday and, if necessary, two more singles matches on Sunday.

Doors will open two hours before the start of play to accommodate longer security checks at the arena’s gates; no food or beverages will be allowed inside; and all bags will be prohibited inside. Anyone who has a bag will have to check it at an off-site storage center.

Johan Van Herck, the captain of the Belgian team, said he had never seriously questioned whether the final would be played as scheduled, and he praised the national tennis federation and the I.T.F. for responding appropriately.

“We have no doubts we will be safe here,” he said.

Beyond the enhanced security measures, though, there will be some considerable idiosyncrasies that come with playing the final in a building that is, by design, not just a sports arena. Perhaps most notable will be the concerts by K3, a Belgian girl band with an extensive following among preteenagers in the region. K3 is set to play three shows on Saturday and three more on Sunday.

The concerts, which are each expected to attract about 2,500 fans, will take place in Hall 8, Verhaert said. That is the only one of the venue’s eight halls that is not reserved for tennis-related events.

“We had these concerts scheduled for more than a year,” Verhaert said. “Confirmation about Davis Cup only came much more recently, but it will not be a problem. We have plenty of room.”

Such scheduling gymnastics are standard when it comes to organizing Davis Cup matches. By rule, each national federation can choose the location, court surface and type of ball when it hosts a match, with hosting duties alternating each time a pair of teams have a matchup. Belgium is the host of this final because the last time it played Britain, in 2012, the matches were held in Glasgow.

The I.T.F., which runs the Davis Cup, is more involved with planning for the final than for earlier-round matches, but it can do little until the semifinals have been completed and it is determined which country will play host. The semifinals finished on Sept. 20, so there was a sprint for everyone to get ready for this weekend.

Making things more complex was Belgium’s unusual tennis federation setup. In a reflection of the country’s language schism, the sport is overseen by two associations — one that is French-speaking and one that is Flemish-speaking — and the two bodies alternate organizing home Davis Cup matches.

Tennis Vlaanderen, the Flemish association, has the final, the first that Belgium has hosted. Belgium last played in the Davis Cup final in 1904, and it has never won the event. Gjis Kooken, the Flemish association’s chief executive, said that selecting Flanders Expo was not simple.

The organization considered several other potential sites, including an abandoned factory in Antwerp (which did not meet safety specifications) and the Sportpaleis, a recently renovated arena also in Antwerp (which was already booked for a Madonna concert).

Kooken also said there was very brief consideration given to playing the final in Lille, France, which is just across the Belgian border and which hosted last year’s memorable final between Switzerland and France on a court set up at the city’s soccer stadium. But that idea was quickly discarded.

“We thought about that, but it has been 111 years since we last had a final, and if you have something like this, you cannot move it away,” Kooken said. “That is how we ended up here.”

Justine Albert, who oversees the Davis Cup for the I.T.F., said Flanders Expo was hardly the most unusual venue for an international tie. She recalled that Spain had hosted one at a bullring in Valencia, and that the Austrians had held one in an airplane hangar near Vienna.

She added that there had been discussion about moving the final to a predetermined neutral site in the future — a switch that would put it in line with other major championship events, like soccer’s Champions League final.

“It would obviously be easier logistically,” Albert said, “but the trade-off is that this way we have a tremendous home-country feeling that’s unlike anything else.”

Also lost would be the inherent home-court advantage that comes with hosting, and Belgium has made no secret of the logic behind its selection of a clay surface for this weekend’s play. The second-ranked Murray, who is expected to play two singles matches and to play doubles with his brother, Jamie, is weaker on clay; the Belgian players grew up competing on it.

Murray did not appear particularly concerned about the clay when asked about it this week. The freezing temperatures during practice time, which were a result of many doors opening and closing during the venue’s elaborate setup, seemed more pressing. But he, too, noted the incongruity of a sport so known for its iconic venues having such an important event in such an unusual setting.

Of course, that was the idea.

“It may be a bit strange, but we think it will be a fantastic atmosphere,” Kooken said. “We could have done it anywhere, but we think this will feel very, very Belgian.”



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