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News > Alumni Spotlight > João Stilwell Zilhão

João Stilwell Zilhão

A truly special place to learn and grow
João Stilwell Zilhão
João Stilwell Zilhão

Class of 1993 alumnus João Stilwell Zilhão is the Tournament Director & Managing Partner of the Millennium Estoril Open. This prestigious ATP Tour event has been held at the Estoril Tennis Club since 2015. After completing studies at St. Julian’s, he studied Law at Universidade Lusíada de Lisboa. With over two decades of experience at the helm of international events, his career spans a wide range of sports, including but not limited to the ATP Tennis Masters Cup - Lisbon 2000, ATP & WTA Estoril Open, Dakar Rally, Volvo Ocean Race, European Tour Portuguese Golf Opens, LET Golf, WPT Padel, Portugal Masters Golf, and Cascais Sixes. In his role as Head of Business Development at U.COM, he fostered partnerships with the European Tour for golf events such as Golf Sixes Cascais and was involved in the Portugal Masters in the Algarve.

What was it like attending St. Julian’s?

My journey with SJS began in 1977, marking the start of a chapter in my life that spanned 15 years. I have the best memories of St. Julian’s. These were very happy times. Not only did I receive an exceptional education, but it was also where my three siblings (António, Ana and Francisco Zilhão) found their academic footing.
The familial connection to St. Julian’s runs deep, as my Great Grandmother Maria was a Founder of the School and my Grandfather John Stilwell was a Governor & Chairman of the Board. My mother Philippa (Mrs Zilhão) has dedicated more than 50 years to teaching at the institution and has a unique bond with St. Julian’s. Beyond academics, St. Julian’s provided me with lifelong friendships, which I treasure to this day. Despite the absence of social media during my time there, the advent of platforms like Facebook later enabled me to reconnect with old classmates and revive those lost connections from my International Baccalaureate years
I have good memories of the beautiful campus and world-class teachers. The warmth and positivity that permeated the atmosphere made it a truly special place to learn and grow.

Is there a memory you hold dear from St. Julian's?

The assemblies at St. Julian’s were always a highlight for me, especially when we gathered to sing "It's a Long Road to Freedom." The empathy and camaraderie among students was palpable. It felt like we were part of one big family.
I particularly cherished events like Bonfire Night and Sports Days, which added a layer of excitement to our school experience. St. Julian's consistently excelled in sports, and being part of such a community left a lasting impression on me. I have the fondest memories.

Did you have any favourite teachers?

I had the privilege of being taught by several wonderful teachers during my time at school. Among them, Mr Bull, Mr Fannon, Mrs Bobone, Mr Stuart, Mrs Gottschalk,  Mr Hamilton, Mrs Green, Mrs Fenner-Leitão, Mr Sawyer and Mrs Bastos de Sousa stand out as particularly outstanding. I am grateful to them.

How was the experience of attending the International Baccalaureate?

Attending the IB prepared me well for university and gave me tools for life. Participating in the Duke of Edinburgh award program concurrently was a rewarding experience. I always think that the time we camped in Malveira was useful in building strong bonds with both colleagues and teachers. I thought the IB was an excellent preparation for navigating life beyond school.

You have been the ATP Tournament Director of the  Millennium Estoril Open since 2015. Can you share some of your favourite highlights from your time leading the tournament?

One of the most memorable moments for me was witnessing João Sousa's historic victory in the 2018 tournament. His triumph over formidable opponents like Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Frances Tiafoe was fantastic and elevated the atmosphere to an unforgettable level. These players are now at the top of the tennis ranking. The sight of Sousa shedding tears of joy on the court, embraced by the passionate crowd, was truly moving. Having Katia Guerreiro, the renowned fado singer, performing the national anthem that year enhanced our sense of pride.
Reflecting on the tournament's evolution over the past few years, it's been immensely gratifying to witness its rise to prominence as one of Portugal's premier events. It provided over 3000 hours of international TV exposure to Portugal and Cascais and served as a powerful platform for promoting the country on the global stage. The involvement of top-tier brands and sponsors has further solidified its stature, enabling us to create something truly exceptional and impactful.
Amidst the challenges of the pandemic, experiencing the return of full stands in 2022 was particularly poignant for me. After enduring the hardships of 2020 and 2021, being able to witness the event return to normalcy was incredibly gratifying. As we look ahead to 2024 and beyond, I'm confident that we will continue to build upon our successes and uphold the standard of excellence that defines our tournament.

Are there any community outreach initiatives associated with the tournament?

Our outreach extends across the entirety of the tennis community in Portugal, engaging with clubs, universities, and schools through various initiatives and discounts. We prioritise integrating students into our events and always try to make the tournament family-friendly. It would be immensely gratifying to welcome past and present students of St. Julian’s to this year’s Estoril Open, as they embody the spirit of community and excellence that we strive to promote.
We have also been supporting the Academia dos Champs for many years and providing them with many opportunities in and around the event and supporting their project of taking tennis to poor neighbourhoods.
Additionally we collaborated with Cercica in providing the association with a platform to participate in an important art exhibition, with all the profits being channelled to these artists with special needs.
Our tournament is not just about tennis; it is a vibrant celebration of culture, gastronomy, and music, with activities for all ages. Every day, we welcome hundreds of children, many of whom are experiencing tennis for the first time and strive to offer them engaging activities beyond the courts.

What does the future hold for the Millennium Estoril Open?

We face various threats to the continuity of the event. Despite the challenges posed by shifting calendars and the emergence of new investors from the Middle East eyeing entry into golf and tennis circuits, our commitment remains steadfast. We are resolute in our determination to keep this event rooted in Portugal for as long as possible.
Our vision extends beyond mere longevity. We aspire for this event to become a permanent fixture in Portugal, advancing it to the ranks of top-tier international competitions. While we acknowledge the obstacles that lie ahead, we are prepared to confront them head-on, ensuring that Estoril Open remains a beacon of excellence in the global sporting circuit.

What advice would you give our students wanting to follow a Sports Management Career?

I have been working in the sports industry for over 20 years, and I would argue that one of the biggest things that made me grow was the opportunity to attend top sporting events worldwide. This has been transformative, broadening my perspective and giving me invaluable insights on improving continually, as well as a powerful database of contacts in the sports, commercial and marketing worlds.
To aspiring students, I advocate for a mindset of openness to travel, a thirst for learning, and humility in engaging with seasoned professionals. Professionalism is non-negotiable; it entails delivering excellence to athletes, media, sponsors, and the public alike. A successful event hinges on meticulous organisation, strategic planning, and nuanced comprehension of the calendar and its dynamics. Sports management demands adept organisational skills, foresight, and a relentless commitment to delivering a seamless and unforgettable experience for all stakeholders involved. Each year, we try to make the event better, rectifying past shortcomings while introducing innovative concepts to invigorate our approach. In today's digital age, proficiency in digital & social media marketing is crucial, facilitating effective outreach and engagement.

 

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