Stefanos ‘The Greek God’ Tsitsipas jumped back to the top of the Ultimate Tennis Showdown standings on Sunday after cruising past Alexei ‘The Sniper’ Popyrin, 4-0: 17-12, 20-9, 19-8, 15-16, while Dominic ‘Domi’ Thiem moved into the automatic qualification after toppling Matteo ‘The Hammer’ Berrettini from the top spot, 3-1: 11-14, 17-11, 18-13, 13-12.
The Austrian’s victory means that he now moves to 4th on the leaderboard despite entering the tournament late, as Berrettini drops down to 2nd place.
The behind-closed-doors and unorthodox tournament is being staged across 5 consecutive weekends at the Cote d’Azur tennis academy run by Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou, with a quick-fire format aimed at attracting new fans to the sport.
Each match consists of four 10-minute quarters, rather than sets, with a point going to the winner of each quarter.
A sudden-death tie-break follows at the end of the match if scores are level at two quarters each, with the first player to take back-to-back points declared the winner.
Both Tsitsipas and Popyrin are products of the Mouratoglou Academy near Nice and both are adept at the new format of speed tennis, particularly the use of ‘UTS Cards’ of which they are allowed 2 per 10-minute quarter.
Despite standing 6ft 5 and possessing a formidable serve, The Sniper has been belligerent in sticking with ‘Steal Serve’ and ‘-1 Serve’, rather than ‘Winners count x 3′, perhaps an unusual choice given his penchant for hitting aces and forehand winners.
It was a slow start from the Australian, encouraging him to play his ‘Steal Serve’ card first and edging him back into the quarter, levelling matters at 11-11 with a sniper-like backhand that painted the line.
The Greek God, however, saw out the tight opener as the clock ran down with a ‘Winners x 3’ ace on the final point.
“Fantastic day, fantastic night, going well so far,” said Tsitsipas at the change. “I like night sessions because I’m a night owl anyways. I’m a night person. I like doing my job during the night.
“I’m surprised it came so close to the super tie break because I started very well, was leading by a lot of points and somehow he managed to come back, my momentum slipped away and wasn’t there when I needed it.”
His focus restored, Tsitsipas quickly establishing a healthy advantage, leaving Popyrin playing catch-up for most of the match.
The World No 6 recorded his 5th win in 6 matches to take a commanding lead at the top of the standings, ensuring his qualification to the knock-out phases.
Domi is the top seed and has found his stride after arriving late and losing his opener to Richard ‘The Virtuoso’ Gasquet by putting in a lot of graft on the practice court.
On a very hot day, the first quarter went on serve until Thiem earned the first mini-break to pull away to a 5-2 lead with a volley into the open court.
Berrettini fought back to 6-6., but when Thiem used his ‘Winner x 3’ card, he was not able to find a first serve and dropped both points.
Used his equivalent card, Berrettini could not find the winner but Thiem’s double fault helped him win the first quarter, his 9th consecutive quarter.
“I was counting the points and I think at the end it went well. I’m happy but I think I can play better, but he can play better to,” said Berrettini.
The Italian player, a US Open semi-finalist last year, pulled away to a 5-1 lead with his groundstrokes and was leading 8-4 when Thiem hit a passing shot and held on his serve with a forehand down the line to draw level to 8-8 with 3 minutes to play.
Berrettini took the lead with his strong serve but Thiem used the x3 winner before hitting a lob to pull away and win the quarter.
“I was really pissed at 2-8 and seriously I didn’t believe any more in this quarter, I was focusing already to maybe turn a 0-2 around but the six points where I played the card helped a lot, said Thiem.
“In the back of my head I knew that in this kind of format things can turn around very quickly and hit an ace and a really good lob, so that was amazing.”
After Domi claimed the 3rd, there was little to separate between the two in the 4th quarter, tied at 6-6.
Thiem used his ‘-1 Serve’ card to make the breakthrough, but the Italian hammered a down-the-line forehand passing shot to claw his way back.
Berrettini hit an ace when he was using his 3x winner to take the lead, but Thiem drew level to 10-10 following a double fault.
Then, using his ‘Winner x 3’ card, Thiem was unable to find the clean winner and Berrettini struck 2 serves to draw level at 12-12.
Berrettini used his Steal Serve card for the sudden death and Thiem took the 4th quarter with a sumptuous backhand pass to win his 3rd UTS match and improve his tournament record to 3-1, with The Hammer on a 4-2 record.
“It was almost perfect but then he made the 6 points with his winners cards and the door closed all of a sudden again, so you can never be sure in this game,” said Thiem, after holding off the Berrettini fightback.
“It’s not a nice feeling because you’re up 12-3 and super comfortable and then suddenly it’s only three points.
“It’s ten minutes of big tension because even at the end you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Meanwhile, Gasquet, who suffered a 4-0 loss to Berrettini on Saturday, bounced back by beating fellow Frenchman Corentin Moutet on Sunday, 3-1: 18-5, 14-15, 12-11, 17-8, in the opening match of the day billed as the ‘French Civil War’.
Gasquet came out on top in the eagerly-anticipated battle of experience versus youth, despite a gap of 13 years between them.
“You know Corentin, I didn’t think he played his best, he played, to be honest, not good, and made some mistakes,” said a humble Gasquet. “I know how talented he is.
“It’s always good to play the first. He’s a very good player so I expect a tough match from him now.”
The thing about this format, though, is that momentum can change in a heartbeat when points, timing of cards and awareness of the clock are all important.
The Tornado is a talented and dangerous opponent, and at 10-8 up and with 2 cards remaining, the 2nd quarter looked to be in Moutet’s hands, but Gasquet drew back to level at 14-14 and force a deciding point.
This time, it was on the Moutet serve, and it was the youngster who levelled with a pressure overhead.
“I’m sorry for the word, but if I’m a pussy and let it bounce and take a forehand, I miss ten forehands in the match, so I decide to be brave and do the smash. But I’m not happy about my game and I have to improve.”
The match bubbled into a classic as Moutet levelled at 11-11 to force yet another deciding point, but this onewas on the Gasquet serve, and The Virtuoso took it with a clean ace.
“I didn’t want to do a second serve, trust me, because it was tough and he hit some incredible points, winning the three points, so it was tense and good to serve an ace,” admitted Gasquet.
He took the 4th, following up his wins over David Goffin and Dustin Brown, as the elder statesman grabbed bragging rights over the young upstart.
David Goffin was also victorious as he beat Elliot Benchetrit, who replaced the injured Dustin Brown, 4-0: 14-16, 20-12, 14-10, 20-8.
After a little coaching advice from Thomas Johansson to return closer to the baseline and take the ball early on his forehand, the Belgian bucked his habit of losing quarters that he has been in control of to level the match, thanks to a late ‘Winners x 3’ ace and overhead double.
“It was good advice to hit my spots in front and I hit two Winners x3 to take me ahead, so it was much better, more winners, so very positive for the next one,” said Goffin. “Sometimes we discuss the tactics and sometimes we don’t agree, of course!”
Victory for The Wall means that he now moves to 6th in the standings and keeps his hopes of qualification alive with 3 round-robin matches still to play.
Feliciano ‘The Torero’ Lopez won through in one of the most bizarre, yet entertaining of UTS matches, overcoming a volatile and injured Benoit ‘The Rebel’ Paire 3-1: 15-17, 22-11, 9-7, 24-14.
The duo may have been ranked 8th and 9th in the standings, but this was developing into one of the most intriguing matches of UTS before Paire appeared to jar his knee in hitting a backhand.
“We are putting on a good show, huh?” joked Lopez at a change. “I’m very happy, it seems that this card is working today!
“I am playing good in general. I had a very bad start to the match, took the lead by 5 or 6 points and after that started to play better so I need to be focused on my serve, keep holding my serve and look for my chances.”
Victory for Lopez means he now stands at 3 wins from 3 losses and moves to 6th in the round-robin event with 3 matches to play.
For Paire, his tournament may be now be over, with the extent of his late knee injury yet to be known.