The Ultimate Tennis Showdown, which professes to revolutionise tennis by throwing out tradition, took off at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, located between Nice and Cannes, on Sunday, after the first day of play was postponed until Monday because of torrential rain on Saturday.
It was tough, physically, mentally, everything. Dustin always plays fast but with [15 seconds between points], the [UTS] cards and everything, it was really tough... Matteo Berrettini
The event is being played in a league format, with each match consisting of four quarters and a sudden-death fifth, if the scores are level.
With the professional tour on ice since the middle of March, Patrick Mouratoglou’s brainchild at least gives players the chance to stay match sharp, even if the jury is still out on whether his revolutionary format has any far-reaching merit.
“You will not find a player ready to play five sets,” said France’s Richard Gasquet, reflecting on the shortened format.
Played on hard courts in the south of France, the UTS could not be in greater contrast to the Adria Tour staged in Belgrade on clay, where a live crowd packed out the stadium at the Novak Djokovic Tennis Centre despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Asked to comment on the lack of social distancing measures, Djokovic said that both Serbia and the region were relatively successful in containing the virus.
“Of course you can criticise, you can also say this is dangerous or not, but it’s not up to me to make the calls what is health-wise right or wrong,” he told reporters, adding they were acting in line with recommendations of the Serbian government.
In France, however, there are no spectators as the UTS is being played behind closed doors with social distancing very much in evidence and those present wearing face masks.
Black t-shirts with “Black Lives Matter’ emblazoned on the front proliferated off court, sending a clear message of solidarity.
There are no stands surrounding the court, but there is crowd noise, responding to outright winners with applause.
The matches are played at quite a lick, with each broken down into 4 quarters and a clock counting down the 10 minutes of each.
They are played along the lines of a tiebreak, alternating serve after every two points, but they continue until the quarter is over.
Alexei Popirin won the first UTS match, when the big-serving Aussie nicknamed ‘The Sniper’, took out Elliot Benchetrit, ‘The Underdog’, 13-9, 9-12, 15-12, 14-12.
Ranked more than 100 places above his opponent, Popirin used his UTS cards cleverly.
Both men had two UTS cards to use in each 10-minute quarter – one of the real innovations of the event, the brainchild of Mouratoglou and Alexei Popyrin’s father, Alex; and his son Alexei was the first man to use one, denying Benchetrit his first serve on the next two points.
It was a tactic that worked nicely as he won the first quarter 13-9.
UTS cards have been introduced to make the matchups more exciting.
Before every match, the algorithm presents each player with 4 different UTS cards, which advantages each of them to a different degree, and will decide for how many points in a row each card will be active.
Before each quarter, the coach can choose 2 out of the 4 cards for his player to use during the upcoming quarter.
Players can’t play 2 cards at once and cannot play a card at the same time as their opponent.
Nor they can they play their card while a card previously played by their opponent is still active or during ‘sudden death’. Each player has to wait 20 seconds after using a card.
Among the UTS cards to choose from: Steal Serve (player serves 4 times consecutively), Win in 3 Shots Max (opponent in forced to win point in 3 hits), Winners Count x3 (each winner counts triple), -1 Serve (opponent gets 1 serve only), and x4 Consecutive Serves (entitled to serve twice).
Benchetrit, ranked 208 and born in Nice, had his chances but a double-fault when trailing 12-11 in the third quarter proved to be the key as Popyrin moved ahead again, before closing out the match in style in the fourth quarter.
Players are also allowed one coaching timeout per quarter, and Benchetrit was the first to use one in the opening quarter, although he connected first with Popyrin’s coach before finding the right one.
In the second quarter, Benchetrit, who qualified for the Australian Open earlier this year, hit back well to take it 12-9, with Popyrin a little too passive.
“I just need to win more points,” he told commentators, another unique part of the competition’s format.
Popyrin dominated the first few minutes of the third quarter but having led 8-2, he was pegged back to 12-11, only for Benchetrit to double-fault just at the wrong time.
Match 2 pitched ‘The Hammer’ against ‘The Artist’ – Italy’s Matteo Berrettini and Dustin Brown from Germany.
Berrettini came from 11-7 down to win the final quarter 13-12, putting a smash away after Brown tried to lob a tweener over his head, clinching a 14-10, 12-13, 22-5, 13-12 victory.
Brown, ranked 239, showed off his talent and was within one point of taking it to sudden-death, only for Berrettini to fire a superb return and then put the smash away.
“It was tough, physically, mentally, everything,” Berrettini said. “Dustin always plays fast but with [15 seconds between points], the [UTS] cards and everything, it was really tough.”
The unique format of the competition takes some getting used to, both for the players and observers.
Brown, the man who holds a 2-0 head-to-head record over Rafael Nadal, fired a number of flashy winners, mixing power with touch with his drop shots and also began with a bang as he used one of his two UTS cards on the very first point, forcing Berrettini to serve only one serve on each of the first two points.
“I wish it had been 2-0 but I thought it was cool,” Brown said.
Berrettini, with his huge serve and massive forehand, dominated many of the rallies and took the first quarter 14-10 but Brown snatched the second 13-12 with a brilliant forehand that sent the Italian the wrong way.
The third quarter was a Berrettini romp as he ripped winners from all parts of the court to win it 22-5, but Brown reset at the change of ends and led 11-7 at one stage in the fourth.
Berrettini still had a trick up his sleeve, using both his UTS cards to level at 11-11.
A double-fault handed Brown a 12-11 lead and a chance, but after a coaching timeout from the German, Berrettini fired an ace to level with about 20 seconds to go.
Brown had the serve but Berrettini ripped a good return at his feet, and then forced Brown to try something special, but his attempted tweener lob fell short and Berrettini put the smash away with ease to join Alexei Popyrin as a winner on day one.
In the next match, Feliciano ‘El Torero’ Lopez snatched a sudden-death win over Lucas Pouille, ‘The French Flair’.
Lopez was on fire in the first two quarters, serving brilliantly and showing the kind of form that has taken him to 7 ATP Tour titles.
The Frenchman hit back well to take the third, and then saved a match point to win the fourth on a deciding point, forcing the match into sudden-death.
With the winner the first man to be two points ahead, Lopez took the opening point on his serve and then smashed a backhand return onto the baseline to clinch victory, 17-13, 13-12, 9-13, 11-12 [2-0].
Lopez went into the event as a late replacement for the injured Felix Auger-Aliassime, and had a few concerns over a sore elbow in practice, but looked 100 percent from the start as he powered to an early lead, thanks in part to clever use of his UTS card, which gave him three points for a winner when he banged down an ace at 12-11.
That meant a sudden-death decider, with players serving one point each, choosing the side to serve from, and needing to be two points clear to win it. Lopez took the first point when Pouille netted a return and then Lopez slammed a backhand return right onto the baseline to take a well-earned victory by 3 quarters to 2.
It took another sudden death shootout to give Richard Gasquet, ‘The Virtuoso’, his win over David ‘The Wall’ Goffin, 13-11, 12-14, 12-11, 10-15 [2-0].
The 33-year-old Frenchman began the match in style, taking a tight first quarter with some trademark one-handed backhands, but Goffin snatched the second with some gruelling rallies, prompting Gasquet to tell the commentators: “Sorry, it’s the first match we do after three months doing nothing so I just try to recover.”
Gasquet edged the third quarter when Goffin double-faulted on the deciding point and then, after the Belgian won the fourth quarter, 15-10, the Virtuoso claimed the first two points of sudden death to clinch victory.
In the final match of day, World No 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas, ‘The Greek God’, played tennis from the heavens in the first two quarters and although ‘The Rebel’ Benoit Paire made a fight of it by winning the third quarter, he held on to win 24-5, 22-6, 13-14, 15-10 to put the icing on the cake after a dramatic opening day.
“First two [quarters] were phenomenal,” Tsitsipas said. “I got off to a very good start.
“In the third, he found his serve, his shots were deeper and he started missing less. Things got tense in the third [quarter]. I had a lot of fun.”
In the first two quarters, Paire had no answer to the brilliance of Tsitipas, who hit winner after winner off both flanks.
“I think he’s ready to win the US Open already,” Paire quipped.
The flamboyant Frenchman got himself going, slapping a couple of balls out of the court for good measure, and snatched the third quarter, and stayed in touch in the fourth before Tsitsipas pulled away at the end to clinch victory.
The fourth quarter included a little controversy as Tsitsipas was docked a second point for taking more than the allotted 15 seconds between points.
The umpire mixed up the score and, as Tsitsipas was allowed to serve again, Paire gave vent to his grievance, but The Greek God maintained his focus to win the quarter, 15-10, and ease to a 3-1 victory.
Play continues on Monday when Saturday’s abandoned schedule will be completed and can be viewed on Eurosport 1 from 4.15pm.