After all the hype, the first day of the Ultimate Tennis Showdown was postponed due to bad weather in France, so the jury remains out on whether the innovations planned by Patrick Mouratoglou have some merit or prove to be a step too far.
I think there’s a big gap between the quality of the game and the quality of the show. The idea is to create a platform where the show can take place. It can’t just be two players hitting balls. I’m expecting two things. We need to have a good show and we need to have authenticity. I want players who are playing a role and I want diversity. Patrick Mouratoglou
Fans starved of live tennis will be disappointed but unsurprised that rain stopped play as attention swerved to Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour, which also kicked off on Saturday in bright sunlight.
The two events, however, could not be more different, for where the Adria Tour adheres to a shortened but generally accepted format, the Ultimate Tennis Showdown is apparently ripping up the rules.
The UTS is Mouratoglou’s brainchild, arranged with the specific aim of revolutionising the sport, and it was due to start on Saturday afternoon at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, located between Nice and Cannes.
It is being held played behind closed doors across five straight weekends but, due to heavy rain, Saturday’s order of play will now be shifted to Monday, with Sunday’s schedule remaining unchanged and available to view on Eurosport.
Mouratoglou believes the sport is having trouble bringing in younger supporters because of the current format.
“Tennis is an amazing sport, it’s extremely addictive, and once you’re a fan, you’re a fan for life. But right now it’s failing to be attractive to the younger generation,” he says. “I think the situation has been boring for the future of our sport for quite a long time.
“The average age of tennis fans is 61, and it keeps getting older and older.”
He is using the opportunity created by the lockdown of competitive tennis as a result of COVID-19 to present an alternative and unsanctioned universe to the pro tours.
The format flies in the face of traditional tennis, with matches lasting a maximum of one hour and divided into four quarters of ten minutes each, all played in the style of a tiebreak, with players taking it in turns to serve two points in a row.
If scores are level at the end of a quarter, a deciding point is played.
Then, if the score is 2-2 after four quarters, the match goes to sudden death, with the serve changing after each point and the winner the first to win two points in a row.
There is a time limit of just 15 seconds between points and interaction between players and coaches via 30-second coaching time-outs in each quarter permitted, with communication via headsets, in English, and heard by viewers.
Oddly, at changeovers the players answer questions from interviewers.
Players will have the chance to use two ‘UTS cards’ in each quarter, which which allow, amongst various options, three serves on one point, making your opponent take only one serve on a point, and winning two points if you hit a clean winner.
Mouratoglou hopes to see the personality of the players shine through and beyond.
“I think there’s a big gap between the quality of the game and the quality of the show,” he has said. “The idea is to create a platform where the show can take place. It can’t just be two players hitting balls.
“I’m expecting two things. We need to have a good show and we need to have authenticity.
“I want players who are playing a role and I want diversity. I want people who are showmen, I want people who throw themselves around the court, and people who stay very calm.
“When you have diversity it’s better and you can connect with the players that you like, you know who they are, you can identify with them and then you can engage with the matches.
“This is one thing I regret about tennis. We have a lot of people who seem like they’re the same personality, but they’re not actually. But they behave the same in matches.
“Tennis has become standardised on court and off court.”
In another quirky innovation, UTS has provided each player with a nickname, not unlike professional wrestling – instead of viewers wondering why they should care about a match between Dustin Brown and David Goffin, UTS hopes showcasing ‘The Artist’ (Brown) vs. ‘The Wall’ (Goffin) will instantly capture attention.
Matteo Berrettini is ‘The Hammer’, Stefanos Tsitsipas is now ‘The Greek God’, Richard Gasquet is ‘The Virtuoso’, while Benoit Paire is named ‘The Rebel’.
1. Dominic Thiem (AUT) – ranked No 3, aka ‘The Dominator’, but substituted by Elliot Benchetrit this weekend, No 208, aka ‘The Underdog’
2. Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE) – No 6, aka ‘The Greek God’
3. Matteo Berrettini (ITA) – No 8, aka ‘The Hammer’
4. David Goffin (BEL) – No 10, aka ‘The Wall’
5. Benoit Paire (FRA) – No 22, aka ‘The Rebel’
6. Richard Gasquet (FRA) – No 50, aka ‘The Virtuoso’
7. Feliciano Lopez (ESP) – No 56, aka ‘Torero’
8. Lucas POUILLE (FRA) – No 58. aka ‘French Flair’
9. Alexei Popyrin (AUS) – No 103, aka ‘The Sniper’
10. Dustin Brown (GER) – No 239, aka ‘The Artist’
Even if his plans don’t work right away, Mouratoglou says those in charge of the sport should not be resistant to change.
“It’s funny because sometimes players are scared of making changes to their game because they’re afraid to lose something rather than trying to learn and get better,” he said. “They just stick to what they know and they’re scared to make a change.
“The champions do the exact opposite. They’re always trying to improve and aren’t scared of change. Tennis should act like a champion and not be scared.
“When you change something in your game, sometimes it’s not going to work immediately and you start to make unforced errors and you have to go through that to get better.
“Tennis has to do that too so it can make the necessary evolution and appeal to the younger generation.”
The ATP, which runs the men’s pro tour, is supportive but wary, telling players they are free to take part in ‘private exhibitions’ but warning them ‘to protect their health and safety’ and ‘to comply with the guidelines of the anti-corruption programme’.
The ITF says its priority is to continue its work with the ATP, the WTA and the Grand Slam tournaments ‘to follow the evolution of the worldwide impact of Covid-19 and prepare the restart of the professional tours in the best possible conditions’.
“A lot of people are going to be against it, but that’s OK,” Mouratoglou adds. “If you really love tennis, you want it to survive, to live, to develop.
“Loving tennis, in my opinion, is embracing change so that our sport doesn’t fall behind the other sports.”