As disruptive as the COVID-19 pandemic has been in every sport, the last three months have hit professional tennis especially hard. While it is arguably the safest sport for athletes to play under the rules of social distancing, it is without question the most difficult to restart.
But the indefinite pause for the ATP and WTA Tours can also be an opportunity for a sport to reimagine how it might be presented when legends like Roger Federer and Serena Williams who have carried these tournaments over the last decade decide to call it a career.
Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, is taking some of that initiative on himself with the Ultimate Tennis Showdown (UTS), a round-robin league of top professionals that will be played over each of the next five weekends at his renowned tennis academy on the French Riviera.
What he hopes to recreate is a faster, easier-to-consume brand of tennis that will have fewer code of conduct rules and encourage players to show more emotion and personality than what fans have become accustomed to in this era. Essentially, he’s trying to recreate some of what tennis had in the late 1970s and early 1980s when it had far greater mainstream appeal with players like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg leading the way.
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“That’s when the fan base of tennis was created and that’s the fan base tennis has been living on since then,” Mouratoglou told USA TODAY Sports. “The fan base is getting older ever year. We’re 61 years old now on average, and 10 years ago it was 51. So in 10 years it’s probably going to be 71.”
Among the players who have already signed up for the first UTS competition are world No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 8 Matteo Berrettini, No. 10 David Goffin and No. 22 Benoit Paire. And while it’s not Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal playing on Centre Court at Wimbledon, Mouratoglou hopes that the product will be attractive and interesting enough to build an audience that can sustain itself as an entity alongside the pro tours once they do resume.
Plans are already in motion, Mouratoglou said, for UTS matches every weekend through the end of the year, even if there are tournaments played later in the summer and fall.
“We want to offer a different way to showcase tennis,” Mouratoglou said. “I think there’s a space for both people who like traditional tennis, but also people who wouldn’t watch tennis but would watch UTS. And maybe some will like both. I definitely think we can live next to each other, it’s just about how successful we’ll be. If we are successful, maybe we’ll be able sit down with the ATP and WTA and that would be great for tennis if it works because the whole industry is going to benefit from new fans.”
And this is a critical time for tennis to build them. Federer will soon turn 39 and announced Wednesday that he needed a second arthroscopic procedure on his right knee and won’t play the rest of the season no matter what. Nadal is 34, Novak Djokovic is 33 and there are only two players under 30 right now on the men’s side who have even appeared in a Grand Slam final.
While there’s a lot more young star power on the women’s tour, it will be a huge blow to the sport when the 38-year-old Williams decides not to play anymore.
Mouratoglou understands the struggle coming for tennis when those legends are gone, particularly in an era where it’s difficult to get fans to commit three hours to watching a match. And though he wouldn’t reveal exactly the format UTS will use until a formal announcement Thursday, it is guaranteed to move along quicker than traditional tennis matches.
“I want tennis to be in our century,” Mouratoglou said. “UTS is taking the best of the past and trying to bring it back but also change the format to be more adapted to how people are consuming videos nowadays. And the goal is to bring new fans on board because the show is going to be faster, more dynamic, much more surprising, more emotional and it’s going to be more of a sprint than a marathon. Nobody is watching a marathon anymore. So we have two options — either we say young people are stupid or we adapt to them.”
It also seems likely much of the success or failure of this venture will hinge on the players and how well they’ll play into the showmanship aspect of the event.
Mouratoglou has been a proponent of on-court coaching because it gives fans a window into what’s really happening on the court and engages them in a different way. He also thinks players today have just as much personality as they did in the 1980s, but they have allowed themselves to become too generic on the court because they’re afraid of hurting their image.
One notable exception is Nick Kyrgios, who has been subject to numerous fines and warnings for his behavior on the court, which encourages more players to show absolutely no emotion.
“I think the biggest star in the history of tennis was John McEnroe,” Mouratoglou said. “He was the ultimate guy who shows emotions. I think we need to bring more authenticity and I explained that to the players, what we’re doing and why and that people like authenticity which is lacking in tennis. It’s (normally) a competition to be the most politically correct, which isn’t very interesting because it’s not real. We’re humans and we’re interesting because we’re not perfect and it’s great. No problem.”
The UTS should at the very least provide some interesting content for tennis-starved American fans on its web platform (utslive.tv) and limited coverage on the Tennis Channel. That’s also an opportunity since it’s unclear whether the USTA will be able to pull off a U.S. Open this year in a proposed bubble-like environment with all players staying in a tightly controlled hotel on Long Island and reduced entourages.
Already this week, Djokovic expressed doubts he would be interested in playing under the USTA’s proposed restrictions, and Nadal’s comments on the setup have suggested that he might focus instead on the rescheduled French Open two weeks later. Mouratoglou speculated that Williams might not want to play in the tournament if she had to be separated from her daughter for three weeks.
But he said Williams does plan to play tennis again when things are back up and running and that she’ll ramp up her preparation when there’s a tournament date locked in.
“She really needed rest so she did that for a few weeks, doing nothing and then re-started her fitness every day and then started to practice,” Mouratoglou said. “Tennis players have had short-term goals all their lives so it’s difficult to find the extra motivation to really push to the next level. You’re thinking why would I push to the next level because maybe I’m playing in six months? Doesn’t make sense.
“With our players at the Mouratoglou Academy, once they knew they were participating in UTS, immediately you could see their focus change. They knew they were competing, a real tournament with prize money against top players and they wanted to do well. Boom, motivation comes back 100 percent. As soon as Serena will know, I’m sure her motivation will be 100% back.”