Opinion: Abrams says first day of women's tennis in West Palm Beach was a failure on many levels
Riske, Anisimova, Collins and Tomljanovic all struggled with their games and the rules.
This is not tennis.
When you only have to win four games in a no-ad format to win a “Fast 4” set, this is not tennis.
When you only have to win eight total games in games that have no deuces, this is not tennis.
When a full match lasts only 40 minutes, and the 20-second serve clock has been eliminated, this is not tennis.
When the players call their own lines so quietly that their opponent often doesn’t know whether a shot was called in or out, this is not tennis.
What the UTR has tried to sell us as a re-opening of professional tennis competition, you can decide for yourself, but I can assure you that you’ll agree: This is not tennis.
The Friday Women’s exhibition round-robin in West Palm Beach, played under bright sunshine, 85 degree heat, and gusts of wind, was supposed to give professional tennis players an opportunity to compete for prize money. It did. It was also supposed to give we fans an opportunity to take in some much needed live tennis. It didn’t. The venue seemed to work. The weather cooperated as much as could be expected. The players showed up, more out of shape and less sharp than I would have expected, but certainly eager to play. The TV coverage was, at best, mediocre, as the announcers often talked over the action, and the drone cameras missed too many points coming out of commercial breaks. Additionally, it was very confusing, as each player called her own lines, yet their hand signals calling the balls were inconspicuous, and their verbal announcements were seriously restrained—enough to make them inaudible. Strangely, even the players themselves often seemed not to recognize what line call her opponent was making, which led to confusion.
The quality of play was mediocre and the spectacle itself was hard to watch. Hopefully those who produced today’s event will recognize its shortcomings and attempt to fix them before Saturday’s three matches, but I’d be shocked if that happens. I’d expect more mediocrity as the weekend progresses. About the best thing I can volunteer about today’s happenings is that it was live, so no one knew who would win before the event hit the little screen.
The first “Fast 4” match featured 18-year old American Amanda Anisimova and former two-time NCAA Women’s Champion Danielle Collins. Anisimova came out with neither a sharp game nor any concept of how to compete in this format. Collins bullied her around the court until, mercifully, the match ended in Collins’ favor, 4-1, 4-2. The very first game of the match was a microcosm of the entire eleven games played: Anisimova erred twice to start, Collins double faulted and then made an unforced error of her own to get to 30-all, after which first Anisimova sailed a forehand long and then sailed a backhand return of serve long to surrender game one. One game, six errors. Get my drift? After 40 minutes of error after error, and no handshake or even acknowledgement from the players that they were done, Alison Riske and Alja Tomljanovic entered the court to start their own Fast 4 excuse for a match.
Tomljanovic tamed Riske 4-3, 4-1, a match in which the Aussie took the first short set in a tiebreaker. Tomljanovic, who is now a Florida resident, appeared both sharper and more aggressive than Riske, winning points when she actually advanced to the net. Although Riske appeared to play her way into the match, it was so short in length that she never appeared able to get the momentum that a player can capture in a traditional length set. But the level of play of this match was far superior to the first one, and was a lot more entertaining, although it was still short enough in length to be disconcerting for a viewer. I can only imagine how disconnected the players felt.
The third match of the day featured the return of Anisimova, this time against Riske, who never really left the court. Anisimova had, by then, changed her clothes while Riske simply continued to play in her attire, completely drenched by the Florida sun in just about 45 minutes. Anisimova appeared to have much more rhythm in her second go-round, and even hit some winners, particularly with her backhand down-the-line passing shot. The 18-year-old jumped out to win the first four games (and the first set, 4-0) before Riske spent all of 15 minutes tying the match by winning her own love set, 4-0. Riske jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the third set, but as the set progressed, Animisova seemed to get more of her game back, and hit a few running forehands for winners, which was nice to see after her dismal showing just an hour or so ago. The young American came all the way back to set up a final set tiebreaker with the game score notched at 3-3. When push came to shove, however, Anisimova’s groundies were too shaky, her serve, particularly to the ad court (why doesn’t the WTA sponsor a weekend workshop where ALL of the women on Tour can learn the righty’s topspin serve to the ad court?), was a liability, and she never ventured forward towards the net. Although Anisimova held a couple of match points in the third set breaker, Riske came away with a tough fought 0-4, 4-0, 4-3 win, to pick up her first win of the day. Anisimova dropped to 0-2 in the Round Robin, but should feel a sense of accomplishment going into Saturday’s full schedule of three more First 4 matches. After all, she had started the day looking like a lost lamb being prepped for slaughter.