Neal Abrams' Tennis Report: What's going on with the Ultimate Tennis Showdown, the Credit One Bank Invitational and the U.S. Open?
Professional Tennis has been shut down since the end of February, and both the WTA and ATP have extended the cancelation of their pro tours until at least the end of July. Still, news in the tennis world continues, and a few non-sanctioned exhibitions have started to pop up, like budding tulips in the Spring sun. Here’s what’s new:
This weekend, the Ultimate Tennis Showdown (UTS) will continue, this time with the men playing an exhibition on the French Riviera. Committed players include Stephanos Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini, David Goffin, all ranked in the Top Ten, and Felix Auger-Alliasime, Benoit Paire, Richard Gasquet, Lucas Pouille, Alexi Popyrin, and Dustin Brown. These players, and others who will be announced at a time to be determined, will play a round-robin schedule over the next five weeks, and the players will be compensated based on their ranking (fans will be in attendance, and are much more likely to want to see higher ranked players play), their record (winning players will get 70% and losers 30% of each weekly purse), and each player will share in the advertising and television revenue generated from the event. The format for the matches had not been officially announced prior to the event, and we didn’t find out that it would be Fast Four scoring with no-ad games until the Saturday portion of the exhibition began. The preponderance of this new Fast Four scoring, in my opinion, is a severe negative for the game of tennis as a whole, as it eliminates the very real portion of competition based on stamina and fitness. Not only that, by reducing the games and matches in either time or points required to win, it either reduces or eliminates the varying degrees with which each player can combat once they are behind in the score. Because of this, the game appears more in the light of checkers than chess, having eliminated much of the mental fortitude required to become a winner, and thus a champion.
What might make this series interesting, however, are the live mics around the courts and possibly even on the players. The goal of the UTS is to show those who tune in more of what it’s like from the players’ perspective, which the Tours currently have legislated out. Ever since the Code of Conduct was implemented back in the 80’s by the ATP, as a result of what was considered “bad behavior”, the players have been severely discouraged from showing almost any kind of emotional response to the points and games played. In trying to attract new, younger fans, the UTS will televise much of what the Tours have filtered out, which should make the viewing experience new and more exciting. It appears that the UTS is trying to become just another legislative body in the pantheon of tennis acronyms (USTA, ITF, ATP, WTA, etc…), but their take on the game invites a fresh new perspective, which can only be looked on as a good thing. Whether or not they reach their goal of being an active contributor to the body of work that the sport has become, is suspect. But any mechanism that can serve to initiate new, younger fans to a game that shows today’s average fan to be 61 years old, can only be good. The scoring choice? Not so good.
After aborting the first venture of women’s pro tennis back in May when a Florida rainstorm interrupted the exhibition as the event was reaching its climax in West Palm Beach, the women are set to resume their “re-start” with the Credit One Bank Invitational in Charleston, South Carolina, next weekend. This new event will present itself as some kind of quasi team competition which will spotlight 16 singles matches and 8 doubles matches, with each team captained by either Madison Keys or Bethane Mattek-Sands, both Americans. The players committed to playing are headlined by 2019 U.S. Open Champion Canadian Bianca Andreescu and 2020 Australian Open Champion, South Florida’s own Sofia Kenin, which should be looked on as a coup for the event. Other players committed to playing are Sloane Stephens, Amanda Anisimova, Jennifer Brady, Danielle Collins, Emma Navarro, Alison Riske, and Shelby Rogers, all Americans. They will be joined by Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, and Canadians Genie Bouchard and Leylah Fernandez. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, it appears that players are somewhat confined to playing only “domestic” exhibitions, in lands where they have been left to self-quarantine over the past three months. For example, we’ll see in the very near future an event in Great Britain in which Brits Andy Murray, Kyle Edmunds and Dan Evans play. Other competitors will more than likely be other players from the Kingdom: England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.
No other information has been released on the Credit One Bank International as of yet, as it appears that another feature of these exhibitions is that the details for scoring and the like appear to be left either until the last minute, or only announced upon the beginning of the event itself. Left unsaid is who the “teams” that Keys and Mattek-Sands will lead will consist of, what the prize money will be, and who will be the presenters other than Credit One Bank. The Tennis Channel appears to be ready to provide live TV coverage of the event, but I don't know whether they plan to use drone cameras or a standard stationary crew. Nor have I discovered whether play-by-play announcers will be court-side and on site, or whether they will be in the Tennis Channel studios in Los Angeles, as they were for the UTR event. As the courts used will be on the site that the WTA has been playing at since 1973 in Charleston, it is assumed that the event will be played on the same Har-Tru courts that the women have grown to expect there, as I reported last week.
U.S. Open Preview
The USTA has been huddling consistently over the past couple of months trying to determine if they can present a 2020 Open, and if so, under what conditions and circumstances. It appears that the deadline for that binding decision is this coming week, after a final conference call with both the “management” side of the event, and the players takes place. This follows last week’s zoom conference call with up to 400 ATP players in which input was encouraged, and they were brought up to speed as to what has already been discussed within the USTA, and passed along to both the ITF and the Tours themselves.
What appears to be on the table at present, is a tournament which will have no-qualifying events for both the women and men, and limited doubles with only 24 teams for each draw. Additionally, it appears that the USTA is seriously considering shuttling in players and their one-person entourage from various sites around the globe on airplanes commandeered just to fly players to the Open. The governing body appears ready to house the players in specific airport-area hotels, and limit the traveling for the players that would not include Manhattan. In this way the competitors could be contained in a “bubble” and would be tested for the virus two to three times a week. Should a test turn up positive, then the contestant could be easily quarantined, and withdrawn from the tournament.
Discussed, but not considered likely at this time, was moving the Tour event held in Cincinnati to New York a week before the Open, as a sort of tune-up event for the Open itself. It was also discussed moving the tournament to either Florida (the USTA training headquarters in Lake Nona, adjacent to Orlando, seemed to be the spot most discussed) or to California (in the spot used for the Indian Wells event in the Coachella Valley) was a spot mentioned with enthusiasm. But neither option got too far, considering all the daunting new regulations that must be followed for player safety. So the discussion appears to be zeroing in on holding the event in Flushing Meadows, with no fans, smaller draws, and a ton of compromise conditions used for the eventual safety for all those involved. (Editor's Note: At this time, New York City appears to be much safer virus-wise than Florida or California, anyway.) To say that there has been a consensus as to these conditions would be a gross overstatement, as various players have voiced dissenting opinions for various reasons.
The Big Three on the men’s Tour have chimed in with different opinions. Roger Federer appears not to have much of an opinion now, because he has had a second, follow-up arthroscopic knee procedure to augment the one he had in February and a comeback in 2020 is off the table. But both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the Tour’s No. 1 and No. 2 players, have all but announced that they would not be available for the event, as proposed. Djokovic is strongly against a stipulation that each player be allowed only one “team member” to be included with each entrant, as a coach or training partner. Djokovic, evidently, believes that he couldn’t effectively compete with less than four other traveling partners on his “team,” and a proposal to hold an event with less than that number in a players’ entourage is unworkable for the Serbian. Although there is no coronavirus vaccine at this time, the world’s No. 1 also will not travel to any location or event that requires players to have been vaccinated against any virus, as he is against all vaccines, as a matter of course. Although this may not be meaningful at this point in time, it may be an issue when the 2021 calendar is announced, should a coronavirus vaccine be ready by then. Be that as it may, even the Australian Open is in talks as to whether to hold their event, presently scheduled to begin the third week of 2021.
Rafa Nadal is another story. Nadal also has indicated that as things are now, he is not likely to travel to New York City, the one-time epicenter of the virus, to play in an event scheduled to begin only ten weeks from now. Although Nadal’s decision appears to be the same as Djokovic’s, it is far more reasoned and because of that reasoning it appears more global in nature. Nadal has reasoned that this is not the time nor the place to resume tennis, and that as things appear currently, he would more likely be interested in entering the French Open, which is now scheduled to begin the week after the conclusion of the U.S. Open, and the ensuing delayed clay court season to be played on the Continent.
Not surprisingly, many international players appear to agree with Rafa, which makes this year’s Open, should it occur, likely to have a much-diluted field. Still, any problem presents an opportunity, and as international players weigh in against the Open, including leading women Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova, others, notably American Danielle Collins appear ready and willing to take advantage of any field that appears to be diluted in any way.