Adjust by experimenting: a new normal for tennis players and viewers

Adjust by experimenting: a new normal for tennis players and viewers

There were no snacks or beverages to share with one another because for this UTR Pro Match Series experience, Joel Drucker arranged a Google Hangout with five of his hitting partners.

Three games in, my buddy B.J. had already detected a troubling trend. “They’ve each already missed two down-the-line backhands,” he said. “If you haven’t played in a while, why would you even try a shot like that so early in the match?”

B.J. is an engineer, as analytical and logical as anyone I’ve ever known. For more than 25 years, we have discussed what we’ve seen watching tennis matches—anyone from a league doubles match to the very best in the world.

Alongside four other guys I play with at my tennis club in the San Francisco Bay Area, we were watching Danielle Collins take on Amanda Anisimova in the first women’s edition of the UTR Pro Match Series on Tennis Channel. 

“Collins looks she’s hitting every ball as hard as she can,” said B.J. Soon, those errant backhands began to connect, as Collins won the first set, 4-1.

“At least we don’t have to bring the chips,” said Bob, another tennis mate of mine. A fellow lefty, Bob often balances humor with insight. “If this tournament wasn’t airing in the morning,” he said, “and I didn’t have to also be paying attention to a conference call for work, I’d be drinking a beer right now.”

There were no snacks or beverages to share with one another because none of us occupied the same room. For this tennis party, I’d arranged a Google Hangout – five viewers, each able to see and talk to one another, peering at their respective monitors, taking in the tennis, freely letting me interrogate, interrupt, listen and speak. In normal times, we would typically gather around a TV set at our club, likely engaged in the same kind of dialogue as we shuttled to and from our own tennis games and bantered with our fellow members.   

But these days, life is far from normal. Our club’s courts just reopened this week, complete with various new public health protocols in everything from tennis balls to doubles. All common space remains closed.  

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Consider the UTR tournament a keen and noble experiment, a chance to bring contemporary professional tennis back into living rooms. Collins and Anisimova would be followed by Alison Riske and Ajla Tomljanovic. Said Anisimova while on the pre-event Zoom press conference call two days before the event, “It’s been really difficult not playing tournaments at all.” Riske was happy for the chance to compete, saying that, “Just to have something makes us feel normal again.”

Fortunately, as dialogue swiftly overcame distance on the Google Hangout, normal resurfaced rapidly. And as I’ve learned when covering tennis, it is one thing to view a match in deep and solitary concentration, aware that you must write a story heavily focused on what happens between the lines.

It’s another when you watch it with a flock of thoughtful recreational players, armed with eclectic opinions, passions and knowledge. Said Bob, “So much tennis is being broadcast these days that you can follow the game more.” He’s not joking. Many a time, while I’ve been in Paris, London, Melbourne, New York and other spots, I’ve received texts from Bob, sharing his thoughts on a player currently in action. 

But tennis is not a game viewed strictly by observers. Everyone on the Google Hangout pointed out that at least 50 percent of the reason he watches tennis is to improve his own game. “I’d always rather play than watch,” said Adin, a fleet-footed all-court player. This of course is very different from football, baseball, and basketball fans.

Brian, who stands well over six feet tall and can strike a lethal forehand, said how much he enjoyed watching players with similar artillery. B.J. wondered how the four power baseliners competing at the UTR event would feel about having to come back from a layoff and deal with the treacherous drop shots and angles of a player like Su-Wei Hsieh. Jimmy, a nimble baseliner, had told me prior to the call that he hardly missed watching tennis. But as the Collins-Anisimova match entered the second set, Jimmy said, “this sure beats watching golf.”  

As always happens when many are gathered, there were intriguing digressions, and not just on strokes or tactics. As Collins and Anisimova continued, there was much talk about how this current format differs from the way we’re used to seeing professional tennis.

“They call their own lines,” said Adin. “That’s very interesting.” There followed a lengthy discussion about the implications of what this means. Would there be cheating? Maybe. Would a player follow the longstanding USTA “Code” and call his or her own shot out? Questionable. After nearly two games of talk on this topic, it was agreed that professional matches would eventually need linesmen.

While officials were missed, there was appreciation for the faster pace between points, what Bob referred to as the “cadence.” As Brian observed, “You can’t just look at four or five balls and then toss the one you don’t want to the ball boy.” A cry went up for robots to pick up balls. A brainstorm ensued: Fans should send in videos of themselves watching tennis and attempt to audition for the chance to sit courtside at future UTR event, akin to the game show, “The Price is Right.”  

Call this too a journalistic experiment, simultaneously trying to watch a match and interview five fans who have collectively watched hundreds of hours of tennis and played even more. Discordant as this was, the good news is that I can easily arrange one-on-one interviews with all five. So long as they bring the quips, I’ll in time provide the chips.