You forgot about the rain delays, didn’t you?
Unfortunately, as we discovered this weekend at the UTR Pro Match Series in West Palm Beach, Fla., the return of outdoor tennis also means the return of the elements and their destructively unpredictable ways. In this case, the rain in West Palm lasted for so long on Saturday and Sunday that the event was canceled before the finalists could even be determined. Danielle Collins and Ajla Tomljanovic walked off the court with a set still to play in their last round-robin match on Saturday, and never walked back on.
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That non-ending aside, the players involved—Collins, Tomljanovic, Amanda Anisimova, and Alison Riske—did get two days of tennis in, and each of them recorded at least one win in the round-robin, Fast4 format. As for fans, we had a chance to remember what it’s like to have the pro game as part of our weekend routine again. The sports world is inching open, and tennis is inching along with it.
What was notable about this second fan-free Florida exhibition? Here are three takeaways.
1. Tennis is still possible
Major League Baseball has put out a long list of new coronavirus-related rules that will need to be followed by players if and when that sport returns. There are so many—including “no spitting allowed”—that you might wonder whether it’s worth bringing the game back at all. I had thought the same thing might be true of tennis. What would we do about balls, towels, handshakes, changeovers, lines people? After the first two UTR series weekends, though, it seems as if these on-court obstacles can be hurdled.
The lines people sat on the other side of a fence, and the players made some of their own calls; this didn’t result in any arguments, though who knows whether that would be true in a real tournament. The players used their own sets of balls when they served, and they weren’t allowed to touch their opponents’. From what I could see, this potentially tricky change went smoothly. The women also picked up their own balls, and fetched their own towels. This meant we spent a lot of time watching them walk around the court between points, but I was never bothered by the delays. As for the post-match handshake, none of this weekend's four players seemed heartbroken at not having to do it. They mostly skipped the racquet tap, too.
“There’s going to be a lot of new adjustments, a lot of new rules that take shape when pro tennis goes back to playing,” Tennis Channel’s Lindsay Davenport said. “This was a test run.”
No one would ever say these changes are ideal, but they do seem doable, and that’s about all we can ask right now.
2. Competition is competition
As Andy Roddick said at the start of the weekend, put a camera on a court and some money on the line, and the competitive juices will start to flow. And that was true, especially for Collins and Anisimova.
Many of us wondered if Collins—sometimes known as Danimal—would be her old fiery, vocal self even in these low-stakes conditions. She was. She slammed a ball into a fence, banged her racquet on the court, screamed at herself after squandering big points, and generally pulverized the ball whenever she had a chance. In her intensity, she was a watchable as ever.
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The return to competition manifested itself in a different way for Anisimova. The teenager was tight and off her game to start. She lost her first two matches, and appeared to be on her way to losing her third as well. But as so often happens in real competition, once Anisimova won a couple of big 3-3 points and put herself on the scoreboard, she relaxed, swung freely, and became herself again.
It’s these types of reactions to pressure—inner-directed in Anisimova’s case; outer-directed in Collins’s case—that make tennis so compelling, whether it’s played at Wimbledon or on a backyard court in Florida.
3. Fan-free zones are…going to be an adjustment
“The biggest challenge for these players going forward is going to be no fans,” Davenport says. “Getting used to creating that atmosphere, creating that energy on the road.”
If others are like me, it’s also going to be a challenge for those of us watching at home. With no applause to punctuate points, I found it easier to be distracted and to lose track of exactly what was happening in a match. Was that an amazing shot? Was that an important point? Did I really see what I thought I just saw? We don’t realize it, but we take so many of our spectating cues from the people who are watching a match live. When we sense tension in the arena, we feel it more acutely at home.
Can we, like the players, learn to create that tension and atmosphere on our own? We’re probably not going to have a choice for quite some time. But like Roddick said, if there’s a camera on a court and something on the line—money, ranking points, a Grand Slams title—you’re going to get the old juices flowing. That goes for fans as much as it does for players.