Tennis fans are an interesting breed. In my few years covering the sport full time, I quickly learned never to underestimate the serious fan’s knowledge or passion for the sport. No matter how deep you dig on a subject, there’s sure to be someone lurking on tennis Twitter who has dug deeper. If someone claims to be a tennis fan, there’s a good chance he or she is pretty hardcore.
Just like “no man’s land” on the court, for tennis fandom, there doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground. There’s no safe space for the casual tennis fan, if such a thing even exists. Tennis has no shortage of 3 a.m. alarm setters who could stump the proverbial Schwab in a trivia contest, but lacks fans who have a basic understanding of the different tournament tiers, a reasonable familiarity with the world’s Top-50 players, and watch more than just the Grand Slams. Patrick Mouratoglou is hoping to change that.
“Ten years ago the average age of the tennis fan was 51 years old,” says Mouratoglou, CEO and Chairman of tennis’ newest league, the Ultimate Tennis Showdown. “Today it’s 61, in ten years it’s going to be 71.”
“The average age of tennis fans is 61, and it keeps getting older and older.”— UTS | Ultimate Tennis Showdown (@UTShowdown) June 9, 2020
Stating that tennis shouldn’t be scared of change, @pmouratoglou looks into alternative ideas to renew its fan base.#UTShowdown pic.twitter.com/nQtWj1xLHC
While Mouratoglou’s age statistic is certainly up for debate, his claim that younger generations are craving quick, concentrated, and ready-to-consume content, is not.
To combat the status quo, Mouratoglou’s league has turned the sport as we know it upside down. Timed quarters— NBA and NFL style— will ensure a one-hour match duration. Players will be mic’d up (an element that should be incorporated more often). Players and coaches can call timeouts. Interviews will occur mid-match, not just at the end. A loosened conduct code encourages players to show more emotion.
Mouratoglou believes tennis has forced players to “tune down their personalities and fit into a mold.” One of his many goals is to provide the players with a platform to openly share their personalities and emotions with fans. “This will allow for fans to rediscover the players for who they really are and what they stand for.”
One of the biggest problems that exists with the consumption of professional tennis is the unintentional disregard for players ranked outside the Top 10, or who don't own extensive major accolades. It’s easy to focus solely on the other-worldly accomplishments of mononymous champions like Novak, Rafa, Roger and Serena, but the rest of the players are really good too. There’s almost always a great story behind every professional athlete, but those narratives are being drowned out by this golden era.
To combat this, UTS has provided each player with a nickname, not unlike professional wrestling. Instead of viewers wondering why they should care about a match between Dustin Brown and David Goffin, UTS hopes showcasing “The Artist” (Brown) vs. “The Wall” (Goffin) will instantly capture attention.
“The Undertaker” vs. “Kane” is certainly more exciting than Mark William Calaway vs. Glenn Thomas Jacobs. Matteo Berrettini is “The Hammer”, Stefanos Tsitsipas is now “The Greek God” (a fitting name if you’ve ever seen Tsitsipas’s golden locks and imposing stature up close). Richard Gasquet is “The Virtuoso”, while Benoit Paire and his ever-changing hairdo is fittingly named “The Rebel.”
In true video game spirit, players and coaches can use “power-ups” in the form of seven different UTS Cards. Think Mario Kart meets tennis.
One card affords the a player an extra serve, one card removes an opponent's serve. One card awards three points for a winner, another card awards two points if a player successfully wins a point at net. One card forces your opponent to serve and volley, while another forces your opponent to win the point in three shots or less. Thankfully the chair umpire will be assisted by an official whose sole job is to keep track of the time and use of the specific cards.
While the event may sound a bit cartoonish, Mourataglou should be applauded for trying something so radical and unique. With ATP and WTA tournaments off the calendar until at least August 3rd, now is the perfect time to experiment.
“A lot of people are going to be against it, but that’s OK,” Mouratoglou says. “If you really love tennis, you want it to survive, to live, to develop. Loving tennis, in my opinion, is embracing change so that our sport doesn’t fall behind the other sports.”
Mourotaglou's first mission is accomplished as the event has already created quite the buzz on social media. The tennis-starved hardcore fans are sure to tune in, so perhaps the gimmicks and rule changes will attract a younger, more excitable fanbase. Whether he knows it or not, Mourotaglou seems to be aiming for a Happy Gilmore like effect on the sport. After all, a little noise never hurt anybody.