Does tennis need to be disrupted? Patrick Mouratoglou thinks so

Does tennis need to be disrupted? Patrick Mouratoglou thinks so

Starting Saturday, he’ll bring us his vision for the sport’s future, the Ultimate Tennis Showdown. We look ahead at his new league, and this weekend’s two other high-quality exhibitions.

With Roger Federer hanging up his racquet until January and the US Open debate raging on, maybe the best thing a tennis fan can do right now is put the future aside and concentrate on the present. That’s where this weekend’s special events come in. Three of them will be held in Europe—in France, Serbia and the Czech Republic—and all will feature Top 10 players in non-traditional formats.

Below is a look at who’s playing, and what scoring systems they’ll be using. Each exhibition will be held outdoors, with no fans in attendance—aside from the Adria Tour, which has sold a limited number of tickets—and social-distancing rules in place, and each will be broadcast either on Tennis Channel or Tennis Channel Plus.

*****

Ultimate Tennis Showdown (UTS)

Location: Nice, France
Surface: Hard court
Dates: Each weekend from June 13–14 to July 11–12
Live Streaming: UTSlive.tv

Players include Stefanos Tsitsipas, David Goffin, Benoit Paire, Richard Gasquet, Dustin Brown, Lucas Pouille, Matteo Berrettini, and Feliciano Lopez. Dominic Thiem will join UTS next weekend.

There’s an old saying in U.S. politics: “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Patrick Mouratoglou seems to have heard it, because he has taken the opportunity afforded by the coronavirus lockdown to launch what he hopes will become an entirely new professional tennis league—and frankly, an entirely new approach to playing and presenting the sport. It’s called UTS. Its first series of events starts Saturday, and will continue each weekend until the middle of July.

If you believe Mouratoglou, “tennis is in a danger zone” today, because the average fan is 61 years old and “increasing with each year.” The game, he believes, “desperately needs to reinvent itself.” Unlike so many others who make the same complaint, Mouratoglou is taking the reinvention process into his own hands.

“Someone has to do it,” he told reporters on Thursday.

Mouratoglou and his UTS colleagues want to take tennis back to what they consider its glory years, the 1980s, when bad boys roamed the courts and there was more than one way to play the game.

“If [Nick] Kyrgios is filling up a stadium, there’s a reason for it,” Mouratoglou said. “We need Kyrgios, but we also need David Goffin,” he adds, emphasizing that a broader variety of personalities on court will appeal to a broader variety of fans.

The UTS mantra is “Diversity. Emotion. Modernity.” Mouratoglou wants to promote younger players, and encourage them to show more emotion. He thinks that, since the '80s, the game’s code of conduct has made it harder for players to be themselves. In UTS matches, new-school irreverence will be in, and old-fashioned decorum will be out—within reason, of course.

“I’m not asking them to do crazy things,” Mouratoglou said, when he was asked if he thought it would be hard for the players to shift emotional gears for UTS. “I just want authenticity. I want them to be themselves.”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the changes we’ll see in UTS. Coaches will be on the court, and they’ll be able to call timeouts (they also must coach in English). Players will receive a set number of “UTS cards” that they can use at their discretion, and which will allow them to, say, take away an opponent’s first serve, or make one of their winners count for three points.

Most radical of all may be the scoring system. Matches will be timed, and divided into four 10-minute quarters, like basketball games. Whoever is ahead in points at the end of each quarter will win that quarter; whoever wins more quarters wins the match. If players are tied at 2-2, there’s a sudden death tiebreaker—the first player to win two straight points wins. Matches shouldn’t last more than an hour.

“A lot of people are going to be against it, but that’s OK,” Mouratoglou said with a smile. Judging by the early social-media reaction, many fans already are.


WATCH: Mouratolgou on the Ultimate Tennis Showdown


Mouratoglou says tennis needs to be “disrupted.” That’s not easy to do; just ask Gerard Pique, who has taken sharp criticism for overhauling the Davis Cup. What’s interesting about Mouratoglou’s ideas is that he’s not just thinking of tennis as a sport; he’s thinking of it as a media product. In planning UTS, he says he didn’t just look at how fans watch sports today, he looked at how they consume various forms of media.

Instead of watching two-hour movies, we watch one-hour TV shows. Instead of reading articles, we look at tweets. He thinks the same will be true for tennis: Instead of watching best-of-five, or even best-of-three, people will sit down for a match they know will end in an hour. This TV-centric (or streaming centric) focus reminds me of how WCT became successful in the early 1970s. With the coronavirus keeping us out of arenas and inside our homes for the foreseeable future, it makes more sense than ever.

But Mouratoglou also knows tennis well enough to know that he’s not going to displace the Grand Slams or the tours.

“We can have two leagues,” he says.

For now, his league will be for men only, but he wants to make it dual-gender as soon as he can. By the end of this year, he’d like to have 50,000 subscribers to the UTS stream.

“The first goal is to have people like it,” he says.

The Mouratoglou vision for the future will begin on Saturday, on a hard court at his academy in Nice, where 10 players will gather for the next five weekends: Tsitsipas, Goffin, Paire, Gasquet, Brown, Pouille, Popyrin, Berrettini, Lopez and, starting next weekend, Thiem. That’s a decent mix of the high-quality (Thiem, Tsitsipas, Goffin) and the entertaining (Paire, Brown). They’ll play round-robin matches for four weekends, with the winners advancing to a knock-out stage to be held July 11th and 12th.

“UTS will inevitably provoke disruption,” Mouratoglou says.

Does tennis need a disrupter? It’s safe to say that Wimbledon isn’t going to turn into a UTS event any time soon, but it’s also safe to say that there’s a place in the game for more irreverence and shorter matches, and the desire for both is probably only going to grow. For now, UTS will give us something to talk about. That’s about all we can ask for in 2020.

*****

Adria Tour

Locations: Belgrade, Serbia, and Zadar, Croatia
Surface: Clay
Dates: June 13–14 and June 20–21

Players include Novak Djokovic, Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric, Marin Cilic

UTS isn’t the only experimental game in town this weekend. The Adria Tour, which will be played in Belgrade this weekend, and Zadar the following weekend, will use the Fast4 format. Matches will be best-of-three; sets will be first to four, with a tiebreaker at 3-3; and games will be no-ad.

Adria also has a strong field, especially for the first weekend. Among those scheduled to appear in Belgrade are Djokovic, whose foundation is involved in staging the event, Thiem, Zverev and Dimitrov. In Zadar, Thiem and Zverev will be replaced by Coric and Cilic.

Adria will give us a lot of tennis: Eight matches on the two Saturdays, and five more on the two Sundays. It may not have the futuristic flash of UTS, but I’m guessing that the competitive juices will flow. Typically, exhibitions are a break from the tour, a chance for the players to relax. This will be the reverse. These guys will finally have a chance to get off the couch and do what they do best again.

*****

Tipsport Charity Cup

Location: Prague
Surface: Clay
Dates: June 13–15; June 29–July 1; July 11–13; July 25–27

Players include Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova, Marketa Vondrousova, Karolina Muchova, Barbora Strycova, Katerina Siniakova

The UTS and Adria Tour events envision a tennis future with shorter matches and chattier players. But the Tipsport event in Prague may be more realistic. Its future is one where the pros spend much of their time inside their own national borders, competing with and against their countrymen and women.

That the nation in question is the Czech Republic, and that the players are from the WTA makes sense. The Czech Fed Cup team has been a juggernaut over the last decade, and few players anywhere relish the team-tennis experience as much as Kvitova, Pliskova or Strycova. This event may be part reunion, and part intra-squad scrimmage. Either way, it will be good to see them all on one court again.