The Ultimate Tennis Showdown has a lot of tricks up its sleeves, but it couldn’t subdue Mother Nature. After rain pushed pack the start date from Saturday, five matches were played on Sunday and five more are scheduled for Monday.
The first thing you'll notice when you tune in is the applause track. With no fans in the audience, 10 players at the Patrick Mouratoglou Academy in Nice, France competed in an entirely new game of tennis in front of an entirely empty stadium.
The second thing might be the (voluntary) dress code. On Sunday, many of the coaches and players donned Black Lives Matters shirts—the latter until they changed into match outfits. Mouratoglou explained that for every UTS card played, the tournament is donating $50 to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
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Then, of course, there’s all the new rules that are flipping tradition upside down. In case you’re not caught up, the format basics are: points are played nonstop for 10 minutes with two serves each for four quarters, on-court coaching is allowed with timeouts (in English), sudden-death is played out if tied at two quarters each, mid-match interviews are expected, there's just 15 seconds between points, and there are six UTS Cards that let the player do things like take away his opponent's first serve.
To start the day, Alexei Popyrin became the first player in history to win a UTS match by topping Dominic Thiem’s temporary replacement Elliot Benchetrit, 3-1. Dustin Brown picked up credit for the cheekiest start when he used a UTS card in his first second on court, but the hijinks didn’t faze Berrettini as he would win 3-1. Feliciano Lopez earned status as the first winner of a sudden death overtime quarter as he snuck past Lucas Pouille, 3-2 .
The fourth match of the day saw Richard Gasquet vs. David Goffin—or as UTS has named them, “The Virtuoso” vs. “The Wall”. The UTS cards ended up to be the most impactful rule of all. There's six options and before the match, the coaches decide which two will be used and each card can be used just once per quarter.
In quarter one, Gasquet raced to a 7-3 lead so Goffin played the "Winners Count x3" card, and with a second-serve-and-volley he earned the bonus points. It's the equivalent of sinking a three-pointer in basketball.
"I just felt it," Goffin said during the mid-match interview. "I had to come back into the quarter and I had to be aggressive to take the three points to use my UTS Card."
Gasquet played the same UTS card strategy right back, but didn't convert. He got a coaching pep talk via headset at 9-9, and then played the "Steal Serve" card to run away with the first quarter.
"Sorry, it's tiring," Gasquet said, apologizing for breathing hard. "First match we do after three months doing nothing, so I just try to recover."
In quarter two, the UTS Card "Winner Counts x3" made all the difference. At 8-6, Gasquet played the card, but failed to hit a winner in either of his two chances. Goffin responded by using the same card, and hitting an ace to get the bonus. The Belgian would grab the second quarter, 13-12.
"I think he played just great," Gasquet said mid-match. "I was thinking maybe at 8-6 I could go for those three points and I couldn't do it. I did my best."
Quarter three would be the most dramatic so far. Both players traded the two cards again, with neither gaining bonus points. At 11-all, only 0:06 seconds were remaining, meaning the next point would decide the quarter winner.
Sensing fatigue in his pupil, Gasquet's coach Julien Cassaigne called a 30-second coaching timeout. The Frenchman got his breather in, and Goffin would double fault the deciding point, with music interrupting his second serve.
In quarter three, Gasquet looked out of gas as Goffin cruised to a 15-9 "set" win complete with a converted "Winner Counts x3" card. Despite Goffin having all of the momentum, the sudden-death format reset the match.
In overtime, there are no UTS cards and players alternate serves until someone wins two points in a row. Goffin served first, and Gasquet unleashed a running cross-court passing shot winner to set up match point. Somewhat anti-climatically, a netted Goffin forehand handed Gasquet the 3-2 win.
After seeing mid-match interviews between each quarter and even ahead of the sudden-death round, there were no post-match interviews.