UTS recap: What works, what needs work, what tennis can learn from it?

UTS recap: What works, what needs work, what tennis can learn from it?

“Modernity” is the third pillar of the Ultimate Tennis Showdown, and in that sense it succeeds: It feels modern, and for tennis, that’s a big step forward.

The first edition of the Ultimate Tennis Showdown (UTS) concluded with, well, a pretty good showdown. The final, between Matteo Berrettini and Stefanos Tsitsipas, ended in a sudden-death tiebreaker; in UTS, that means the first player to win two straight points wins the match. Berrettini saved a championship point with a stretch-volley winner, and then won the title with a running forehand pass on the next point.

The crowd-noise machine went wild.

UTS’s founder, Patrick Mouratoglou, couldn’t have asked for a better culmination to his five-weekend experiment in tennis disruption. For much of that time, the event had unfortunately been overshadowed by two other ill-fated tennis exhibitions, in Croatia and Atlanta, where fans were allowed to attend and several players tested positive for the coronavirus. So we should start by praising UTS, which was held in a fan-free bubble at Mouratoglou’s academy in Nice, France, for running a safe event.

How was UTS otherwise? For me, it started out jarring and ended up intriguing. Credit Mouratoglou for boldness. Rather than tweaking tennis’s rules, he threw them out and started over. Timed quarters, coaching timeouts, mid-match interviews, opportunities to “steal” your opponent’s serve and make your winners count for three points: Sometimes it felt like the only thing left from traditional tennis was the net.

“Diversity. Emotion. Modernity.” That’s Mouratoglou’s mantra for UTS. Those are three areas where he thinks tennis is deficient today, and the three things he hoped his format could bring back to the court. Did he succeed? It’s difficult to reach a verdict without seeing the reaction of fans, but here’s a look at what I thought worked, what could use work, and what tennis can take from UTS.

Ultimate Tennis Showdown

What Worked

1. A New Way to Connect With Players. In general, I thought the most important UTS innovation was to get the players to help sell the event, rather than just play it. Normally, the pros concentrate solely on winning, which makes sense, because that’s how they get paid. But it also means that they’ll object to doing anything else that might distract them during a match. Mouratoglou made it clear that they had to talk to the commentators and to their coaches on changeovers, and that they had to to do it in English. These would have been deal-breaking demands on tour, but the players complied in UTS, and it made a difference.

For example, through these conversations, we got a better understanding of the nuances of Tsitsipas’s sometimes-volatile relationship with his father, Apostolos, who became a character in the drama in his own right. We were introduced to the likable Benoit Paire behind the maniacal one. We saw the soft-spoken side of the hulking Berrettini. We learned that Corentin Moutet of France is a funny, irreverent guy with a personality that should appeal to younger fans. We heard David Goffin and his coach, Thomas Johansson, discuss tactical and technical details that could be profitably used by any recreational player. Most memorably, and crudely, we heard Richard Gasquet praise his countryman Paire’s lady-killing skills. “He never misses,” Gasquet said while shaking his head in amazement. Hey, we want them to express themselves, right?

These quick conversations weren’t deep or revelatory, but they added a new dimension to tennis by bringing us down onto the court with the players.

Tsitsipas chats with commentators during the final:

2. A Heightened Sense of Urgency. A 15-second serve clock; ground-level camera angles; 10-minute quarters; incentives for hitting winners; a scoring system in which every point counts; matches that end in an hour: The name of the UTS game is urgency. Mouratoglou believes that tennis is too slow for today’s consumption habits, especially among young people. He’s not wrong. UTS reduced the time that players had to recover between points, which in turn encouraged them to end the rallies more quickly. It’s not a coincidence that the champion, Berrettini, was also the heaviest hitter.

Like I said, at first the pace of play was jarring; there was little time even for replays. But I became accustomed to the relentlessness of UTS, to its focus on the scoreline rather than the shot-making. More important, my attention didn’t waver; there was no time to look away from the TV screen.

Berrettini, apparently, felt the same way. After going back to the traditional format at another event last week, he said, “I felt the game was too slow. I was like, ‘Come on, serve.’”

3. Gimmicks That Made a Difference. Players are allowed to use “UTS cards” to disrupt the run of play for a short period of time. One lets them “steal” their opponent’s serve. Another makes their winners count for three points. A third lets them take their opponent’s first serve away.

At first, these seemed to me to be a step too far, as well as confusing. But they made the matches more competitive and unpredictable, and introduced tactical questions that normally aren’t part of the game. In the final, Berrettini and Tsitsipas each turned around a quarter with a well-timed, three-point winner. It was also interesting to see how much risk they took in those situations, and how much risk they took when they only had one serve.

Ultimate Tennis Showdown

What could use work

1. There’s Little Time to Emote. Mouratoglou wanted to see emotion, to see the players express themselves, to see them smash their racquets and bring back the bad-boy days of the 1980s that he remembers so fondly. But apart from a couple of Paire meltdowns, I didn’t see a lot of extracurricular emoting. That’s probably because there wasn’t time for it. With the 15-second clock constantly counting down, the players had no choice but to get on with the next point. Berrettini even cited that as one of the things he liked about UTS: “You don’t have time to blame yourself,” he said.

Personally, I didn’t mind that the players didn’t act out more. I thought the changeover chats with the commentators were a better form of self-expression than a racquet smash, anyway.

2. Scoreline Comes Before Shotmaking. Watching UTS, it became clear to me, in a way that it never had before, how much we emphasize shotmaking in traditional tennis. Tennis fans, much more so than team-sports fans, live for artistic shots, and TV networks love to replay them over and over. In UTS, there wasn’t time to revel in the artistry of the game; here the focus was on force rather than finesse. UTS chose to use a ground-level camera angle at all times, rather than the elevated angle we usually see. This view conveyed the urgency of the points, but it didn’t reveal the artistry of the shots, or the tactics that were being used in the rallies. UTS is all about the score and the competition, which is a good way to keep viewers glued to the screen, and which for the most part I found appealing. It was also interesting to see a player like Gasquet, whose UTS nickname is The Artist, become a more forceful, attacking competitor, and use more of his net game. At 34, he made the semis.

“Diversity” is one of the pillars of UTS. By this, Mouratoglou means a diversity of playing styles; he was hoping to see more net-rushing and more serve-and-volley. And there was some of that. But mostly we saw what we see on tour: Big-serve, big-forehand tennis. 

I like that style of play, and I like fast-moving competition. But I like to revel in the game’s artistry, too. Maybe next time UTS could alternate camera angles to show more of the court from above, and incentivize net-rushing with a UTS card that awards more points for volley winners. 

Ultimate Tennis Showdown

What can tennis take from UTS?

Both tours should consider mandating in-match interviews and instituting headset coaching. The TV networks want it, and UTS shows why. (I wouldn’t advocate for these changes at the Grand Slams, though.) Both tours should also consider going to 20-second shot clocks. A team competition like the ATP Cup might also consider the UTS format, which fosters a team-sports energy.

The best option, of course, would be for UTS to succeed as an alternative format—like Twenty-20 cricket—that can fit comfortably into a two-hour TV window in the evening, and that would be played by men and women. This is a long way off, of course, and it’s not clear now whether the players would want to be part of something like UTS once the coronavirus crisis is over, or whether fans would want to watch it. But “modernity” is the third pillar of UTS, and in that sense it succeeds: It feels modern, and for tennis that’s a big step forward.

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