A Handful of a Summer: Tennis begins the next phase of its reopening

A Handful of a Summer: Tennis begins the next phase of its reopening

From the coronavirus abyss, pro tennis slowly reemerged around the world. The lessons it heeds will be essential to what happens from here.

“The big man on campus became a ball kid.”

That's what Tracy Austin said, shortly after midnight Eastern Time, as she called the Credit One Bank Invitational on Tennis Channel in June. The two-time US Open champion wasn’t hallucinating after a long day of commentary: Bob Moran, tournament director of the 16-player women’s event in Charleston, S.C., was filling in for a ball kid whose curfew had arrived because of a backed-up schedule.

Using a special tube to pick up tennis balls and propel them to players, while wearing a mask on his face and gloves on his hands, Moran was as safeguarded as could be at a sporting event during the pandemic. The only things that weren’t clean were his blue shoes, now stained by green clay (as anyone who plays on Har-Tru knows well).

“I really enjoyed that experience,” Moran says of his late substitution. “You can watch tennis up close with great seats, but there are no better seats then being on court.”

Credit One Bank Invitational

It was an all-hands-on-deck operation in Charleston this June, even if there weren’t many hands to begin with: no more than 100 people, players and coaches included, were allowed to be on site at the same time. Despite that limitation, the Credit One Bank Invitational marked the height of tennis’ summer-long reopening. Held at the same venue as the WTA’s Volvo Car Open, it featured six days of singles and doubles matches from a field whose quality (if not quantity) rivaled many WTA tournaments. Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and Victoria Azarenka took part in the team competition, along with Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, who at one point asked Moran for a pair of balls to serve. There was a smile on her face, and there was surely another behind the face mask.

The event wasn’t just a high point over the past several months—a stretch in which the sport earned criticism for the reckless, Novak Djokovic-led Adria Tour, and was later questioned for allowing fans into events in Atlanta and West Virginia, even as those states saw rises in COVID-19 cases. It was also a blueprint for the US Open. In Charleston, players stayed at a single hotel, within walking distance to the venue; they were tested multiple times on arrival; and they were stationed in separate suites around the stadium to promote social distancing. Many of these protocols will be used on a larger scale at the US Open, where the most important results will not only be wins and losses, but negative and positive virus tests.

“The amount of worry regarding the health and safety of everyone involved was taxing,” Moran says. “There wasn’t a morning I woke up looking quickly to my phone to see if there were any issues overnight. Wearing masks and socially distancing are not in our nature, and it did keep constant reminding for everyone to comply with our protocols.”

As tour-level tennis makes its return, it must learn from the events held in its absence. Moran, who “knew we had to get it right,” has been sharing what he took away from the Credit One Bank Invitational with other tournament directors. These lessons not only apply to health and safety, though, but to innovation—a quality tennis has long struggled with. But in these austere times, ingenuity has become a necessity, and a successful one at that. In South Carolina, there was Moran’s ball-capturing device, among other efforts. In southern France, there was the Ultimate Tennis Showdown.

Dustin Brown was one of 10 players to compete in the Ultimate Tennis Showdown, a competition whose motto is "Diversity. Emotion. Modernity." At the end of the first installment, Matteo Berrettini defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in a dramatic, sudden-death final. Alexander Zverev and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova won UTS2. (Ultimate Tennis Showdown)

Designed by Patrick Mouratoglou as an alternative to the pro tours, UTS is to tennis as the Elam Ending is to basketball: a different way to determine a winner. Four quarters (the player who wins the most points over 10 minutes wins the quarter), “UTS Cards” that change the value and conditions of a point (think Magic: The Gathering, for tennis), and a first-to-win-two-consecutive-points overtime may sound bizarre, which Mouratoglou acknowledges. But he also asks: must every single professional tennis tournament adhere to the same, time-honored format?

When the only tournaments that differentiate themselves are Grand Slams, where men play best-of-five, and year-end championships, which use a round-robin format, other events should consider implementing some of UTS’ spirit to separate themselves from the pack and offer unique value. (Having to win three quarters, or two quarters plus a sudden-death session, to win in UTS is effectively a best-of-five format that both men and women could use.)

“I actually love tennis the way it is,” Mouratoglou said, just before UTS’ month-long series began in June. “But I realize also that it’s a bit old-fashioned. The world has changed a lot these past 40 years. The way people consume sport, the way they consume videos has completely changed, and tennis hasn’t changed at all.”

"We can have two leagues," says Mouratolgou to the question about UTS’ longterm viability. He also wants the league to play to players’ personalities. "If [Nick] Kyrgios is filling up a stadium, there’s a reason for it." (Ultimate Tennis Showdown)

Once upon a time, Laver Cup’s staggered scoring system seemed radical, but it was emulated this summer in Charleston, Atlanta and at a UTR Pro Series event in Spain. UTS’ format isn’t for everyone, but the prospect of definitively timed tennis matches in a tournament without single elimination—which ensures the event gets more out of its marquee attractions—is something many of the game’s stakeholders could get behind, even if for just a week or two.

“Watching Fast4 and Laver Cup, there’s never any dull moments in the game,” says Dustin Brown, who competed in the Ultimate Tennis Showdown and helped lead his own event, the Tennis Point Exhibition Series, in Germany. “I think it keeps [fans] interested.”

Brown’s exhibition, which began in early May and was the first recognized event in pro tennis’ reopening, used the Fast4 scoring format, along with men’s and women’s UTR Pro Series events in West Palm Beach, Fla. Fast4 has gained some traction among pros, and it was a fitting way for the sport to announce its return.

The "racquet tap" has replaced the high-five between doubles partners, as well as the traditional post-match handshake between singles opponents. (Credit One Bank Invitational)

Like it or not, the coronavirus has given tennis a reset button—a rare opportunity to reconsider everything about itself. The sport would be wise not to let it pass. Of course, safety must be considered first and foremost. On the surface, that shouldn’t be a problem, with tennis one of the safest sports to play from a social-distancing perspective. But because this is 2020, there’s a catch: tour-level tennis’ global nature demands international travel, which remains problematic.

If there was a commonality to tennis events this summer, it was that they were inherently local in composition. That will be difficult, if not impossible, for the tours to overcome, which could be reflected in player fields. But players are only one part of the equation in the new normal. There’s linespersons—at the US Open, there won’t be any outside of the two main courts. There’s fans—there won’t be any in Flushing Meadows, but anyone who attends a tournament in the foreseeable future will need to be extremely mindful.

And there’s announcers. Will they make the trip to tournaments around the world? Austin made her remarks 2,500 miles west of Charleston, in Los Angeles. Now that’s taking social distancing seriously.