Pro tennis is taking an abrupt turn this week, transitioning from the stately strawberries and cream and awestruck hush of Wimbledon to a relatively new event that will encourage fans to make noise, do mid-game interviews and get involved to be measured by a field of participants that also included “The Hot Shot”, “Big Foe” and “Bublik Enemy”.
The Ultimate Tennis Showdown will be held at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson for three days starting Friday. With games broken down into four eight-minute quarters, rules of conduct, and interaction between players and fans, the series aims to appeal to audiences used to enjoying entertainment in fast-paced, action-packed chunks.
Creator Patrick Mouratoglou, the Frenchman who coached Serena Williams for a decade, isn’t trying to replace what he calls “classic” tennis, which is the men’s and women’s pro tours. He wants to do away with stuffy traditions and “create a disruptive tour that really aims to seduce the new generation.” That means turning passive viewers into active participants.
“Tennis is one of the few sports in the world where you pay for a ticket and you’re told to shut up, which is a bit strange,” he said. “Fans are here to enjoy, scream, cry, laugh and make noise if they want to. It’s the case in the NBA, football, most sports, and I think tennis players just got used to it. And once they get used to it, they’ll be perfectly fine and I think they’ll enjoy playing even more.”
It’s not Wimbledon, and that’s fine. There is room for innovation and variety, especially as World Team Tennis is on hold for the second summer in a row. A spokesman for the US Tennis Assn. said the organization “supports events that contribute to the growth of tennis in the United States”
The “Hot Shot,” aka Southern California native Taylor Fritz, is rife with the series’ strategy of appealing to young and possibly first-time fans.
“It’s a great event for people who might not be tennis fans because there are completely new rules. So someone who isn’t a tennis fan would kind of be in the same boat as someone who is a tennis fan,” said Fritz, the world’s highest-ranked American, ranked 9th.
“The demographic, the average age of tennis fans is much higher and so I think it’s definitely good to try new things to adapt and just make it more exciting.”
That’s the premise behind UTS, which first appeared in 2020 but has stalled due to the pandemic. This fifth event will see players perform in front of more than a handful of spectators for the first time.
The round-robin matches will be played on Friday and Saturday, with the semifinals and final taking place on Sunday. The total prize money is $1.665 million. Each game has a prize pool of $111,000, with the winner receiving 70% and the loser receiving 30%. The final is about “winner take all”.
It’s a men’s competition, although Mouratoglou hopes to host a women’s series. Players are only allowed one serve per point to encourage rallies, and players wear headsets to be able to speak to their coaches. They are encouraged to speak to fans and each other.
The field is strong in terms of nicknames and rankings.
In addition to Fritz, the planned participants also include Frances Tiafoe (“Big Foe”), who reached the top 10 for the first time in June at number 10. Ben Shelton, 2022 Florida NCAA Champion and No. 39 in the world, is “The Mountain”. Alexander Bublik from Kazakhstan, No. 27 in the world, is “Bublik enemy”. Unfortunately ‘King’ Nick Kyrgios has retired due to a wrist injury but he will coach Tiafoe.
“Bublik Enemy” may not be well received, but Bublik appreciates the inspiration behind it.
“Such nicknames and a big show are nice. The tallest people in different sports have nicknames, but we don’t,” he said. “Maybe if we start from there we can slowly develop something bigger and that’s going to be very, very good for the game.”
Bublik, who recently reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon, said he enjoyed playing a 2021 UTS event at Mouratoglou’s academy in the south of France but prefers fans to be quiet during points so players can focus . Nevertheless, he finds the UTS format appealing.
“I definitely think we need this kind of event,” he said. “I think it’s really too early to talk about whether it will change anything or bring new fans to the circuit, but I think if we continue and go in the direction that we are going, I think UTS can to be a very, very big win for professional tennis.”
UTS marks a welcome return of high-level professional tennis here. The LA Open hasn’t existed in more than a decade; of the Women’s Tennis Assn. The event used to be held in Manhattan Beach and Carson and was last held in 2009. The BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells is a marquee event but is held approximately 120 miles from Los Angeles.
“One of the reasons we chose LA is because LA hasn’t had a professional event in such a long time and it’s such an incredible city, a huge city with a great tennis culture and we thought they did missing,” said Mouratoglou. “I think it’s very important for the young generation to watch tennis live. It’s a great inspiration. It’s one thing to watch from behind a screen. It’s something completely different, the experience of seeing the show live.”
Fritz agreed. “I hope it’s not an isolated case for tennis in LA,” he said. “I’m happy that hopefully it will go really well and inspire people.”
UTS is planning three more events in this year’s series. One will be in Frankfurt, Germany; Mouratoglou said he was finalizing details for events in Asia and a grand finale in the Middle East. How things play out at Carson this weekend will inform the rest of the series as this will be the first test of his fan engagement ideas in front of a large audience.
Ticket sales and media exposure will not be the only factors as Mouratoglou assesses the format’s success this weekend. In planning the course of the series, he will take fan reactions and player comments into account.
“When the atmosphere is really heated and people are happy and excited, even if it’s too much, I prefer too much to too little. “In the future we will manage that,” said Mouratoglou. “I hope the feedback from the players is, ‘That was crazy and I want to come back.’ ”