Tennis serves up variety of innovative tuneup events

Tennis

The DraftKings All-American Team Cup, the first pro tennis event in the U.S. to take place before paying spectators, ended Sunday at a tennis and fitness center in Peachtree Corners, Georgia. It was rocked Friday night when Frances Tiafoe, the popular captain of the young “Stars” team, tested positive for the coronavirus, but the event proceeded as planned with Chris Eubanks subbing for Tiafoe.

“Frances is feeling well and not showing any symptoms,” Kelly Wolf, his manager at Octagon, told ESPN.com Monday morning. “He underwent a second test over the weekend. The first test was a rapid one, the second one will check on its veracity, but the results won’t be back for about 72 hours.”

The competition pitting American veterans against rising stars was conceived by No. 21-ranked John Isner. The promoters were prepared to allow in up to 450 fans for each session, or one-third capacity at the show court at the Life Time Athletic and Tennis facility.

“Our ticketing software built in social distancing on either side, and seating was restricted to every other row,” tournament director Eddie Gonzalez told ESPN.com. “We needed this to be successful for the good of our (ATP and WTA) tours.”

Gonzalez said on Monday that most sessions were close to a sellout, and there were no further complications in the wake of Tiafoe’s positive test.

The event employed most of the health protocols that have become standard issue at the exhibition events that have replaced conventional tournaments while the ATP and WTA have been on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. Those protocols include mandatory temperature tests for fans entering the stadium, mandatory masks and cashless food-and-beverage concessions.

While the official game is still in limbo, special events featuring innovations like streamlined scoring systems and team-play formats have flourished — so much so that the calendar has become confusing, featuring numerous regional events. Add the alterations in the official tour calendar and you have a dazzling — if puzzling — calendar that looks nothing like it did back in early March.

Confused? Here’s a breakdown of what’s coming up in tennis as we roll toward the final Grand Slam of the year, the postponed French Open. All these events will be broadcast or streamed by a range of providers. But keep in mind that the situation is fluid and could change.

The Ultimate Tennis Showdown: July 11-12, finals

Type: Exhibition, ATP
The hook: A novel, four-quarter scoring system and other experiments

Patrick Mouratoglou, the coach of Serena Williams, conceived this event partly because he feels tennis needs more excitement, more personalities, more innovations and a less stringent code of conduct. The pandemic has afforded him an unexpected window to test his theories and solutions while the main tours are in lockdown.

Mouratoglou attracted an all-star field, led by ATP No. 3 Dominic Thiem (whose participation was limited) and UTS full-timer, No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas and No. 8 Matteo Berrettini. The alternative, four-quarter scoring system of UTS keeps matches to an hour or under and features, among other things, a limited number of “cards” that a pro could play if he wanted the next point to be worth three points, or to force his opponent to play a point hitting just one serve.

Round-robin play over a succession of weekends going back to mid-June has produced four semifinalists who will vie for the championship this weekend: Tsitsipas, Berrettini, No. 10 David Goffin and No. 50 Richard Gasquet.

“What we are trying to achieve is an immersive experience,” Mouratoglou told ESPN.com. “The camera is close, you feel on the court, the sound is boosted to make you understand the energy of both players, and on the changeover, we speak and get into their emotions and psychology.”

He added, “UTS is nothing against the typical format of tennis that, honestly, I love. I love tennis the way it is. UTS is a different sport for different people, or those who can like both.”

Tipsport Elite Trophy: Ongoing to July 27

Type: Exhibition, WTA
The hook: All-Czech matchups

This event is a tribute to the bumper crop of terrific players produced by the Czech Republic, and also their willingness to prop up tennis in their homeland. The field reads like a who’s who of second-week Grand Slam contenders, among them: WTA No. 3 Karolina Pliskova, No. 12 Petra Kvitova, No. 18 Marketa Vondrousova and No. 26 Karolina Muchova.

Early in May, ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe addressed the challenge for tennis moving forward during the pandemic. “There’s no doubt tennis can happen and be broadcast … the real issue is, how do you do something that means something?”

One solution to the dilemma is regional events like this one. This is the gold standard, thanks to the quality of the field.

GVC Eastern European Championships: Through July 23

Type: Exhibition, combined ATP/WTA
The hook: For emerging eastern European pros

Another regional exhibition, this six-week series of tournaments was created by former tour ATP pro Janko Tipsarevic. It has been utterly overshadowed, and not in a good way, by the ill-fated Adria Tour mounted by Tipsarevic’s friend, Novak Djokovic.

This tournament also illustrates the downside of regional events. Even tennis aficionados will be hard pressed to recognize more than four or five names in the various draws, but rising ATP star Miomir Kecmanovic is in the mix, along with ATP veteran Sergiy Stakhovsky.

UTR Pro Tennis Series: Ongoing through July 31

Type: Exhibition, combined ATP/WTA
The hook: Australians only

This five-city series taking place exclusively in Australia for resident players is about as close to tour tennis as you can get. Matches are best-of-three sets, albeit with a 10-point match tiebreaker in lieu of a third set. Tennis Australia is ponying up $450,000 in prize money at a time when prize and appearance monies have taken a nosedive.

“Our aim is to give as many of our athletes the chance to compete and, importantly, also earn prize money after months of not being able to make their living playing the sport they have devoted their lives to,” Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said in a statement.

None of the big names in the Aussie game — Ashleigh Barty, Alex De Minaur, Nick Kyrgios — are playing. Among other things, they want to give journeymen a better chance to earn much-needed money. The tour does feature Christopher O’Connell, a player who actually won more pro matches in 2019 than any other man (including three ITF Futures and two ATP Challenger titles).

World TeamTennis: July 12-Aug. 1

Type: Special event, ATP/WTA
The hook: The entire WTT season will be played in one location

All nine WTT teams will compete at the renowned Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, competing in a full season’s worth of matches (63), all of which will be broadcast.

When American veteran Sam Querrey learned details of this plan he seized the opportunity to sign up. “It [the Greenbrier] feels like a fun little utopia resort, with beautiful grounds, tennis, horseback riding, gyms,” Querrey said in a recent interview. “It sounds like more fun than staying at a quarantine hotel in New York for three weeks.”

In addition to Querrey, headliners include Sofia Kenin, the Bryan brothers (Bob and Mike), Monica Puig, Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard (Tiafoe was a last-minute scratch due to his positive test).

In WTT, each of five “sets” (singles and doubles for both men and women, a concluding mixed doubles) consist of a mini-match of up to eight games with no ad-scoring, a nine-point tiebreaker deciding the set if the game reaches 4-all.

This event also will accommodate fans while observing the six feet of social distancing recommended by medical experts. The outdoor stadium, which seats 2,500, will host 500 fans per session. In the event of a rainout, up to 200 fans will be allowed in the indoor center.

Berlin Exhibition: July 13-15, July 17-19

Type: Exhibition, ATP/WTA
The hook: Grass/hard court combination

This is another event racing to be out in front of the drive to reopen by allowing spectators to watch a high-quality field of men and women, including Thiem, Kyrgios, Kvitova, Alexander Zverev, Elina Svitolina and Kiki Bertens.

The first event will be outdoors on grass, the later one on hard courts in a hangar at Berlin Tempelhof Airport. As many as 800 fans will be allowed to attend the outdoor grass-court event, while the capacity for the indoor follow-up is set at 200.

This will be the first meeting between ATP No. 7 Zverev and Kyrgios, who has fallen to No. 40 but emerged as a widely followed critic of the game and his peers during the pandemic. Kyrgios recently gave Zverev a tongue-lashing for violating his promise to self-quarantine after he took part in Djokovic’s ill-fated Adria Tour. Zverev was not among the players who tested positive before two legs of the tour were concluded, but apologized and vowed to self-quarantine.

Palermo Ladies’ Open: Aug 3-9

Type: WTA Tour International
The hook: First official event on either tour since the suspension

It has been touch and go for some weeks, but it looks as if the WTA is getting back into business at this red-clay event. Palermo is entering the fourth decade of its existence as a far-flung but popular minor tournament. The roll of former winners includes Grand Slam champions Mary Pierce, Anastasia Myskina and Flavia Pennetta. Oddly, though, the magic touch belonged to Spain’s Anabel Medina Garrigues, who won five of her 11 titles in this town in Sicily.

Prague Open: Aug. 10-16

Type: WTA Tour International
The hook: For Czech bragging rights

This event is not the tournament of the same name that was postponed in May because of the pandemic, Prague Open spokesman Karel Tejkal said in a story by Agence France-Presse.

“It’s a new tournament which… has become part of the WTA’s provisional calendar for this year,” Tejkal told AFP.

The competition among elite WTA players native to the Czech Republic, including Pliskova, Kvitova, Vondrousova and Muchova is likely to be fierce. Kvitova and Pliskova are already past champions of this relatively new event launched in 2016.

Citi Open: Aug. 13-21

Type: ATP 500, (possible WTA)
The hook: The ATP reopens

“We are expecting an extraordinarily strong field,” Citi Open owner Mark Ein told ESPN.com. “The players seem really eager to get back to tournament competition.”

This one has been a combined ATP/WTA event in the past, but it’s uncertain at this point if there will be a WTA component. The difficult economic climate for stakeholders is the cause, and Ein himself estimates that revenues for the tournament will be down “65 or 75%” even with an outstanding field. But that isn’t the point for Ein.

“It’s not a year when we’re looking to make money,” Ein said. “The goal is to give everyone — the country, the city (Washington D.C.), the world, something to look forward to.”

Western and Southern Open: Aug. 20-28

Type: ATP Masters 1000/WTA Premier 5
The hook: The major prelude to the US Open

Ordinarily played in Cincinnati, this blue-chip event will occupy a three-week bubble along with the US Open, in the most audacious plan by far to present tennis despite the still ongoing coronavirus crisis. And it’s official ATP/WTA tennis.

It’s uncertain how many of the top players will choose to enter, but playing the two events back-to-back makes sense. It eliminates many of the typical travel and testing concerns created by the pandemic, and allows players to acclimate and prepare on same courts used for the US Open. The atmosphere is sure to be unique at the National Tennis Center in Flushing, New York.

Neither the ATP nor the WTA has announced how they will manage and adjust the rankings once the tours resume, but their determination may be a critical piece of this puzzle. The Masters title for men is worth 1,000 rankings points, the most available at a regular tour event, and the Grand Slam winner earns 2,000.

US Open: Aug 31-Sept. 13

Type: Grand Slam, ATP/WTA
The hook: The first major since the pandemic hit

It may seem like a shame to have no fans at the US Open when the USTA could probably accommodate upwards of 2,500 (about 10% of the capacity of Arthur Ashe Stadium) while observing social distancing. But the USTA has a unique problem.

Lew Sherr, the USTA’s chief revenue officer, told ESPN.com that the entire 42-acre site of the US Open will be dedicated to making the players and staff (as many as 2,000 people will be working at the US Open on any given day) comfortable and safe. Having spectators and catering to their needs (food, sanitation, shelter) would limit the amount and kind of space the players and staffers will have and endanger the USTA’s commitment to social distancing. Areas like retail spaces, luxury suites, outdoor cafes usually reserved for fans have already been repurposed to benefit those inside the US Open bubble.

“There will really be no way to keep them [fans, staff and players] separate, given how much of the open space we are dedicating to the players,” Sherr said. “Our campus doesn’t really work well for us to allow fans, but that’s also one of the reasons we feel so good about mitigating the risk (posed by COVID-19).”

While some stars, most prominently Djokovic, have expressed reservations about the USTA’s plan, it’s hard to imagine eligible players who have been sidelined since mid-March passing up the chance to earn a Grand Slam title.

Serena Williams already is committed to entering as she continues her hunt for that elusive, record 24th Grand Slam singles title. Roger Federer is out for the year (bad knee). Djokovic badly needs a public relations win following the fiasco of the Adria Tour, and Rafael Nadal initially expressed a reluctance to play without fans but has since softened his stance. After all, he’s the defending champion, and still trails all-time Grand Slam singles champion Federer (20 major titles) by one.

The tournament is shaping up as a grand experiment and an enormous challenge.

And on to Paris …

The WTA and ATP each have one lowest-rung event scheduled in the post-US Open period, after those they will reconvene at the prestigious red-clay events that were canceled in the spring, the Mutua Madrid Open and the Italian Open. Both are Masters 1000 events for the ATP. For the WTA, the Madrid event is a top-tier Premier Mandatory and Rome is one rung down, a Premier 5.

Those events will serve as tune-ups for the French Open, which was to have started in mid-May but will now take place Sept. 27-Oct. 11. It’s impossible to predict what restrictions or protocols will be in effect at Roland Garros, but organizers recently said that they hope to accommodate up to 60% of the venue’s capacity, which translates to about 20,000 fans daily in the early rounds, 10,000 for the finals.

One of the key questions looming for contenders: Will it be viable to transition successfully from the hard courts of the US Open to Parisian clay in, for the most successful US Open players, as little as two weeks? Some of the top players in Europe, where so many are clay proficient, may be inclined to focus on Roland Garros. Nadal, who will almost surely be vying for a record 13th French Open title if the re-opening proceeds as planned, will find himself with a difficult choice to make.

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