- 25 Jun 2020
Richard Gasquet is captured in full flow, a killer’s eyes on the ball, tongue hanging. It’s an image which encapsulates the total engagement of all the players at Ultimate Tennis Showdown. Even if no ATP points are at stake during this revolutionary league at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, the 10 players present are fully dialed in, a ringing endorsement of the tournament.
Even at the very beginning of the tournament, Lucas Pouille described “the tension, the tightness and the frustration” on each point. “When I serve at 11-all, I’m tense, I don’t want to lose! It’s a real competition. When people see us playing, they can see it’s a real competition.” The Frenchman had to quit after the first weekend because of an elbow injury. He was replaced by his compatriot Corentin Moutet.
Players fell in love with the atypical UTS format. Matches in four 10-minute quarters, interaction with commentators, time-outs, a relaxed code of conduct… “A breath of fresh air”, for Gasquet, who leads the UTS rankings after four days of competition. “It’s the first time we’ve seen an initiative like this”, he told us. “It’s nice to have important points all the time, to think about how the matches are going, and the use of the cards.”
Each player can use two UTS cards per quarter to try to change the momentum of a match, especially the one that offers three points for a winner. “It can make a big difference”, Pouille said, after his first match, which he lost to Feliciano Lopez in sudden death, which is used to separate two players if they’re level at two quarters each. « In the first quarter, he hit an ace to take three points thanks to this card. Right away, that made things complicated.”
It’s pay day for @feliciano_lopez 🤑
The Torero scores 3 points with a single shot. That x3 on winner card has a pretty good point-effort ratio 😉
— UTS | Ultimate Tennis Showdown (@UTShowdown) June 14, 2020
Tsitsipas : “Your attention is at 100 percent when you start a match”
Dustin Brown, still looking for his first victory in the competition after four defeats, says it’s a “big worry” when “a big server uses this card”. “You’re afraid you’re going to be aced!”, he told Tennis Majors. The German hails the « strategic side » that « constantly maintains a certain excitement. » « It’s what makes the format fun and entertaining, Pouille says. With these cards, you can come back at any time. »
Inevitably these cards narrow the gap between the players. The four top-10 players can be beaten if their opponent uses the cards well. « It gives the opportunity to the slightly lower-ranked players to have better results against players like us », said the world No 6, Stefanos Tsitsipas. Leader of the UTS until his defeat by Dominic Thiem on Sunday, the “Greek God” believes it’s vital not to start slowly. « Your attention is at 100 percent when you start a match. It goes so fast, a lot happens in a short space of time. »
Time is suspended during the time-outs that coaches can use, once per quarter. Apostolos Tsitsipas, Stefanos’ father and coach, regularly uses this new tool to influence his son’s behaviour on the court. “Be more aggressive, go to the net, find a good first serve!”, he urges his player. During the UTS, the Greek has been more inclined to go to the net. “During the matches, you don’t have much time to think,, explains Tsitsipas. It’s good to have an outside perspective. It allows me to concentrate on my first serve, then to hit a good second ball.”
It’s the same for Thiem. During the third quarter of his shock win last weekend against “The Greek God”, Wolfgang Thiem told his son to “take his time, and apply himself on his return”. “Are we not using cards?”, the son asked. «”No, not now!”, the coach responded. The Austrian won the quarter by applying his father’s instructions to the letter.
« The players’ personalities come through »
The players present at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, near Nice, use the competition to find their form after more than two months of confinement. After such a long period not playing, “it would be impossible, unthinkable and dangerous” to play immediately “best of three sets”, said Gasquet. “At the moment, there’s no competition. I can’t imagine anything better than being here! There is no doubt.”
The world No 50 has criticised the “monotony” and the “repetitive nature” of the classic ATP Tour events. At UTS, players are allowed to express their emotions without risking a fine for bad behaviour. “We’re seeing the personalities come through”, Pouille said. “It’s important that we convey more emotions, with frustration, joy, anger. We need to give the players more freedom.” What can we do to change the « sanitisation » of the ATP, described by Gasquet? “There are bound to be some things we should keep”. Because such unanimity gives food for thought.