What we learned from tennis’ COVID-19 shutdown


On July 10, Matteo Berrettini, the No. 8-ranked men’s player, lost a semifinal on red clay to Andrey Rublev during an exhibition tournament on a chilly, wet day in Kitzbuhel, Austria. Barely 24 hours later, Berrettini triumphed in an Ultimate Tennis Showdown semifinal on a hard court under sunny but hot and humid conditions in the south of France.

With the sweat on his brow barely dry, Berrettini then bolted to an exhibition played on grass courts in cool Berlin, Germany. In less than a week, the hard-working Italian pro hit a trifecta of nations, surfaces and even climates.

This wasn’t mere tennis tourism. It was tennis in the time of COVID-19: overlapping events, experimental formats and scoring, a hodgepodge of surfaces, and keen players ready to go anywhere and do anything to stay fit and prepare for the resumption of the official game.

“What we need as players is to play matches,” Berrettini said after he won the UTS title on July 12 with a win over No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas. “I didn’t take these events like an exhibition. I try to play them like I would an ATP, like I am a professional player. Every time I step in the court, I’m gonna try my best.”

The adventures of Berrettini and many other players, including Tsitsipas, No. 3 Dominic Thiem and a host of women such as Karolina Pliskova, Sofia Kenin and Madison Keys, played out in innovative pop-up events, none of which was sanctioned by the ATP or WTA tours. The events had no bearing on the rankings or the record books. Yet without them, tennis would have remained stalled since mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The lesson of the past four months: In uncertain times, there are serious shortcomings in the way that pro tennis is structured and delivered. The game complies wonderfully with the demands of social distancing, yet during the pandemic, the tours have been like helpless giants.

This amplifies some festering questions and raises new ones about the structure of tennis and whether it needs to change. How will tennis look in the future — especially if some of the things we have always taken for granted, such as virtually unrestricted travel — are no longer quite so certain?

Here are some of the things we’ve learned and some of the challenges — and opportunities — the ATP and WTA are facing in these difficult times.

The basic template is rigid

ATP and WTA officials have been preoccupied with and working overtime in trying to salvage some portion of the scheduled 2020 season. But it’s still telling that neither they nor Grand Slam nor ITF officials produced any kind of tennis to complement or compete with the spate of exhibition matches.

There are solid reasons for that. The ATP and WTA are wedded, legally as well as philosophically, to the global tour and tournament approach. That’s the way the game has been presented since the birth of the Open era in 1969. But tournaments are unwieldy and predicated on unrestricted travel, with hundreds of players vying to participate. That model might not be sustainable in the rapidly changing world.

“We’ve gone through so many unknowns and face so many more in a global sport during a global pandemic,” ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said in an interview. “We don’t know what will happen. Something like this can totally shut down things. Or tennis may become a survival of the fittest, where the surviving tournaments will be the ones with the most backing by sponsors or even governments.”

That would be bad news for the tours, particularly all those 250 (ATP) and International (WTA) events. Other models exist and perhaps ought to be considered. There was a growing call with healthy public appetite for more innovative team events such as the Laver Cup well before the pandemic. The concept of regional tours built around a drastically reduced number of tournaments, including the four Grand Slams, also has been batted around for a long time.

“With the US and French Opens so close to each other, we could end up with an unintentional regional structure,” Shriver said, citing the concerns many Europeans have with restrictions and quarantine regulations, as well as the tight nature of the proposed schedule.

A US Open without defending champion Rafael Nadal is already a strong possibility, with some European players deciding to skip the reboot in New York to focus on the two subsequent clay Masters/combined events and the French Open.

Jim Courier, a multiple Grand Slam champion and Tennis Channel analyst, told ESPN that he’s no “naysayer” when it comes to the future of the game. But he also said, “If it doesn’t appear that the world can go back to normal for the foreseeable future, we have to start staking out different ground. That may mean regional events setting up shop for four, five months at a time in different regions, with maybe the majors [Grand Slam events] exempt from that.”

Player payouts take a hit

Unlike some other major sports, tennis depends heavily on sponsorship and on-site entertainment. The prohibition of spectators drastically threatens those revenue streams. Both tours have implemented prize-money reductions, driven mainly by the prospect of a limit or outright ban on fan attendance, while trying to curb the impact on struggling, lower-ranked players.

“Prize-money reductions will not impact the early rounds, ensuring that the largest number of players in the draw are not negatively impacted,” ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi told ESPN in a statement. He praised the tournaments for remaining “committed” during these difficult times and the players for signing off on the cuts.

The WTA has taken a similar approach. The ATP did not reveal hard numbers, but the WTA has confirmed that the payout at its elite Premier Mandatory events will be reduced by 40% if the event is held without fans and 30% if fans are allowed. The “International” (lowest tier) level will be reduced by 18%.

The hits will be significant in a sport in which, many believe, the stars rake in a disproportionately high share of the pot. Many low-tier tournaments already struggle to survive. Should they fail, the situation for players struggling to crack the top 100 is likely to become more dire.

“I have no idea if there’s enough room on the boat,” Tennys Sandgren said of those struggling to hang on to careers impacted by the pandemic. “The question is: Can the economy, now or any other time, support 500 players? One thousand? Two hundred fifty?”

The pandemic has exposed how vulnerable players are to a stalled system because they are classified as “independent contractors” who enjoy none of the protections of official employees. They cannot form a union, according to U.S. law, because the tours are already monopolies. The trade-off for those who would like to see a players’ union is that the pros would then be bound by contracts restricting when and where they can play, as in the cases of NBA and NFL players.

The game needs to speed up

“They have to change,” Richard Gasquet said of the ATP in an interview. A three-time Grand Slam semifinalist and Olympic bronze medalist, the French veteran added: “Sometimes matches are long. We all like five sets, but you have to play four first to arrive there. Even me, I love tennis, but I am not watching a full match even if it is Nadal and [Roger] Federer playing.”

Die-hard tennis fans might find that confession shocking, but the tours have been trying for some time to speed up the game, partly to capture a younger, less patient audience. In recent months, fans have been fed a steady diet of special events and exhibitions featuring alternate (streamlined) scoring and formats. The players have taken to and taken seriously these previously radical configurations.

Berrettini commuted between the UTS event and the Kitzbuhel “Thiem’s 7” exhibition, which used traditional best-of-three scoring. In his first match in Kitzbuhel, he remembered, a glance at the scoreboard told him that the score was 2-1, and the match was already 14 minutes long. He realized that in an UTS match, which consists of four 10-minute quarters, he would have been well along in the second quarter.

Courier has always liked the NBA-like, clock-driven approach to tennis. UTS matches ended in an hour or less. Players had just 15 seconds between points to serve, were allowed coaching timeouts and took care of their own towels. The format and brisk pace eliminated the sometimes long intervals of ho-hum tennis that occur in traditional events.

“You lose 7-6, and the first game of the second set takes so long, even for me, when I am playing, that can be boring,” Gasquet said. “Tennis is the only sport where you have to play four hours.”

It’s time to adopt the match tiebreaker in singles

Fast four. No-ad. Nine-point tiebreakers. Quarters rather than sets. The pandemic has produced a blizzard of alternate formats and scoring options, but the one that stands the best chance of being incorporated into the official singles game is the match tiebreaker.

The match tiebreaker is already used on both tours in the doubles game and is a favorite of broadcasters because it almost invariably keeps a match to two hours or less. It is used to take the place of a third set after players split the first two. The winner is the first to 10 points, with a margin of at least two.

Shriver believes that right now is the best time to take that step. The players, who have not played official matches since mid-March, will have to hit the ground running in August and face a densely packed calendar. Although they can — and generally did — stay in shape, there’s no way to simulate the demands of actual play in a practice session.

“I wish the US Open would consider playing best-of-three sets on the men’s side [instead the traditional best-of-five] and use the match tiebreaker,” Shriver said. “I think it’s extremely exciting.”

Courier also likes the match tiebreaker, but many remain cautious.

“I like the match tiebreaker as a fan, but I’m a traditionalist,” said Sam Duvall, the agent who represents John Isner and Reilly Opelka. “I have a hard time wrapping my head around such a big change. And I definitely don’t think the Grand Slams should change.”

One interesting aspect of the match tiebreaker, as well as some of the radical formats used by UTS and others, is that the “best” (as in most highly ranked) players still tend to win most of the time.

The rankings are compromised

The ATP and WTA have already altered their rankings systems to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. The tweaks include a concession for players who will not or cannot travel to tour events (scheduled to resume in August) through the rest of the year and a significant portion of 2021.

The credibility of the rankings is built on an “open” system in which anyone who wishes to play a tournament is free to enter — either directly on the basis of ranking or through the obligatory qualifying event. The various stresses of the pandemic have threatened the qualification system, as have various caveats arising from the health and safety concerns of players and tournaments.

A player’s ranking on both pro tours is based on points earned in tournaments, but Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) has created a different approach. A player’s UTR rating is similar to a golf handicap, generated by a sophisticated algorithm that weighs the individual’s results in his or her 30 most recent matches in any 12-month period.

The UTR ratings end up looking very similar but not identical to those of the ATP and WTA. Currently, Novak Djokovic leads all men with a UTR of 16.18, and Bianca Andreescu is the top woman at 13.44.

The significant advantage of UTR is that it isn’t tied to levels of achievement at tournaments, in which anyone can benefit from the well-known “luck of the draw.” UTR is based on head-to-head results, and it factors in quality of opposition. But UTR does have a significant shortcoming.

“If the focus is just on recent matches,” Courier said, “a UTR would not necessarily be relevant once you move from one surface to another.”

A new appetite for unity

Tennis, with its menu of seven major stakeholders, is notorious for turf wars. But the pandemic has played a role in sparking a renewed interest in cooperation and unity among constituents as different as the WTA and the ITF.

Also, there has been a significant infusion of new blood into the administrative thicket. Former pro Gaudenzi is a new chief at the ATP, and Wimbledon recently hit the refresh button, naming Sally Bolton its CEO and Ian Hewitt its chairman.

There is renewed interest in a merger of the WTA and ATP, a move long resisted by the men’s establishment for fear that it would demand reallocating too much of the ATP’s significantly larger revenues.

“The word ‘merger’ has been tossed around,” Duvall said. “Things like continuity in the way the different levels of tournaments are named, rankings points, marketing, a logo — that’s the low-hanging fruit. The benefit to all from the rest of it is not as cut-and-dried.”

The pandemic has also led some to think that the tours ought to trim down and create something like a super tour consisting of the Grand Slams and a select number of big combined (ATP/WTA) events.

“People complain, but the finances of the game have never been stronger, at least at big events where men and women are together,” Courier said. “That’s the direction Andrea Gaudenzi wants to take tennis in. His mantra is for tennis to have more big, combined events. I agree. Those are the ones viewers and fans gravitate to.”

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