Ultimate Tennis Showdown: Can UTS revolutionise tennis?
The UTS rolled in and out of London last week and certainly left an impression. What was that impression, though, and more importantly, can it help positively shape the future of tennis?
Patrick Mouratoglou’s Ultimate Tennis Showdown offers a distinctive, fast-paced style of tennis that was welcomed with open arms by the London crowds who flocked to the ExCel Arena, but what effect will the tournament have going forward?
Let’s examine it a little more closely and see if we can determine what role, if any, the UTS can play in revolutionising tennis.
Success of UTS London
The UTS is the brain-child of Patrick Mouratoglou, and that means it will always be something worth taking note of.
Mouratoglou, a world-renowned coach who helped Serena Williams to a subtle 10 majors during their partnership, but faced challenges when bringing his show to London for the Grand Final.
The aim of UTS is clear, though: to entice a younger audience to a sport which is currently lacking age diversity.
London is a city which is synonymous with the rich history of the sport, but it is also somewhere that has a shortage of tournaments outside of the summer months, particularly now that the World Tour Finals have relocated to Turin.
Fans echoed the excitement of having some winter tennis in the capital and it proved to be a huge success, with sell-out crowds and an electric atmosphere all weekend.
By breaking down the barriers laid up by traditional tennis, UTS provides ‘tennis like never before’ with its explosive format.
With a live DJ blaring music in between points and on-court interviews after each quarter, the vibe inside the ExCel Arena was poles apart from that of a July afternoon at the All England Club.
“The crowd is unbelievable; we’ve been packed and there is so much energy, such a good atmosphere. I think everybody feels it, not just us as organisers but also the players too,” Mouratoglou said.
“The connection between the crowd and the players is key to UTS and one of the things we wanted to activate here. It’s worked incredibly well.
“We’ve had a lot of great feedback from the business, TV and media industries, and I’m really happy with it. We do this for all of those people to show tennis in a different way to hopefully bring a lot of new fans on board.”
It was to be expected that almost all of the players in the field expressed their discomfort for the format, which is far flung from the three-set tennis we see on tour.
Matches are played over four eight-minute quarters in a tiebreak setup with only one serve allowed, all the while there is a DJ blasting music into the arena in between points.
Mouratoglou has made it clear that he does not want to “change” tennis, but there is no denying that the ATP tour and tournaments across the world can learn a lot from the format and some of the rules.
So let’s take a deeper look at the format that Alexander Bublik referred to as “90% luck” following his elimination after the group stages.
Against the clock
With only one serve and a maximum of 15 seconds between points, it is assured that the four-quarter matches last no longer than one hour each.
This offers a gladly received solution to the issue of time, one of the main barriers to attracting new fans to the sport. It is hard to believe that a casual tennis watcher, or a younger fan, will be captivated all the way through a three-hour marathon match.
UTS can be compared to ‘The Hundred’, a fast-paced format of cricket which has proven to be a great success in attracting a wider spectrum of audiences.
In addition to the buzz from the crowd, the limited rest time between points means that the tennis is demanding on the players, both mentally and physically.
“The format is perfect training for cardio. We have minimal time to recover and a lot of long points – it’s not easy but I’m getting the most out of it for sure,” Jack Draper said following a gruelling encounter with Gaël Monfils.
Of course, the complete UTS format is not viable on the main tour, but there are certainly steps that could be taken to increase the amount of action on court in relation to the duration of the clock.
Around the net
A feature of the UTS that caught the eye of the fans is the unique court design, with no tramlines, thicker paint and, more importantly, a shorter width of net.
On a typical singles court, the net will stretch out into the tram lines. But on the UTS courts, the net post stops immediately where the singles lines are located.
In opening up the court in this way, players can pull off more around-the-net hotshots, which pumped up the crowd all weekend long.
World No11 Casper Ruud was one of the players to utilise the play, claiming the backhand slice around-the-net as his trademark shot en route to the semi-final.
“I think it’s one of the really cool rules of UTS that you have the possibility to go lower around the net,” Ruud said.
“It’s a beautiful shot that players enjoy hitting and when it goes in it looks incredible.”
Despite it being an exciting prospect, the introduction of such a rule would be hard to implement in certain tournaments which do not have the facility to alter the net post position, principally due to the fact it must remain longer for doubles matches.
Only the UTS net makes it possible ?
— UTS Tour – Oslo (Feb09-11) (@uts_tour_) December 16, 2023
For someone like Benoit Paire or Diego Schwartzman, who have experienced dips in form in recent years, the introduction of the UTS tour into the calendar offers valuable assets.
“For me, UTS gives me a lot. Last year, I was lacking confidence, I didn’t win many matches on tour,” Paire said.
“This tournament has been great for my confidence this year. It’s great to play with these types of players with packed crowds. That’s why I play tennis.”
The format allows players in different stages of their careers to come together and battle it out in a unique setting.
For Paire, being able to play against top 10 players is something that he has not been used to on the Challenger tour and it will certainly give him the inspiration he needs to reignite his career in 2024.
Mouratoglou’s aim for UTS 2024
Mouratoglou’s concept has been received incredibly well considering the controversy that arose from its launch in 2020, when it was purely a distraction during the tour’s enforced absence.
After a two-year hiatus, UTS was back with a bang this year and, following on from great success in London, the French mastermind has hinted at returning to the capital in 2024.
“I think it was a great move to come here and I would love to come back to London,” Mouratoglou said.
“I love the city but more than anything, everybody is happy to be here and the atmosphere is great and I think it could get bigger and bigger here.”
Inside the baseline…
Sure, UTS is essentially an exhibition, but tennis as a whole can learn a lot from the idea behind it. Tennis needs to bring in a wider audience and it must appeal to the younger generation. When you have players like Paire and Monfils in the lineup, you do just that. However, it is not just the star-studded lineup that appeals to the youngsters, it’s the unique, fast-paced format which facilitates a more engaging watch for all. Although the complete format is not viable on the main tour, there are certain aspects (importance of time being the main one) that should be carried through which will ultimately benefit the sport and grow the game.
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