Friday, May 1, 2020

A Look Back at Aces from Aprils Past; UTR Announces Pro Match Series Featuring Top 100 Players; USTA's Latest on US Open

Petra Kvitova in 2007
Every month for 12 years I've been producing a Tennis Recruiting Network column featuring the top performances of junior, college and former college players during the previous month. With no tennis this April due to the pandemic, I wasn't sure how I would continue this streak until it occurred to me that looking back at some of those earlier columns might be fun. So focusing on Aprils from 2008-2014, I came up with 16 players who were featured as teenagers and went on to achieve Top 100 status on the ATP and WTA tours. When I featured Petra Kvitova in 2008, I had no clue she would go on to win two Wimbledons; US Open champion Sloane Stephens, Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin and French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko all had memorable Aprils prior to earning their slam titles. I'm looking forward to doing another one of these for May, when the tennis spotlight is on college tennis.

I watched a little of the Tennis Point Exhibition on the Tennis Channel today, and didn't find it compelling viewing, although Dustin Brown did come up with a couple of his usual highlight reel shots.  Brown and Yannick Hanfmann(USC) both went 2-0 in today's matches. There are other exhibition matches going on, including the International Tennis Series in Florida that has been going on for a week. Scores from these exhibitions are available here. Chris Clarey has more on the various events scheduled for this month in this New York Times article.

As Clarey notes, UTR is introducing its competitive product, with four men set to compete in its Pro Match Series beginning a week from today. Italy's Matteo Berrettini and Americans Reilly Opelka, Tennys Sandgren and Tommy Paul will compete in a round-robin event in West Palm Beach, which will be broadcast by the Tennis Channel. The format is not specified, but Clarey reports that players will be calling their own lines, with the chair umpire, the only official present, charged with overruling clear mistakes, which is the ITA college and USTA standard. UTR is adamant this is not an exhibition.
"UTR Pro Match Series events are prize money competitions, not exhibitions, and have been reviewed by the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) to ensure strict compliance. Results from all Pro Match Series events will be included in a player’s Universal Tennis Rating (UTR), the most accurate international tennis rating system that provides real-time head-to-head rating comparisons based on performance."
UTR also has a women's competition planned for May 22-24, featuring Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia and Americans Alison Riske, Amanda Anisimova and Danielle Collins.

For more on the UTR Pro Match Series, see this UTR release.

I filed my request for a US Open media credential today, which is yet another indication that the USTA is determined to keep the planning process on schedule despite the very real possibility that the tournament will be canceled. My hope that Indian Wells could serve as a possible alternative site later in the fall is apparently not being considered. Here is the latest statement on the status of the US Open, set to be played August 31-September 13.
The USTA's goal is to hold the 2020 US Open in New York on its currently scheduled dates. In fact, our plans to stage the US Open on our scheduled dates at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York with fans, remain on-going. However, we recognize that we are all facing an uncertain and rapidly changing environment regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, and therefore have been aggressively modeling many other contingencies, including scenarios with no fans.
We understand that there is a great deal of speculation regarding the USTA’s planning for the 2020 US Open. We would like to clarify that while we are exploring every possibility around the US Open, the potential to shift the event location or date is not at the forefront at this point in time.
Paramount with all our decisions regarding the US Open will be the health and safety of all those involved, in any capacity, with the tournament. We are in continual contact with New York State and New York City officials and agencies, and are meeting weekly with our Medical Advisory Group to learn as much as we can and to properly assess this shifting situation.
At this moment, our target date for a decision regarding the status of the US Open is six to eight weeks away (mid-June). We will continue to provide updates as appropriate.


Jon King said...

The USTA statement seems like denial. Of course the US Open will not take place in 6-8 weeks in NY with fans. That is a zero percent possibility. No liability insurance company on earth would underwrite it. Perhaps some form of it could take place without fans. But even that would come down to insurance. The next question would be if TV rights would be renegotiated as a no fan event is not what broadcasters signed up for.

Brent said...

Disagree that it is a zero percent possibility. No reason to make a final determination until they have to. Just planning for multiple scenarios as aggressively as possible is the right plan.

Side note - why would TV ratings flex as a function of live fans. People are clearly starved for sports content. It all depends on what the status of other sports is as well, but I'm trying to imagine the scenario of someone saying 'well, I live in Portland and would usually tune in to the US Open but there aren't any fans and I usually tune in to watch the fans, not the actual tennis, so I'll watch Netflix instead'. Ratings in my mind would be up if anything. Don't know why the USTA is making public comments about not actively considering the 'no fans' option. If the alternative option is cancelling the entire tournament and it can be done safely (which it can given the extremely low number of people and easy distancing), holding the tourney without fans is a no-brainer. Maybe some players choose not to play. Definitely have to take the prize money down. But, still an easy call to hold the tourney. I don't get it.

Greg said...

I agree that holding the US Open with fans in attendance is most likely not happening nor should it. I do not understand why the idea of holding this event and other pro tennis tournaments without spectators is not talked about more. I understand there are a lot of other people involved in running the event in addition to the players. But why couldn’t Wimbledon have been held with some modifications to make it work: no spectators, singles only, have tournament workers wear masks and anything else to make it a safe event. Imagine if our sport had this as the only pro sport out there for people to watch and media to cover?! Ad revenue would have been huge I would imagine due to the number of people who would be watching. So please US Open, think outside the box to make this tournament happen!

Max Ho said...

Do you really think having players from all over the world come to New York in a few months is a good idea? Even with no fans you need players, officials, ball boys, coaches.... Where are the players going to stay, transportation to and from the event? With no fans why would the sponsors want to pay big dollars, the open does not get amazing tv ratings although they would be better with not much in way of sports.

I just don't see how New York the hot sport for Covide works at all in 2020. Most realistic option to play would be Indian Wells or Lake Nona with no fans

Greg said...

Your location idea is a very good one. Lake Nona is isolated enough to be a good option I think. Do you think the technology is there to go all electronic line calling so only a chair umpire is needed? No ball kids? The pros will feel like they are back in the juniors, college or challengers! I just the benefit of holding the US Open somehow, someway would be a terrific thing that would highlight our sport in such a unique way!

Jon King said...

No, there is a zero percent chance of the US Open with fans this year. Absolutely zero. My uncle has been working for a large liability insurance company for 40 years. Insurance companies have already stated in internal documents that they will not be writing liability policies for events with fans until a vaccine is in place. If Congress writes legislation to hold entities harmless for virus related illness and deaths, that could change. But as of now, no such legislation is close to being approved.

Getting insurance without fans is much more possible. Players and employees would have to sign liability waivers. The NBA has been submitting various plans to their insurer for over a month, progress has been made but no agreement yet.

Jon King said...

Lake Nona is viable for a fanless event as it has a good number of hard courts and is a fairly isolated site that could be quarantined. It is right next to the runways of the Orlando airport so players would even have planes flying 40 feet overhead to remind them of the real US Open of the past!

The issue would be hotels. Several hotels would have to be quarantined and players and support staff transported to Lake Nona. Some of the courts have Playsite systems which can call balls in and out. The Open would have to decide whether to install additional systems to call the lines or just play this year with human only line calls.

Max Ho said...

I wonder if the finances are worth it for US open to run at different site with no fans, tennis ratings are not that great even with not much going on sports front? It sounded like the plan would be to only do mens and womens main draw (no quali, no junions, no wheelchair...), so hotels would not be as much of an issue. You could also do Cincinnati if they are going to cancel most of summer swing and Western Open is cancelled? I doubt it makes sense for most tournaments to proceed without fans due to loss gate and whether sponsors will still pay with no fans?

Tennis is tough with so much travel, just seems like it does not make sense in 2020. Baseball and basketball need to do bubble cities if they want to get season going, NBA Playoffs can be at Disney in Florida, tons of empty hotels, can quarantine with no families for shortened 3 out of 5 playoffs. Tennis does not have that ability.

Jon King said...

Max Ho, its about looking forward. Just like the stock market looks forward to 2-3 years.

Tennis has to look forward. They play no fan events of some sort in the short term to stay relevant, even if the financial aspect stinks. Thats why the USTA and ITF are putting out guidelines and trying to get tennis back in some form. Thats why Bradenton held pro matches for ESPN3. Why more exhibitions are being played for Tennis Channel.

Tennis will always be under ratings pressure from an aging fan base, pickleball, E sports, 10000 TV stations, streaming services. But playing no tournaments vs playing no fan tournaments until fans can return must be done.

No guarantee pro tennis even survives long term besides a hand full of top stars. But the ATP. WTA, ITF, USTA, equipment and apparel companies know they must put on some events as soon as possible to have any chance of keeping enough fans to survive long term.

CEO in LA said...

You run as many events as possible without fans even if they lose money for the same reasons other businesses are doing so, to maintain your infrastructure. Restaurants for example keep doing take out only even while losing money and keeping key employees on the payroll to avoid losing them. Smart people and good employees are valuable and the best ones will retrain for other industries if they think the future in their current field is bleak.

Big time tennis requires executives, stringers, marketing people, and many other support people of all kinds. Tennis needs to keep its brightest minds and best employees, just like any industry does. You can not bail on them for a year and expect to ramp right back up down the line. Non fan events are better than no events for tennis in the long term.

Greg said...

To CEO and John: well stated points and 100% correct I think!