Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Stanford Drops 11 Sports But Not Tennis; World Team Tennis Announces Covid Safety Protocols; UTR National Championships Series Underway; What and How Should Tennis Change?

Stanford is the Division I gold standard in college athletics, winning the Directors Cup, a competition to determine the school with the top overall athletic performance, for 25 years in a row. So the collegiate sports landscape experienced an earthquake today, when the Cardinal announced it was cutting 11 sports after the 2020-2021 season.

Women's head coach Lele Forood has claimed
10 NCAA titles in her 20 seasons at Stanford
While tennis has been a likely candidate for such cuts at other Division I schools, that was never likely for Stanford, for two reasons: 1) no power 5 schools have dropped tennis, with the cuts coming from mid majors and 2) Stanford's tennis programs are arguably the most successful in Division I history.

The announcement goes into great detail about why these 11 (men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball and wrestling) sports were dropped, with lack of NCAA backing, the strain on the budget for the remaining teams, and geographical barriers among the reasons they were dropped. This leaves Stanford with 25 teams, still a large number by any accounting, but this action could serve as an icebreaker, with a deluge to follow in Power 5 programs. In the conference I'm most familiar with, the Big Ten, Ohio State currently has 30 teams and Michigan has 29. With the fallout of Covid-19, it doesn't take a pessimist to see that those numbers could be reduced in the next few months, especially if football is not back this fall.

It won't be back in the Ivy League, with the conference announcing all fall sports, including football, have been canceled for 2020.

World Team Tennis begins on Sunday, and at a press conference today, CEO Carlos Silva spoke about the steps they are taking to ensure the safety of fans and players:

Silva: We’re going to require all players to wear masks on the bench. The only players that won’t have a mask on will be on the court. There will obviously be no ball kids on the court. If your teammates would like to be ball kids, they can and they’ll be wearing masks. It’s kind of interesting and could be fun in a time when things aren’t always that fun this year. It could be great having the Bryan Brothers being ball kids for Sam Querrey when he’s playing. We’re going to tell the players when you come to the net you can tap racquets and do the same thing when playing doubles. The only one that might be tough would be the Bryan Brothers, who celebrate a lot and do chest bumps. We’re going to ask them not to do that. I can’t guarantee they won’t do it out of habit doing it for 25 years, but we are telling everyone not to do that. We’re trying to be smart, practical in a simple way, and we’ll be going through this with all of the players when they arrive as well.

We’ll be allowed to have 500 fans in the stands, although the stadium holds 2,500 people. Every other row will be blocked, and everyone will be socially distanced by the ushers. You will be able to sit by your family, but you will not be able to sit next to other families that you don’t know. Originally, because it is outdoors, we did not require fans to wear masks. We’ve since changed that requirement, well before everyone else did, about 10 days ago. We made a decision that we would make all fans also have to wear masks. That is a requirement to enter the stadium. Someone might have a drink, someone might eat a hotdog, again you have to do that without a mask, but then when you are done with that you would put your mask back on. If someone doesn’t want to wear a mask, that’s ok, they don’t have to come into the stadium. If they want a refund on their ticket, we would be happy to give them a refund.

With all sports dealing with the problem of athletes in a bubble, the WTT is hardly alone in this, but their commitment to fans does add a complication that other sports have not been willing to take on. The PGA's Memorial golf tournament next week in Ohio had been set to allow fans for the first time since the tour resumed last month, but that was recently vetoed and there will be no fans.

Here is a link to the World Team Tennis safety protocols.

Lisa Stone at Parenting Aces spoke with Matt Andre at UTR about the National Championship Series that began today at six locations across the county, and their conversation can be viewed on YouTube. The events kicking off the series are part of the College National Championships, which are for ages 17 and up, with the Junior National Championships for ages 14-16 scheduled to begin next week. The High School National Championships begin July 29.  Registration is open for the next three weeks of the College National Championships, and for all of the junior and high school events. For registration and more information, see the UTR website.

Patrick Mouratoglou has had a lot to say about keeping tennis relevant in this time of short attention spans, and he set about offering an alternative to current tennis formats with the Ultimate Tennis Showdown, going on now at his academy in Nice. Mouratoglou isn't alone; Fast 4 and third set tiebreakers have been a staple of the exhibitions that have been played during the pandemic. Is this format experimentation an answer to increasing the popularity of the sport?

This article from Matthew Willis at Racquet Magazine explores that question and ultimately decides that the more pressing problem tennis has is in drawing fans into the sport; the width of tennis fandom pales in comparison to other sports, with no video game culture and no easily accessible broadcast options to ignite interest in younger sports fans.

It's a long article, but it is worth your time if you care about the questions the sport needs to ask and answer to thrive in the future.