Exhibition events fill void during tennis shutdown - but will any stick around when normality returns?

ATP and WTA Tours have been halted since March due to the coronavirus pandemic and a number of events have popped up in their absence

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic poses after the press conference in Belgrade, Serbia, Monday, May 25, 2020. Djokovic is planning to set up a series of tennis tournaments in the Balkan region while the sport is suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic. No professional tennis tournaments have been played since March. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
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So many tennis exhibition events have been popping up on the calendar as of late, and if you can’t keep up, you’re not alone.

The sport’s official men’s and women’s tours are currently suspended through July 31 due to the coronavirus, but that only made way for a slew of unsanctioned tournaments and leagues to emerge in countries like the United States, Austria, Germany, Spain, France, Czech Republic, and the United Kingdom.

Last month, the UTR Pro Series featured a host of Florida-based WTA and ATP players, competing on a private court in West Palm Beach, with no access to spectators. Players were given their own set of marked balls and designated off-court areas, and were responsible for providing their own drinks and towels.

Last weekend, beIN Sports aired the Region of Valencia Tennis Challenge that saw Roberto Bautista Agut, Pablo Carreno Busta, Alex de Minaur and Pablo Andujar face off, also staged behind closed doors.

Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova and other Czech players took part in an exhibition event in Prague, while Berlin is hosting a grass-court event (July 13-15 at the Steffi Graf Stadium) and a hard-court event (July 17-19 at the hangar of Tempelhof Airport) featuring six men and six women, with a total prize pot of €200,000 (Dh831,000).

Most exhibitions have relied on players based in surrounding areas, but the Berlin events have Nick Kyrgios, who lives in Australia, listed as one of its participants. No fans will be allowed to attend and electronic line calling will be used instead of line judges.

Andy Murray is set to make his first appearance of the year in the 'Battle of the Brits' six-day event (June 23-28) that will feature Britain's top-ranked male players at the LTA's National Tennis Centre in Roehampton. The singles and doubles tournament will raise funds for NHS Charities Together.

In Charleston, South Carolina, sharing the same dates as the British event, 16 women, including Sofia Kenin and Bianca Andreescu, will participate in the Credit One Bank Invitational. A portion of the tournament’s proceeds will go to MUSC Health’s healthcare workers.

Novak’s Balkan trip

World No 1 Novak Djokovic has organised a multi-stop, month-long Adria Tour that is slated to kick off this Saturday in his home city of Belgrade.  The charity tournament will then move to Zadar, Croatia (June 20-21), before hitting Montenegro (June 27-28), Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina (July 3-4), and concluding with an exhibition match against Damir Dzumhur in Sarajevo on July 5.

Djokovic will be joined by the likes of world No 3 Dominic Thiem, world No 7 Alexander Zverev, and world No 19 Grigor Dimitrov, along with Croatian duo Borna Coric and Marin Cilic, as well as Serbians Filip Krajinovic, Dusan Lajovic and Viktor Troicki.

Djokovic’s younger brother Djordje is listed as the Adria Tour director, on the event’s Instagram account, while Djokovic’s coach, Croatian great Goran Ivanisevic is the tournament director for the Zadar leg.

Each stop of the tour will follow a round-robin system, with players split into two pools, and competing in a ‘Fast 4’ format (the first player to win four games wins the set).

There will also be doubles matches, and the biggest surprise is that former world No 1 Jelena Jankovic, who has not played a match since 2017 but has not officially retired yet, will take part in a mixed doubles clash alongside Djokovic, against their fellow Serbs Olga Danilovic and Nenad Zimonjic.

According to the Adria Tour website, “the aim to raise funds for humanitarian projects across the region, including the Novak Djokovic Foundation’s Early Childhood Development and Education programmes. At the same time, the organisers wish to help tennis players get back in shape and gain access to some competitive tennis in the Covid-19 situation”.

All participants are believed to have committed to donating their prize money to charities of their choosing, and the tournament announced that the first 1,000 tickets for the Belgrade leg sold out within seven minutes.

Yes, it appears there will be fans at the event (although conditions may vary from one city to another), but organisers say a one-metre distance between each spectator will be enforced.

Ivanisevic told Nova S TV that a 9,000-seat stadium is being constructed for the Zadar event, “and I hope that half of that capacity will be allowed for the crowd to see the best players in the world”.

Patrick’s project

FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 file photo, Serena Williams' coach Patrick Mouratoglou watches her first round match against Germany's Tatjana Maria at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia. With tennis majors on hold and discussions ongoing over whether the U.S. Open or the French Open can even take place later this year, a new digitally friendly tournament starts Saturday in southern France with four Top 10-ranked players involved. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)
Patrick Mouratoglou. AP Photo

Over in the South of France, Patrick Mouratoglou, the coach of Serena Williams, is hosting a league dubbed the ‘Ultimate Tennis Showdown’ that will be streamed on its own online platform and will take place over five consecutive weekends, starting this Saturday, at his academy.

Initially scheduled for June, but pushed back due to coronavirus restrictions in France, the UTS is branded as a “revolutionary” event, that aims to draw in a younger fan-base to the sport.

With a tagline that promises “live tennis like never before”, the league has three top-10 players signed up – Stefanos Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini and David Goffin – as well as Felix Auger-Aliassime, Lucas Pouille, Alexei Popyrin (whose father Alex is a co-founder of UTS), Richard Gasquet, Benoit Paire and Dustin Brown. A 10th and final player is yet to be announced.

Mouratoglou, 50, hopes to inject the competition with more emotion – unlike on tour, players will not be sanctioned for on-court outbursts – and will add to the fan experience by allowing players to be questioned by live-stream viewers during changeovers.

Ten matches will be streamed every weekend and the prize money will be split 70 per cent to the winner, and 30 per cent to the loser. Mouratoglou pledged a portion of proceedings from advertising and broadcast to help lower-ranked players affected by this coronavirus-enforced hiatus.

What happens when tennis tours restart?

TOPSHOT - Team Europe's Roger Federer celebrates after winning the 2019 Laver Cup tennis tournament in Geneva, on September 22, 2019. / AFP / ROMAIN LAFABREGUE
Roger Federer celebrates after winning the 2019 Laver Cup. AFP

While most exhibitions appear to be one-off events that have found space in a previously jam-packed calendar, and aim to fill a void until professional tennis can officially resume, you wonder if this sudden surge can have a lasting impact on the ATP and WTA tours.

Will any of these events want to stick around, even when the sport officially restarts? Mouratoglou certainly plans on staging the UTS in the future, opening it up to more players, and taking it to more locations (he mentions Australia, Asia and the United States as prospective targets).

We’ve seen how the introduction of the Laver Cup (the brainchild of Roger Federer and his management company), which takes place over just one single weekend each September, has ruffled feathers by affecting the ATP tournaments scheduled at the same time (it has since been vaguely brought under the ATP umbrella but does not award players ranking points), and leading to potential withdrawals from ATP events the following weeks in Asia.

Could this exhibitions frenzy lead to more Laver Cup-like predicaments?

Exhibitions are nothing new in tennis. They’ve been a very lucrative business for players for many decades and are mostly successful when they introduce the sport to a community that wouldn’t get live professional tennis otherwise.

Take the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi for example. Community and fan engagement is at the heart of that event. Which makes you wonder: if such exhibitions are staged behind closed doors, what is the real value in it, if it's not purely used as a tool for raising funds for charity? Are fans really watching live-streams of Fast 4 matches on their devices to get their tennis fix? Viewership numbers would be helpful to shed some light on whether these events are embraced by fans.

At a time when players are rushing to sign up for such unsanctioned events, the US Open is receiving pushback from the likes of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal regarding the circumstances and restrictions that might be enforced in order for it to actually take place.

A decision on whether the US Open will happen is expected mid-June. Restrictions being considered include having no fans onsite, limiting players to travel to the tournament with just one member of their team, and having players stay at hotels near the airport, and get tested for coronavirus multiple times during their stay.

Djokovic has described such limitations as "extreme" and cannot fathom going to a Grand Slam with just one staff member. It's worth noting that many of the lower-ranked players cannot afford to travel with large teams, and this could, for once, level the playing field for all competitors at the US Open.

Nadal believes it would be unfair to stage a Grand Slam if some countries still have travel restrictions in place that would prevent a player from making it to the tournament.

The Spaniard has a point, and the idea of a Grand Slam being played in New York end of August, right now, sounds quite ambitious. Yet with players crossing continents to take part in exhibitions, you also understand why any official tournament is doing everything in its power to take place – within the current safety guidelines – in order to avoid the loss of millions of dollars, and to give lower-ranked players a much-needed opportunity to earn money.

One thing everyone can agree on: tennis, whenever it returns, will be a very different experience for all involved.