Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 2 December 2020

From tennis to Formula One, the virtual world has entered sports reality

Esports, digital tournaments and online coaching becoming the new normal

“I never thought this day would come,” John McEnroe joked on Sunday while commentating a live virtual tournament of Mario Tennis Aces.

Indeed the 61-year-old seven-time Grand Slam champion never would have imagined he’d be calling matches that featured Maria Sharapova playing as Mushroom Kingdom character Toadette alongside her doubles partner, supermodel Karlie Kloss, competing as Princess Peach.

Others who took part in the ‘Stay At Home Slam’ included Serena Williams, Gigi Hadid, Kei Nishikori, Naomi Osaka, Steve Aoki and Hailey Bieber.

Each contestant was given $25,000 (Dh91,000) to donate to a charity of their choice while champions, American tennis player Taylor Fritz and TikTok star Addison Rae, won $1million that went to No Kid Hungry.

Earlier in the week, Andy Murray and Kiki Bertens were crowned winners of the Mutua Madrid Open Virtual Pro – a four-day event that saw 32 ATP and WTA players battle it out on Nacon Gaming’s Tennis World Tour video game.

Murray donated half of his $45,000 prize money to the NHS and the other half went to the players’ relief fund that is being set up by members of the men’s tour to help their lower-ranked peers during this hiatus. The tournament itself dedicated €50,000 (Dh200,000) to the Madrid Food Bank.

Organisers of the Madrid Open Virtual Pro say they have reached more than 15 million unique viewers over the course of the tournament, which despite the technical glitches and the unnecessary commentary, proved to be a worthy initiative that engaged fans during the current sporting vacuum, while raising funds for various causes.

HOHR-GRENZHAUSEN, GERMANY - MAY 02: Benjamin Hassan of Germany wears a face mask as he warms up during day 2 of the Tennis Point Exhibition Series on May 02, 2020 in Hohr-Grenzhausen, Germany. The tournament is the first since the suspension of all matches at the beginning of March and one of the first non-virtual sporting events held during the Coronavirus crisis. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images)
Benjamin Hassan during the Tennis Point Exhibition Series in Germany. Tennis, like most sport, will not be the same whenever it resumes. Getty

Tennis’ venture into the realm of virtual gaming is perhaps long overdue. Many of the world’s leading professional sports organisations, like the NBA, Formula One and Fifa have license deals with top video game developers like EA, 2K or Codemasters, and have taken advantage of this lockdown by launching virtual leagues, races and tournaments – some of which are contested by a mix of stars and celebrities.

F1 have been staging virtual grands prix for each postponed race on the calendar. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc clinched his first two virtual races before he was bested by Red Bull’s Alex Albon on Sunday night in what was meant to be the virtual equivalent to the Dutch Grand Prix but was voted by fans to be held on Brazil’s Interlagos circuit because the video game does not feature the Netherlands’ Circuit Park Zandvoort.

“I was shaking afterwards. I had so much adrenaline in my body, I feel more scared driving a simulator than I do the real thing. The pressure was unbelievable,” Albon said after his victory on Sunday.

Some of the guest stars to grace the virtual grid so far included Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, former One Direction band member Liam Payne, and England cricketers Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes.

According to Formula1.com, the first three virtual grands prix – Bahrain, Vietnam and China – accumulated over 12.9 million views across F1’s digital platforms, with TV estimates taking that figure to nearly 16 million.

The NBA 2K League – which has been an official e-sport for three years – kicks off on Tuesday, so will the second edition of the ePremier League Invitational that features the likes of Spurs’ Ryan Sessegnon, Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson, and Leicester’s James Maddison.

Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold lost to Wolves’ Diogo Jota in the final of the first ePremier League Invitational, while Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez and Nani headlined the eMLS tournament (FIFA20) that began last month.

It’s not just the organisations and leagues that are going virtual. Athletes have set up their own channels on popular streaming platforms and are becoming gaming stars themselves.

F1 driver Lando Norris of McLaren has over 400,000 followers on Twitch, while Leclerc has nearly 320,000. They’ve been racing everything from trucks to lawnmowers online and together have accumulated almost 14 million views on their channels.

All this video gaming is, in some ways, helping the sports industry cope with the effects of Covid-19, and has been a useful tool for fundraising. But even when professional sport resumes worldwide, it’s likely that these new virtual initiatives will continue to thrive.

“It shows people what we’re like as normal people. We can finally act as normal people and as 22-year-olds. It’s what I like the most about this and which I will continue after this situation. In future, I might stay a bit in the virtual world because I enjoy it,” Leclerc told Formula1.com.

Many athletes have signed deals with live-streaming services, including French tennis player Gael Monfils, whose agreement with Twitch forced him to withdraw from the Madrid Open Virtual Pro “due to conflicting rights between streaming platforms”. That’s one withdrawal statement I never thought I’d hear in tennis!

Those who aren’t gaming are embracing the online world in other ways. Instagram Lives have become all the rage, and have given us some unique exchanges.

Tennis player Juan Martin del Potro had a live session with fellow Argentine and basketball legend Manu Ginobili; Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal giggled through a legendary Insta-live recently, while Venus Williams has a weekly workout schedule featuring a different guest star every day.

The social-media savvy American has shared some fun workouts with the likes of Naomi Campbell, Robert Gronkowski, Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev and many more. Up next on #CoachVenus’ ‘Tennis Tuesday’? None other than Naomi Osaka!

British No 1 Johanna Konta has started her own podcast and interviewed Harry Potter actors James and Oliver Phelps in the first episode.

Serena Williams and her coach Patrick Mouratoglou have unveiled a new dual-language website called Tennis Majors, while Monfils’ coach Liam Smith has launched an informational video series on the tennis player development process.

When tennis resumes, will coaches continue to utilise some of the online skills they’ve picked up from dealing with their players remotely during this sports hiatus?

“I think the virtual stuff is good, it just depends how you use it. Obviously now we’re a little bit forced to in some cases – we’re forced to communicate online, but maybe when the future opens up again, there can still be a place for being able to do both,” Smith says.

“I know there’s a lot of online coaching and a lot of school campuses using online platforms providing good content and education for their students. So, sure, why not? Let’s see if there can be some positive things that come out of this real mess that the world has been in, that maybe we get better at doing things and providing quality content for each other and sharing things online as well.”

Updated: May 5, 2020 08:24 AM

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