May 1, 2020

The Grand (Re)Opening

Tennis is getting back in action -- like real, live, professional tennis.

The Tennis Channel and MyUTR today announced the launch of the UTR Pro Match Series, whose first event will take place next weekend. ATP pros Matteo Berrettini, a semifinalist at the U.S. Open last year, Reilly Opelka, Tennys Sandgren and Tommy Paul will vie on an actual court for actual prize money starting May 8 -- the women, Amanda Anisimova, who made the final four at Roland Garros in 2019, Alison Riske, Danielle Collins ('19 Melbourne SF), and Ajla Tomljanovic, hold their own event starting May 22.

The matches, to be held in Florida, come as countries around the world and about half of U.S. states begin to lift some stay-at-home restrictions, even as the threat of the coronavirus remains front and center. It won't be exactly like the tournaments we're used to -- there won't be spectators or ball kids, and players will have their own set of marked balls to serve with, so there will hopefully be minimal risk of cross-contamination, and they'll have to provide their own drinks and towels.

The format could give us a glimpse of what Tour events might look like for the next several months. As I've said before, unlike other pro sports with obvious physical contact, tennis itself is presumably more adaptable to social distancing guidelines, and with proper steps can probably be kept relatively safe. That's the good news.

Another positive -- this gives an opportunity for players to earn what could be some much-needed income. Players and pundits have been quick to point out how big an economic toll the lockdown orders are having on lower-ranked players, Opelka even calling for tour officials to take a pay cut, as we've seen happen in other professional sports leagues.

This week's virtual Mutua Madrid Open was a nice first step in providing support -- Andy Murray and Kiki Bertens donating their winnings to the players' relief fund and the UK's National Health Service -- but it certainly doesn't solve the problem entirely. And, of course, neither does hosting an event with all the entrants in the top hundred, albeit far from the big endorsement players who will no doubt be fine during the shutdown.

But hopefully this event can give us a framework that'll eventually get more athletes back in the game. The exhibition matches being played between even lower-ranked players this weekend will help as well.

Still, is now the right time to get started? I don't know. I will say I'm not surprised host state Florida is one of the first in the U.S. to loosen restrictions, and I'm not sure people, Florida or elsewhere, have enough self-control not to rush the malls, beaches, and restaurants once that happens -- Central Park whenever it goes over 60° in New York is insane. But hopefully these events will be held to a higher standard, and players, officials and anyone else involved will take the necessary precautions.

After all, I'm surprisingly heartened by the tennis community's response to the pandemic, both in donating to health programs and front-line workers, and in taking #SocialDistancing guidelines not only seriously, but to new levels -- questionable vaccine beliefs notwithstanding.

So here's hoping our first event back is not only successful, but safe. I mean, we can all kind of agree with Sandgren here.

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