PARIS — With discussions ongoing as to whether the U.S. Open or the French Open can even take place later this year, a new tennis tournament that aims to be fan friendly using digital means starts next Saturday in southern France with four top-10 players involved.
Co-founder Patrick Mouratoglou hopes the Ultimate Tennis Showdown, which will debut with ATP Finals winner Stefanos Tsitsipas and U.S. Open semifinalist Matteo Berrettini among the competitors, can change the way tennis is viewed by allowing a younger audience to access the raw feelings of players.
"I would like the fans to benefit from better access to the players' emotions, especially on the court where the code of conduct is a significant obstacle to that," Mouratoglou said. "UTS aims to appeal to a younger, more engaged new generation of fans in order to grow its fanbase community."
Players compete every weekend for five weeks in a round-robin format, their matches streamed on a live platform with multiple screens, cameras and speakers capturing every sight and sound, according to organizers.
And that's the whole point: allowing viewers unprecedented access to all that goes on in a match — ramping up the rawness, rather than filtering it out.
Mouratoglou, who is also the coach of 23-time Grand Slam women's singles champion Serena Williams, founded the UTS with Australian player Alexei Popyrin, who is also competing.
They want to change how tennis is experienced through a faster-paced format featuring more interaction, where on-court coaching is encouraged rather than frowned upon.
"(Players) will interact in real time with their fans, share conversations between themselves and coaches and carry themselves more freely on court," the UTS said. "Spectators play a role in what unfolds; they interact with the players and can ask questions on changeovers, see what's happening behind the scenes in the lives of players, and hear every word exchanged between coaches and players."
That could well turn Benoit Paire into a global online star.
The 30-year-old Frenchman, ranked No. 22, is known as much for his explosive temper and his on-court rants — often directed at himself — as for his erratic but sometimes ingenious stroke play.
The event is being held at Mouratoglou's academy near Antibes on the sun-soaked French Riviera. Because of coronavirus restrictions, no fans are allowed on site and a safety protocol with social distancing and a limited amount of staff has been established.
The 10th-ranked David Goffin is also in the field, and the final ATP Tour top-10 player will be announced this week. The others in the field are No. 20-ranked Felix Auger-Aliassime; No. 50 Richard Gasquet; No. 58 Lucas Pouille; and No. 239 Dustin Brown.
Auger-Aliassime is the youngest at age 19 and is exactly half as old as record-setting 20-time Grand Slam men's singles champion Roger Federer, with whom he shares an Aug. 8 birthday.
Brown, who beat 19-time major winner Rafael Nadal in the second round at Wimbledon five years ago, is the oldest player at 35.
Several players live in Monaco, making for convenient access to the tournament considering it is only 30 miles away along the coast.
The tournament is not part of the ATP circuit, and the format and rules have yet to be officially announced, but the matches themselves are likely to be shorter.
Prize money depends on a player's ranking and performance — a winner receives 70% and the loser 30%. Players also get a portion of advertising and broadcast revenue, the UTS said on its website.
The 21-year-old Tsitsipas is a flamboyant and emotionally expressive player who appeals to a younger audience, but is also a throwback to a bygone era when players such as John McEnroe and Björn Borg wore headbands.
The tall and long-haired Greek player, who reached the Australian Open semifinals last year and has five career titles, has been a member of Mouratoglou's academy since 2015.
"In 2017, as the world No. 203, I received a wild card into the Sophia Antipolis Challenger, which was held at the academy," Tsitsipas said. "Three years later, I am grateful for how far I have come."
The 24-year-old Italian is impatient to get back on court after playing only two competitive matches this year, both at the Australian Open — where he lost in the second round to Tennys Sandgren.
Said Berrettini: "After a never-ending period of inactivity, I am really hungry to compete."