Pro Tennis Returns In the U.S., Albeit Without Spectators Or Handshakes

WASHINGTON, May 9, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

After Hubert Hurkacz beat Tommy Paul 4-2, 4-0 in the opening match of the UTR Pro Match Series Friday afternoon on a private hard court in West Palm Beach, Fla., there was a brief moment of awkwardness. Normally, at the end of a tennis match it is customary for players to shake hands at the net in a declaration of good sportsmanship as they ready to exit the court.

Only this time, the two players tapped rackets instead of shaking hands, which seems to be the new normal in these global pandemic times. Then, Hurkacz, a native of Wroclaw, Poland, who at No. 29 is the highest-ranked player participating in this two-day, four-player round-robin exhibition event presented by and broadcast live on Tennis Channel, waved to a non-existent crowd, which as New York Times tennis correspondent Christopher Clarey wrote on Twitter, “shows that some old habits die harder.”

Hurkacz’s faux pas drew the attention of Hall of Famer Andy Roddick, who commented on the matches remotely from his home in Texas for Tennis Channel. “Hurkacz’s wave to the crowd was comedy that I’ve only seen with the likes of Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle, Robin Williams … the comedic timing of that wave to the crowd was amazing,” he said.

As for Hurkacz, he took it all in good stride. “It’s good to be back in a competitive match and compete against another player,” he said following his win against Paul. “Plenty of people are watching and hopefully they are having fun. It was a little bit different with no spectators. I was visualizing that they’re enjoying the match at home.”

After the first day, using a best-of-three, Fast4 sets format (first to four games with no-ad scoring and a short sudden-death tiebreak of first to five points), 39th-ranked American Reilly Opelka from Delray Beach, Fla., stands atop the standings with a 2-0 win-loss record following a pair of victories. First, Opelka hit 12 aces to beat No. 47 Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia, who trains in Florida, 4-3 (4), 4-0. Then, he came from down a set to defeat his roommate and best friend, the 57th-ranked American Paul from Boca Raton, Fla., 3-4 (4), 4-1, 4-0. In the afternoon’s final match, Kecmanovic won in straight sets against Hurkacz, 4-3 (2), 4-0. Hurkacz and Kecmanovic are tied for second, each with 1-1 records and Paul trails in fourth at 0-2.

“I feel good. It was nice to compete again,” said Opelka during a post-match interview with Tennis Channel after his first match. “I’ve had only two months off but it feels like a year.” Opelka, who played back-to-back matches Friday, said he wasn’t concerned about the short rest time in between. “With the Fast4 format, it’s not really too bad. I have 45 minutes to an hour at least. That’s what is nice about the format. I can play two matches in one day here. It seems to be the new normal.”

On Saturday, the final two group matches will be contested – Hurkacz vs. Opelka and Paul vs. Kecmanovic – followed by the third place and championship matches. This weekend’s event has been condensed from the original three days into two because of expected inclement weather on Sunday.

The UTR Pro Match Series, dubbed by Tennis Channel as the “Re(Open),” with four players each ranked inside the Top 60, has made safety its top priority in pro tennis’s return to the United States, the first competition since the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, Calif., was cancelled eight weeks ago. The goal of the series is to be able to showcase how tennis can be played locally – and just as importantly, safely – while the sport looks toward being able to reopen in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking of safety, each player enjoyed a separate tent a few yards removed from the competition area; there were the spaced-out walks out to the court; and there was plenty of social distancing while on the court as each player’s bench was a little further from the chair umpire than normal. Additionally, players took care of handling their own towels as well as their own water in the absence of any ball kids. And, with the exception of one line judge to help with service calls who was stationed outside the fence, players also called their own lines. Finally, the court and the facility was professionally disinfected before and after play. Oh, there were also no coaches present and no spectators or public access allowed. So, the players were truly on their own, playing under sunny skies and peaceful conditions.

Overall, things seemed to go smoothly. Aside from playing without the benefit of spectators, from a competitive standpoint the exhibition event is providing the players with an opportunity to test their playing level after two months of inactivity while also entertaining a worldwide audience that’s hungry for live tennis.

Before his first match, Kecmanovic, a last-minute replacement for one of the original entrants, Tennys Sandgren, said: “It’s going to feel like practice, honestly. I don’t know, I think it will be quiet. It’s different when you don’t play with any people, without your coach or anybody. So, I think it will be really interesting to see how it affects you or how it changes your perception on the match itself.”