Tennis has finally returned during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, although in a very abridged format. A private tennis court without spectators in West Palm Beach, Florida hosted the UTR Pro Match Series, a round-robin tournament featuring four young standouts between the ages of 20 and 23 ranked in the Top 60 in the world. The competitors were Hubert Hurkacz of Poland (world #29), American Reilly Opelka (world #39), Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic (world #47), and American Tommy Paul (world #57). The event provided a chance for tennis fans to finally enjoy live tennis after a two month hiatus and showcase some of the top young players in the world. Players competed for an undisclosed amount of prize money, sponsored by the UTR rating system and the Novak Djokovic foundation. A women’s event in the same format is set to take place from May 22-24 featuring Alison Riske, Amanda Anisimova, Danielle Collins, and Ajla Tomljanovic.
UTR Pro Match Series Format
The event was played over two days in a four player round-robin format. Each player played two matches a day, once against every other player, with the top two players competing for the title. Matches were played in an abridged fast fours format of best two out of three sets to four games. No-ad scoring was used, and a seven point tiebreak was played if a set reached a score of 3-3. This differs from the best of five fast fours used in the ATP Next Gen Finals, which still required players to win a total of 12 games to win a match, just as they would in a standard best of three sets match. The abridged format helped players physically who played two matches a day after likely training less due to quarantine restrictions, with most matches lasting less than one hour.
The tournament also took several social distancing measures to avoid any contact. No line judges or ball kids were used, so the only people on court were the two players, a chair umpire, and camera operators. Each player had a basket on both sides of the court with assigned tennis balls to serve with, so they did not touch the same tennis balls. Post-match handshakes were avoided, with some players touching rackets in lieu of a handshake while some simply exited the court once the match was over.
Opelka started day one strong, beating Kecmanovic in straight sets and his roommate Paul in dominant fashion 3-4 4-1 4-0. The tallest player on tour at 6’11” showed an improved return, winning a bagel set in both of his matches. Kecmanovic was able to salvage his day with a straight set victory over the top ranked competitor Hurkacz. Hurkacz had begun the day strong with an easy victory over Paul, losing just two games. Every game mattered, with the round-robin tiebreak being sets won, then games won if the sets were tied.
Kecmanovic beat Paul to begin day two, dropping the American to 0-3 and at 2-1 giving the Sebian a good shot to play in the final. Hurkacz played excellent tennis to beat Opelka, breaking the big server twice to give all three players a 2-1 record. Hurkacz was the odd man out due to his straight set loss day one, giving him a 4-3 overall sets record to the other player’s 5-3. In the third place match, Hurkacz salvaged his tournament with a 4-1 0-4 4-1 win over Paul. The final did not disappoint, with Opelka winning a thrilling 4-3 2-4 4-2 match over Kecmanovic, securing the title with his second victory in as many days over the Serbian.
Rust was clearly evident, but the tennis remained decent quality and entertaining for fans watching. Paul had the most disappointing event, losing all four of his matches, but he is the lowest ranked of the four competitors and did manage to win a set in three of the four matches. Hurkacz played strong tennis throughout, and aside from a poor second set against Kecmanovic where unforced errors got the best of him, showed why the young Pole has potential top-10 talent in the future. Kecmanovic was unable to beat Opelka in two matches, but the runner-up played good tennis throughout to go 2-2 and at age 20 will benefit from the extra match experience. The champion Opelka has plenty of positive takeaways. The commentators mentioned that he had been studied Novak Djokovic’s return game to try and improve upon the weakest aspect of his game. His work paid off, breaking serve in every match with his massive serve continuing to be a big weapon.
The several local events around the world will hopefully lead to more chances for players to gain match experience and earn prize money as countries ease stay at home restrictions. It is nowhere near the same as the normal weekly tournaments, but will hopefully allow players to be more prepared for the season to finally continue, whenever that may be. Hopefully these events will be a temporary solution for both the fans and players to enjoy tennis while avoiding the dangers of traveling. If this week’s UTR Pro Match Series is any indication, fans can expect a good level of tennis with players seriously competing even at an exhibition level.
Main Photo from Getty.