Professional tennis is taking an abrupt turn this week, careening from the stately strawberries and cream and reverential hush of Wimbledon to a relatively new event that will encourage fans to make noise, feature mid-match interviews and be contested by a field that includes “The Hot Shot,” “Big Foe” and “Bublik Enemy.”
The Ultimate Tennis Showdown is coming to Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson for three days starting Friday. With matches divided into four eight-minute quarters, loose conduct rules and interaction between players and fans, the series aims to engage audiences that are accustomed to consuming entertainment in quick, action-packed bites.
Creator Patrick Mouratoglou, the Frenchman who coached Serena Williams for a decade, isn’t trying to replace what he calls “classical” tennis, the men’s and women’s pro tours. He wants to shake off stuffy traditions and create “a disruptive tour which really aims to seduce the new generation.” That means turning passive spectators into active participants.
“Tennis is one of the only sports in the world where you pay for a ticket and you’re told to shut up, which is a bit weird,” he said. “Fans are here to enjoy, shout, cry, laugh, make noise if they want to. That’s the case in the NBA, soccer, in most sports, and I think that tennis players just got used to that. And if they get used to this, they’ll be completely fine, and I think they’ll be even more excited to play.”
Wimbledon it’s not, and that’s fine. There’s room for innovation and variety, especially with World Team Tennis dormant for a second straight summer. A spokesman for the U.S. Tennis Assn. said the organization “supports events that help to grow tennis in the U.S.”
The “Hot Shot,” a.ka. Southern California native Taylor Fritz, is all for the series’ strategy of catering to young and possibly first-time fans.
“It’s a great event for people that maybe aren’t tennis fans to come to, because it’s completely new rules. So someone who is not a tennis fan would kind of be in the same boat as someone who is a tennis fan,” said Fritz, the world’s top-ranked American man at No. 9.
“The demographic, the average age of tennis fans is much older and so I think it’s definitely good trying new things to adapt and just make it more exciting.”
That’s the premise behind UTS, which first appeared in 2020 but was stalled by the pandemic. In this, its fifth event, players will perform in front of more than a handful of spectators for the first time.
Round-robin matches will be played Friday and Saturday, with the semifinals and final Sunday. Total prize money is $1.665 million. Each match will have a purse of $111,000, with the winner getting 70% and the loser earning 30%. The final will be winner-take-all.
It’s a men’s competition, though Mouratoglou hopes to stage a women’s series. Players are limited to one serve per point to promote rallies, and players will wear headsets to allow them to speak to their coaches. They’re encouraged to talk to fans and to each other.
The field is strong, in nicknames and rankings.
In addition to Fritz, scheduled participants include Frances Tiafoe (“Big Foe”), who cracked the top 10 for the first time in June at No. 10. Ben Shelton, the 2022 NCAA champion at Florida and No. 39 in the world, is “The Mountain.” Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan, No. 27 in the world, is “Bublik Enemy.” Alas, “King” Nick Kyrgios withdrew because of a wrist injury, but he will coach Tiafoe.
“Bublik Enemy” might not catch on widely, but Bublik appreciates the inspiration behind it.
“These kinds of nicknames and a big show is nice. Biggest people in different sports have nicknames, and we don’t,” he said. “Maybe if we start from there we can slowly develop something bigger and it’s going to be very, very good for the game.”
Bublik, who recently reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon, said he enjoyed playing a 2021 UTS event at Mouratoglou’s academy in the south of France but prefers fans to be quiet during points so players can focus. Still, he finds the UTS format appealing.
“I definitely think we need this type of event,” he said. “I think it’s really too early to talk if it’s going to change something or bring new fans to the circuit, but I think if we are proceeding and going the direction where we are going, I think UTS can be a very, very big asset for professional tennis.”
UTS represents a welcome return of high-level pro tennis here. The L.A. Open has been gone for more than a decade; the Women’s Tennis Assn. event formerly held in Manhattan Beach and Carson was last staged in 2009. The BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells is a marquee event, but it’s played about 120 miles from Los Angeles.
“One of the reasons we chose L.A. is that L.A. doesn’t have a professional event for such a long time and it’s such an incredible city, a huge city with a great tennis culture, and we thought it was missing,” Mouratoglou said. “I think it’s very important for the young generation to watch tennis live. It’s a big inspiration. It’s one thing to watch behind a screen. It’s another to live the experience, the show, live.”
Fritz agreed. “I”m hoping it’s not a one-off for tennis in L.A.,” he said. “I’m excited that hopefully it does really well and gets people excited.”
UTS plans three more events in this year’s series. One will be in Frankfurt, Germany; Mouratoglou said he’s finalizing details for events in Asia and a grand finale in the Middle East. How things unfold in Carson this weekend will influence the rest of the series because this will be the first test of his fan engagement ideas in front of large audiences.
Ticket sales and media exposure won’t be the only factors when Mouratoglou evaluates the format’s success this weekend. In plotting the series’ course, he will consider fans’ reactions and comments from players.
“If the atmosphere is really heated and people are happy, excited, even if it’s too much, I prefer too much over not enough. In the future we’ll be able to manage that,” Mouratoglou said. “I hope players’ feedback will be that they say, ‘That was crazy, and I want to come back.’ ”