Tennis slowly returns with exhibition matches

Tennys Sandgren, who was listed before professional tennis closed, he has had enough video games and self-isolation at his home near Nashville, Tennessee.

"I'd play tennis in a hazmat suit, just to go compete. I'm itching," he said Wednesday.

Such extreme measures won't be necessary, just a 12-hour road trip next week. Sandgren plans to drive to West Palm Beach, Florida to play in the UTR Pro Match Series , the first top-tier tennis exhibition in the age of the coronavirus, and hardly the last.

Sandgren, an American who had seven match points in the Australian Open quarterfinals in January before losing to Roger Federer, will play May 8-10 against Matteo Berrettini of Italy and rising Americans Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul .

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Berrettini, eighth classified, was a surprise semifinalist at the US Open. USA From last year. Opelka is ranked 39, Sandgren 55 and Paul 57.

The matches, which will be played on private hard court and broadcast on the Tennis Channel, will be for singles only, with no live viewers and only one match official to respect social distancing requirements.

"We're trying to bring pro tennis back on linear TV, and we're doing it in a way that is super safe," said Mark Leschly, chairman and chief executive of Universal Tennis, the tennis rating and organizational platform that is backing the event.

It is part of a wave of competitions that try to fill part of the void created by the absence of professional tours, the ATP and the WTA , which have been closed for at least four months due to the pandemic.

The International Tennis Series, a package of men's round-robin events primarily involving players ranked well outside the top 100, has been streaming on ESPN3 since mid-April from another private Florida court. Most of the matches have been streamed with a single fixed camera and without commentary, as passing traffic and the players' mutterings provide most of the soundtrack.

Dustin Brown, a stunning German professional who once annoyed Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon but fell to 239 in the ranking, will take part this weekend, with a group of lower-ranking players, in the first of a series of events. German exhibition. at a club in the city of Höhr-Grenzhausen.

Patrick Mouratoglou, the Frenchman who coaches Serena Williams, announced a series of events called the Ultimate Tennis Showdown that would begin later in Mayat his tennis academy near Nice. Mouratoglou said that 10th-ranked David Goffin had committed to the first event along with Alexei Popyrin, a promising Australian who is ranked 103rd and whose father initially had the idea for the series. It is being designed to appeal to a younger audience with in-match coaching and fewer restrictions on player behavior than at tour events.

Nadal has also discussed the possibility of broadcasting exhibitions from his academy in Mallorca, Spain, once government restrictions allow.

The UTR series will continue at a women's event May 22-24 in West Palm Beach, with Alison Riske ranking 19th, No. 28 Amanda Anisimova, No. 51 Danielle Collins and No. 56 Ajla Tomljanovic. Leschly said there were also plans to organize events in Australia with leading players.

There are plenty more such projects. They reflect the paradox that tennis is straightforward to play while respecting social distancing but also complex to restart on the tour level because of its international cast and the need for players and officials to cross global borders frequently.

On a small scale, the risks are minimal. There is little chance of direct or close contact with the body when two individual players face each other. Handshakes can be rejected and players can change ends on opposite sides of the court. During displays, each player also uses a different set of balls while serving to reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of contamination from both players handling the same ball.

You can control the settings much more, Sandgren said. There are far fewer players and fewer extra things, so you can take more extensive precautions.

Both the WTA and ATP Tours will not resume regular tournament play until July 13 at the earliest, although the rest of the 2020 season remains in doubt, including the U.S. Open, scheduled for Aug. 31 to Sept. 13.

Andrea Gaudenzi, the ATP chairman, said last week that a decision would be made about the remaining July tour events by May 15 and about the August events by June 1. Mike Dowse, the chief executive of the U.S. Tennis Association, has said he expects the association to decide sometime in June whether to proceed with the Open.

Dowse said holding the US Open. USA Without spectators it would be an option, although not attractive for the atmosphere or the ticket and the income of the luxury box. But the massive exhibition circuit certainly presents an opportunity for everyone in the game to see how tournaments could work.

The world has changed and we must adapt and innovate, Leschly said. Local, individual and small group play will be the new normal for the foreseeable future.