Professional tennis is taking an abrupt turn this week, shifting from Wimbledon’s stately strawberries and cream and reverent silence to a relatively new event that will encourage fans to make noise, offer mid-match interviews and be contested by a field that includes “The Hot Shot,” “Big Foe” and “Bublik Enemy.”
The Ultimate Tennis Showdown comes to Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson for three days starting Friday. With matches divided into four eight-minute quarters, loose rules of conduct and interaction between players and fans, the series aims to engage audiences accustomed to consuming entertainment in quick, action-packed chunks.
Creator Patrick Mouratoglou, the Frenchman who coached Serena Williams for a decade, isn’t trying to replace what he calls “classic” tennis, the men’s and women’s pro tours. He wants to shake off stuffy traditions and create “a disruptive tour that really aims to seduce the new generation.” It 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 strange,” he said. “Fans are here to enjoy, shout, cry, laugh, make noise if they want to. That’s the case in the NBA, football, in most sports, and I think tennis players have just gotten used to it. And if they get used to this, they’ll be fine and I think they’ll be even more excited to play.”
Wimbledon isn’t, and that’s fine. There is room for innovation and variety, especially with World Team Tennis in hibernation for the second summer in a row. A spokesman for the US Tennis Assn. said the organization “supports events that help grow tennis in the United States”
“Hot Shot”, a.k.a. Southern California native Taylor Fritz is all for the show’s strategy to appeal to young and possibly first-time fans.
“It’s a fantastic event for people who might not be tennis fans to come to, because it’s completely new rules. So someone who’s 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 at No. 9.
“The demographic, the average age of tennis fans is a lot older, and so I definitely think it’s good to try new things to adapt and just make it more exciting.”
This is the premise behind UTS, which first appeared in 2020 but was stopped by the pandemic. In this, its fifth event, the players will perform in front of more than a handful of spectators for the first time.
Round-robin matches are played on Friday and Saturday, with the semi-finals and final on Sunday. Total prize money is $1.665 million. Each fight 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 is a men’s competition, although Mouratoglou hopes to stage a series for women. Players are limited to one serve per game. points to promote rallies, and players will wear headsets to allow them to talk to their coaches. They are encouraged to talk to fans and to each other.
The field is strong, in nicknames and locations.
In addition to Fritz, scheduled entrants 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 the “Bublik Enemy.” Alas, “King” Nick Kyrgios withdrew due to a wrist injury, but he will train Tiafoe.
“Bublik Enemy” may not catch on widely, but Bublik appreciates the inspiration behind it.
“These kind of nicknames and a big show are nice. The 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 that will be very, very good for the game.”
Bublik, who recently reached the last 16 at Wimbledon, said he enjoyed playing a UTS event in 2021 at Mouratoglou’s academy in the south of France but would prefer fans to be quiet during points so the 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 too early to talk about whether it’s going to change anything or bring new fans to the court, but I think if we continue and go in the direction we’re going, I think UTS can be a very, very big asset to professional tennis.”
UTS represents a welcome return to high-level professional tennis here. The LA Open has been gone for more than a decade; Women’s Tennis Assn. event previously held in Manhattan Beach, and Carson was last held in 2009. The BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells is a marquee event, but is played about 120 miles from Los Angeles.
“One of the reasons we chose LA is because LA hasn’t had a professional event for so long 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 is very important for the young generation to see tennis live. It is a great inspiration. It’s one thing to see behind a screen. It is something else to live the experience, the show, live.”
Fritz agreed. “I hope it’s not a one-off for tennis in LA,” he said. “I’m excited that hopefully it will do really well and get people excited.”
UTS is planning three more events in this year’s series. One will be in Frankfurt, Germany; Mouratoglou said he is finalizing details for events in Asia and a grand final in the Middle East. How things go for Carson this weekend will affect the rest of the series because this will be the first test of his fan engagement ideas in front of a large crowd.
Ticket sales and media exposure will not be the only factors when Mouratoglou evaluates the success of the format this weekend. As he plots the course of the series, he will consider fan reactions and comments from players.
“If the atmosphere is really warm and people are happy, excited, even if it’s too much, I prefer too much to not enough. In the future, we will be able to do it,” Mouratoglou said. “I hope the feedback from the players will be that they say, ‘That was crazy and I want to go back.’ “