May 25, 2020

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Pros back on court – and on TV

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Friday marks the start of the “UTR Pro Match Series” – live from a private court in West Palm Beach, Fla. and broadcast on Tennis Channel.

As well, it will be streamed on Twitter and Facebook.

The event has calmed down its initial hype about being “the first tennis to be broadcast internationally since the lockdown!!!!!” Which is fair enough, because it’s far from being the first.

But it does have the most recognizable field, even if its two of its top players, Matteo Berrettini of Italy and American Tennys Sandgren, have already begged off with injuries.

Sandgren told Tennis Channel he tweaked his knee in the gym Monday and although it’s okay, he’s not ready to play a competitive match just four days later. As for Berrettini, ranked a career high No. 8, it’s still the ankle.

Berrettini has played just two matches this year, both at the Australian Open. He lost in the second round, in five sets, to Sandgren. He withdrew from ATP Cup, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Acapulco because of a hernia/groin injury. He was practicing at Indian Wells before the tournament was cancelled. The reason for his withdrawal from the Florida event is an ankle injury.

So the event will very much be a young-guns shootout. The four men in action will be Tommy Paul, Reilly Opelka, Serbia’s Miomir Kecmanovic and Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz. There will be remote commentary from the Tennis Channel studios in Los Angeles, and the players will wear headphones on changeovers to communicate.

The action kicks off at noon with Paul vs. Hurkacz, followed by Kecmanovic vs. Opelka. The players will call their own lines, subject to overrule by the one official present on court.

A full complement of Tennis Channel commentators was on hand for the debut. Of course, this being men’s tennis, it was a men’s-only crew.

Social distancing optional for the crew at the UTR event on Friday.

There are a number of safety and health measures put in place on this private court, which sits on a 5 1/2-acre property owned by a friend of Paul and Opelka’s. The two, who are roommates and quarantining together, practice on that court regularly.

But while the social-distancing measures seem to be in place for the players, it appears the crew (to the left, underneath the awning), had no such restrictions.

There is a women’s event planned for May 22-24. That one is expected to feature Amanda Anisimova, Alison Riske-Amritraj (whose husband, Stephen, is the Chief Tennis Officer for UTR), Ajla Tomljanovic and Danielle Collins.

That’s a fine lineup.

But as this event begins, there are several that have been ongoing for awhile – and several more in the pipeline.

All-German event at the Base Academy

An tournament at the Base Tennis Academy in Hoehr-Grenzhausen, Germany this past week didn’t offer much prize money. But it did feature the crowd-pleasing Dustin Brown. The competitors were either German, or based in Germany.

Called the “Tennis Point Exhibition Series” and played on red clay indoors, it used the shortened “first to four games” format. The first series of matches ran May 1-4; the second began Thursday and runs through Sunday. There will be a third set May 14-17. Yannick Hanfmann, the highest-ranked in the field, won the first section.

(No women – men only).

Here’s an inside look at it.

Ongoing matches in Bradenton and Wesley Chapel, Fla.

For the last few weeks, there have been matches ongoing in Florida. Called the “The International Tennis Series”, they’ve been running on ESPN+.

The prize money, underwritten by SportsEd TV, works out to about four figures a day, promoter Harry Cicma told the New York Times. The men are playing on a private court near the IMG Academy in Bradenton.

The men also are playing first to four with no-ad scoring – and no lets.

meanwhile, the same producer launched the “United States Women’s Pro Tennis Series” earlier this week, at the Saddlebrook resort on Wesley Chapel Fla. with a similar structure.

In this case, though, it seems that any effort to play safe, limit people around the court and social distance have pretty much been abandoned. It’s not offering up much of a role model for all the recreational tennis players around the country who are hankering to get back on the courts.

Then again, the Saddlebrook resort has remained open through the pandemic (even the hotel), as kids at the academy continue to train, and Alexander Zverev, for one, has a big crew of players and coaches around in the gym and on the courts.

From the looks of things, social-distancing and special precautions are an afterthought at this women’s event at Saddlebrook. Players and others were often right next to each other. And it looks like Mom and Pop Parks were on hand to watch their daughter Alycia.

From watching part of this match between Alycia Parks and Seone Mendez, it looked like business as usual – hardly pandemic-style safe tennis.

Events upcoming in France, Germany, Austria

The countdown to the Ultimate Tennis Showdown had to be updated, as the event’s debut has been postponed a month.

Meanwhile, the much-touted exhibition event at super-coach Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy near Nice, France has been put on hold.

Aspirationally named the “Ultimate Tennis Showdown“, the event was to begin next weekend. Lucas Pouille, David Goffin, Dustin Brown, Fabio Fognini, Benoit Paire and Alexei Popyrin (whose father is involved in organizing it) have already signed on for matches taking place on weekends.

Félix Auger-Aliassime, who plans to travel to his base in Monte Carlo next week, said he would consider it when he’s ready to play competitive matches.

Auger-Aliassime will have time to train. The event has been postponed a full month; it’s not tentatively scheduled to begin only on June 16 in order to “obtain the necessary authorizations to ensure the proper holding of the competition,” per l’Équipe.

In Germany, federation vice-president Dirk Hordorff and Kitzbühel tournament director Alex Antonitsch are organizing a cash event. In Austria, longtime pro Jürgen Melzer and Wolfgang Thiem (father of Dominic) are in charge.

Witthoeft, Paszek plan comebacks

The lists of players for the German event have been unveiled. And – especially on the men’s side – the roster shows how much quality depth there is in the country. The action will take place more than a half-dozen cities, with the men and women playing in separate cities at least for the preliminary rounds.

The top-ranked man is Jan-Lennard Struff, at No. 34. Also on hald will be Dominik Koepfer (No. 92), Peter Gojowczyk (No. 125), Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, and Maximilian Marterer.

Former top-50 player Carina Witthoeft, who has been on an extended break from tennis to heal up physically and mentally, plans to return to action in the German exhibition event. (Stephanie Myles/OpenCourt.ca)

On the women’s side, Laura Siegemund, Anna-Lena Friedsam, Tamara Korpatsch and Mona Barthel are on the list. As well, Carina Witthoeft, who was No. 48 in the world just 15 months ago but has no ranking at the moment, plans to make a comeback. Witthoeft hasn’t played since retiring in the first set of her first-round qualifying match at the 2019 Australian Open.

After announcing in February 2019 that she was taking “a break from tournaments until I feel physically and mentally 100% ready to compete again,” Witthoeft planned to return to action in a full year later, in February 2020. But she pulled out of that due to injury.

Generali Austria Pro Series offers €€

The Austrian event, called the Generali Austria Pro Series, will feature 16 men and 8 women, playing for a total of 151,750 euros.

With his father involved in the organization, a bonus will be that Dominic Thiem, by far the most decorated player to take part in these exhibitions so far, will be on hand. Melzer will also play, as will Dennis Novak.

On the women’s side, a notable returnee on the entry list will be Tamira Paszek.

Now 29, Paszek – seen here at the 2016 French Open – has been off the grid for several years as she battled a chronic pain disorder. (Stephanie Myles/OpenCourt.ca)

Paszek, now 29, has been beset by health woes in recent years. She was No. 26 in the world back in 2013, and has three WTA career singles titles. In 2017 she announced she was suffering from trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic pain disorder.

She played just two matches in 2017 – both retirements, at 0-6, 0-3, and at 0-6, 0-2. Paszek didn’t play again until April of 2019, when she started back again at the bottom, competing in two $15,000 ITFs in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.

The expected start date in Austria is May 25, and June 8 in Germany with a planned finish on July 26.

Tipsarevic organizes in Serbia

Not to be outdone, the recently-retired Janko Tipsarevic has announced that his academy in Belgrade will host the “Eastern European Championships.

The event is scheduled to begin June 15.

More announcements to come on that. You would imagine that if Tipsarevic can get his great friend Novak Djokovic to take part, it will be a big success even if, as with all these events, fans might not be allowed to come.

As it is, among those expected to compete are Dusan Lajovic, Filip Krajinovic, Damir Dzumhur, Ricardas Berankis, Aljaz Bedene, Laslo Djere, Viktor Troicki and Marius Copil.

What’s becoming clear is that no one expects to return any time soon. And that many countries or areas might start looking into hosting these types of things for their players.

As well, it’s quickly become an opportunity for brands and companies who want to get a foothold into the professional tennis event business – at very reasonable cost – to start making their moves.

All of the upcoming events promise to adhere strictly to social distancing and other safety rules. It’s important – not only for those involved, but for those watching who are taking notes.