Column: Pro tennis is back in L.A. with fast-paced format, new rules and rowdy fans

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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.”

Taylor Fritz holds up his trophy after winning the men's singles finals at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in 2022.
Taylor Fritz shares a moment with fans.
 
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

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.

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