The Ultimate Tennis Showdown (UTS) was created by Patrick Mouratoglou at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, he sought to build stronger connections between tennis players and fans. He finally saw his vision come alive this past weekend.
Launched in June of 2020, UTS is a league separate from the ATP dedicated to garnering a lively audience with its unique take on tennis. Competitors receive nicknames and compete in four 8-minute quarters. The games are also accompanied by an on-court DJ to hype up the crowd during points.
The tournament’s fifth event was held at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson. It was the first UTS event to host fans after attendance was restricted in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19. UTS was not held in 2022 due to a fundraising period throughout the year. Americans Taylor Fritz and Ben Shelton were two of the eight ATP players that competed at the event.
The goal of UTS is “redefining the relationship between fans and players during matches.” Competitors are given headsets during each changeover and can interact with the crowd, coaches, and opponents for banter or trash talk.
Wu Yibing, nicknamed “The Great Wall” by UTS, clutched the trophy after beating Taylor Fritz, “The Hotshot,” in the UTS Los Angeles final. The Hangzhou, China native shined during his debut, appreciating the different game elements of the event.
Fritz began the tournament by losing consecutive quarters to Wu. It looked like he’d finish off with three quarters in a row won against the same player in the final. But Wu got the LA crowd behind him, and delivered the most dramatic turnaround victory of the entire weekend.
The two players had completely different approaches at UTS Los Angeles. Fritz was all business and dialed in on court, wanting the trophy that got away from him the previous tournament. Wu was more candid with the crowd, saying, “I don’t really care if I win, I’m just here to enjoy.”
The Chinese player looked to be struggling, having lost a close opening quarter, then falling short again in the second. Wu even sat down on court during the match, simply to catch his breath in the middle of a serve.
On why UTS was harder on players, Wu said, “I think this is a different type of tennis than what we’re used to playing. You have your coach on the side, you have the fans, the music, normally you don’t see this in solo sports and I think it’s a very good change.”
Mouratoglou, former coach of Serena Williams, doesn’t want to replace the ATP and WTA Tours. The goal was to create an alternative circuit that allows fans to “completely express themselves” and cheer loudly, even during points.
“The crowd had more fun than a classical event because they were allowed to be more involved,” Mouratoglou said. “I felt that they were able to have a better connection with the players than a classical event.”
The relaxed, fan-focused atmosphere also enabled players to show a lot more of themselves on the court. Wu won over the Southern California crowd with his carefree attitude and plenty of Rocky Balboa impressions.
“Three days ago I’m a normal guy and now it turns out I’m the new Kyrgios,” Wu told fans during one of his mid-match interviews.
“Usually out on the ATP Tour, it’s so many players that it’s not as much of a personal thing. With only having eight guys here, there’s a lot more personalities coming out and time spent together,” Shelton said. “To be able to see different sides of these guys that I hadn’t seen before was really cool for me.”
One of the most distinctive features of UTS lies in its rules. In addition to the quarter system, players are only allowed one serve instead of two. They also play lets and have no match warm-up. Competitors can also use one “Next Point counts x3” bonus card per quarter.
UTS adopts a round-robin format, ensuring each player at least three matches. Competitors are split into two groups and the top four players advance to the playoffs.
World No. 41, Ben Shelton, who is competing at the Atlanta Open this week, believes that the UTS Los Angeles event helped prepare him for the North American summer hard-court swing this August.
“The format, having only one serve, playing quickly, pressure points…it gets you ready for the pressure of playing an ATP tournament,” he said. “To be able to play four or five matches, I think that’s a pretty cool experience. I’m taking a lot of confidence into these next few weeks on hard court.”
Mouratoglou seeks to improve the UTS experience with each event to come. UTS 6 will be held in Frankfurt, Germany from September 15-17. It will be the second in a series of three UTS events in 2023 leading up to the “Grand Final” this December.
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Featured Image courtesy of Ultimate Tennis Showdown