7 min read
When the tours stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic, the tennis world wondered what would happen to the cadre of 100 or so names that they’d become familiar with. They graced tennis fans’ TV and Mobile screens every week, competing in ATP and WTA tour events around the world. They were tennis’ household names. Now that the main tours had stopped, what would become of them?
But the athletes tennis fans see on TV and on their screens are only a small part of the group of players who consider themselves professionals. While most attention was on players at the top echelon of our game, Universal Tennis (UTR) thought about the up-and-comers—those players working their way up the rankings through the ITF Futures, Challenger, and WTA 125K level. While the focus of most organizations in tennis was on ensuring that our top athletes had chances to compete in the grand slams and lead-up events, little thought was spared worrying about those trying to reach the tier 1-2 levels.
To help these lower-ranked athletes and create opportunities for them to compete and earn a living, UTR partnered with Tennis Australia to bring the UTR Pro Tennis Series to Australia. The series of round-robin tournaments, which took place in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, and Perth, offered Australian players the opportunity to vie in aggregate for over $450,000 in prizemoney.
The series featured competitors just outside the highest tier of our game - generally players ranked beyond 200. Spread out over two months, matches were streamed live on Tennis Australia’s social channels, and stats, orders of play and other event details were available on myutr.com. For nearly two months, and smack bang in the middle of a pandemic, professional tennis returned to Australia. The events took biosecurity extremely seriously and were run according to strict local protocols. No linespeople. No ball kids. And players collected their own towels and balls. Well-struck groundstrokes echoed throughout empty arenas.
Thankful for the opportunity, WTA No. 211 Destanee Aiava capitalized, winning nine consecutive matches. She won three round-robin titles across the series, one in Melbourne and two in Sydney. When asked about what her initial thoughts were when the pandemic struck, Aiava told UTR, “I thought it would only be a couple of months and then we’d go back to normal. But that wasn’t the case and it just clicked how serious the governments and sports organizations were taking it.”
As the pandemic progressed and tennis came to a more permanent halt, Aiava expected to only restart competitive play towards the latter part of 2020. “Cases kept going up around the world and I knew more tournaments would get canceled and it looked like we wouldn’t get to play until the end of the year. But the UTR Pro Tennis Series has been a massive help not only financially but also in getting us out there to compete again. This is our livelihood.”
"UTR Pro Tennis Series has been a massive help not only financially but also in getting us out there to compete again. This is our livelihood.”
It was a similar situation for ATP No. 675 Calum Puttergill who competed in Brisbane. “Once the severity of the lockdown kicked in, I realized it was going to be a while until we got to play ITF Futures or Challenger events.”
Puttergill was appreciative of the UTR Pro Tennis Series for affording him the opportunity to compete for a living and giving him valuable match play during the pandemic. “I was very pleased and grateful to be able to firstly just ignite those competitive feelings in a tournament-like atmosphere. Secondly; to be able to play for prize money and fund my existence in my playing shoes rather than coaching and seeking other income sources.”
When asked about his thoughts on the Universal Tennis Rating, Puttergill told UTR: “It’s a great initiative and an awesome way to maintain a worldwide connection in the tennis hierarchy. It’s also a good projection of a player’s level for college recruiting. Although I feel there is nothing that can replicate the ATP ranking system, and the ability to win against certain players on a bigger stage at a bigger event, it is close to as good as it’s going to get right now. And for that, I am really appreciative.”
“It’s a great initiative and an awesome way to maintain a worldwide connection in the tennis hierarchy. It’s also a good projection of a player’s level for college recruiting."
Broadcast in an innovative way, in that it was made available to tennis fans around the world through YouTube and Facebook, the series garnered over half a million views over its lifespan. Many viewers who commented on the broadcast expressed appreciation that pro tennis was back.
Reflecting on the unique format of the series and the initial idea behind it, UTR Chairman and CEO Mark Leschly said that “The Pro Tennis Series was created to offer a broader pathway for emerging pro players to compete close to home and have their results count on a global scale.” Commenting on its reception, Leschly said: “Over the past few months, with more than 19 events across Australia’s major cities, UTR has received very positive feedback from the players, officials, organizers and Tennis Australia.”
All in all, professionals competed across five cities, in 627 matches. The round-robin format offered multiple matches to competitors as opposed to the elimination format and also gave the tennis-viewing public an opportunity to watch more professional matches. Players also benefited as they got to engage in level-based play as round-robin groups were created by factoring in the UTR ratings of competitors.
Without ITF Futures, Challengers, and WTA 125Ks the majority of professionals—as in those outside the top 200 or so— had been marooned without competition. The UTR Pro Tennis Series remedied that to a degree by giving these athletes a chance to work for, and earn, their livings. At a time when tennis had almost come to a halt globally, UTR and Tennis Australia worked together to create a competitive event with a prize purse available for players.
Though the later Melbourne tournaments had to be cancelled due to increasing cases of coronavirus in the state of Victoria, the series was a success across Australia, and user growth and engagement on the UTR platform also saw a big rise.
What’s next for the UTR Pro Tennis Series? UTR is already hard at work. Leschly said of future plans: “The UTR Pro Tennis Series in Australia is only one of many similar events run across the world. We are now at work to continue the UTR Pro Tennis Series in Australia and expand it into 2021. As part of our Play Locally, Count Globally initiative, UTR is thrilled to see this professional development pathway working effectively in support of professional players with more opportunities to earn and compete in the sport of tennis.”
"UTR is thrilled to see this professional development pathway working effectively in support of professional players with more opportunities to earn and compete in the sport of tennis.”
With the slow return of lower-tier events for players ranked beyond 200, UTR hopes to offer complementary competitive routes for those athletes trying to make professional tennis their careers. And with global travel still being an uncertainty, the chance to play locally and count globally is an important opportunity to many.