Racquet tap, imaginary crowd: A peek into tennis amid Covid-19


Hubert Hurkacz smacked a forehand winner, picked up his towel lying behind, and walked up to the net. There, he exchanged a little racquet tap with Reilly Opelka at the other side of the net, then he walked towards the centre of the court before waving to the crowd. Except here, there wasn’t any.

A professional tennis tournament between four top male players was quietly organised on May 8 and 9 in the US, making it the first—and only—competitive tennis event in the world since almost all sporting activities came to a halt because of the pandemic.

The UTR Pro Match Series—sponsored by the Novak Djokovic Foundation—comprised four of the top 60 players in the world: Poland’s highest ranked Hurkacz (world No 29), Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic (No 47) and Americans Opelka (No 39) and Tommy Paul (No 57). The corresponding women’s event is scheduled from Friday.

It was a glimpse into what could be the post-pandemic reality for tennis tournaments: there were no spectators, no coaches, no handshakes, no ball kids, no line judges; just one chair umpire wearing a face mask.

It was played in the backyard of a 5.5-acre private property with a tennis court in West Palm Beach, Florida.

“A big thank you to the owner for allowing us to use the court!” the 23-year-old Hurkacz said on the phone from Saddlebrook, Florida.

Matches were beamed live on Tennis Channel, an American television network, and Andy Roddick provided commentary via Skype. While millions of live sport hungry people watched it on TV across the US, at ground zero, grazing cows replaced spectators.

“The property was surrounded by a lot of fields and empty space. There wasn’t much public around; it was like a private community. It was a really nice environment,” Hurkacz added.

Precautions in place

Nonetheless, the precautions were elaborate. According to the UTR (Universal Tennis Rating) website, players’ temperatures were checked upon arrival, the court was disinfected before and after every match, each player had their own separate tent off the court, and had to bring their personal drinks and towel on the court for matches.

“It felt good to compete in a tournament after a long time,” Hurkacz said. “Obviously, with the rules and precautions that were there, and with no spectators, it felt a bit different. But we knew that people are going to watch it on TV, so we were giving it our best.”

It wasn’t an exhibition tournament, though. The tournament had prize money and was reviewed by the Tennis Integrity Unit to ensure compliance.

Hurkacz began the 2020 season tasting six straight victories and reached a career-high ATP world ranking of 28 in February before the professional tour was suspended the following month. So when he was approached for the UTR series, he didn’t hesitate.

“My initial reaction was that I was open for it,” Hurkacz said. “The couple of months without playing on the tour felt weird, because I spent a lot of time at one place which is very rare for any professional tennis player. So when I was approached for this tournament, I was so excited because I could finally compete again. I wasn’t worried about any health issues. I just got in the car and I was happy to be able to take part in it.”

It mattered little that the format was altered; the four men played a round-robin league format before the final and third-place match, all comprising four games (as opposed to six) in best of three sets.

Or that, instead of a full-blown hitting session that usually precedes any match on the tour, players could only practice with light warm-ups on court. It wasn’t even a big deal that they did not have the service of ball boys or girls.

“When you practice, you are used to picking up your own balls. But when you play a proper match against other players with a competitive feeling, it’s not quite the same. When I picked up the balls myself for the first time in the match, it felt a bit different. But then you kind of get used to it,” Hurkacz said.

Against Opelka, Hurkacz delivered a tweener (a between-the-legs shot) winner and broke into a little celebration—minus the crowd applause, of course.

“I was so happy because I not only managed to hit a tweener but also win the point,” said Hurkacz.

“And after the match, it’s kind of like a habit. We’re used to waving to the crowd and playing around a little with the spectators. I still wanted to thank the people watching it from wherever they were.”

Hurkacz finished third in the tournament with a 3-1 win-loss record.

Odds are that professional tennis might have to adopt all these restrictions and innovations whenever the tour resumes.

According to the Tennis Channel, the UTR series showcased “how tennis can be played locally—and most importantly, safely—as the world looks to reopen during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

But as fortunate as Hurkacz felt having played a competitive tournament in these unprecedented times, he wishes the tennis world can get back to how it was in the pre-Covid-19 days.

“I’m hoping that we’ll be able to function as we did before, as soon as possible. I hope that the tour resumes this year and we’re able to play in some Grand Slams,” he said.

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