Patrick Mouratoglou, coach of Serena Williams and operator of the tennis academy that bears his name, has passionately argued that “robotic” players and a draconian ATP code of conduct are making it difficult for tennis to attract the young audience the game needs to flourish.
Due to the disruption caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Mouratoglou has an opportunity to test-drive his theories via the Ultimate Tennis Showdown (UTS), a five-weekend, 10-player, round-robin event. Players will be encouraged to be more expressive, and contrasting personalities will stand out with the aid of innovations like a brisk scoring system and on-court coaching.
“I don’t like to say that the pandemic has given us opportunity,” Mouratoglou told ESPN.com on Thursday. “It doesn’t sound so good. But in every difficult moment there is also opportunity, and we are trying to focus on the positive possibilities.”
The UTS event, which features four top-10 players, led by ATP No. 3 Dominic Thiem, begins this weekend. A winner will be crowned on July 12 — the day the canceled Wimbledon championships would have ended. Every match will be streamed on a subscription basis through the UTS website.
While the ATP Tour has worked hard at recruiting new, younger fans through the vehicle of the Next Gen marketing campaign and championships, Mouratoglou’s effort sprang from a deeper conviction that the game has grown too dull to attract younger fans. The players, in Mouratoglou’s view, have become “clones” laboring in drawn-out events played in an environment that is antagonistic to expressive behavior and displays of authentic personality.
“Young kids do not see tennis as a ‘fun’ sport,” Mouratoglou said in an interview at the last US Open, referring to the Americans’ failure to produce a Grand Slam singles champion since Andy Roddick won the home tournament in 2003. “The way we score is complicated. The rules are strict. The goal on the court is to show nothing, and then when you show something you are a bad person. Getting angry is not allowed. The show that you see on TV is not exciting, like the NFL or NBA, because you are seeing robots.”
Reilly Opelka, the 22-year-old American ranked No. 39, thinks Mouratoglou has a point. “The rules in tennis have been too stringent in lots of ways. The culture of the sport has always been really serious. A lot of these guys, it’s their whole life. ‘Robotic’ is a 100 percent fair way to describe them. The culture of football or the NBA is different. It definitely breeds more excitement and emotion.”
The job of attracting a younger audience is made even more challenging for the ATP because Novak Djokovic and company must compete for fan interest with the likes of stars like Ronaldo, Patrick Mahomes and Zion Williamson. The WTA Tour, by contrast, has young champions with great generational appeal.
Some will scoff at Mouratoglou’s beef. At best, it seems ill-timed. The arguably three greatest players of all time are active right now, and their impact is quantifiable. The 63 ATP events in 2019 attracted a record 4.82 million fans. Prize money for 2019 was a record $139 million. The flagship ATP World Tour Finals in London alone attracted almost a quarter-million fans over a span of just eight days.
But statistics also point to a disturbing graying of the core tennis audience, and the tours are keenly aware of it. ATP market research conducted in 2016 determined that 69% of tennis fans in the U.S. were 55 or older. In general, traditional tennis markets shared this problem. Countries in Asia and South America featured a much younger tennis audience (only 13% of the tennis market in Argentina is 55 or older, while 29% fall between the ages of 19 and 24). But those are still emerging markets.
Mouratoglou thinks tennis needs the kind of excitement and fan interest generated by the controversial characters of the 1970s and ’80s, when the likes of John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase and Ivan Lendl created an era of passionate rivalries.
“You hear people say it all the time, ‘Oh, tennis was better before,'” Mouratoglou said in September. “It’s because there was passion. Sometimes passion brings you too far, but that’s OK, it’s life, we’re human. That [passion] was entertaining for people, and they liked or disliked those players — they would root for or against them. But when they did, it was with emotions.”
The popularity of Nick Kyrgios among younger fans and the attention lavished on him (and, to a lesser extent, players like Fabio Fognini, Benoit Paire and Daniil Medvedev) seem to bear out Mouratoglou’s convictions. Rafael Nadal and his peers have built impressive, dedicated fan bases. They have commanded attention because of their remarkable achievements and their sheer talent. But players like Kyrgios move the needle on the strength of their personalities and behavior, which may come in handy when stories like “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” dry up, or Nadal and Djokovic slow down.
“We must have options to make tennis more attractive emotions-wise,” Mouratoglou said. “Our goal is to have more authenticity. If David Goffin wants to remain calm and quiet, fine. But perhaps he would enjoy to have a little more freedom to show another side of his personality. Our goal is to have authenticity and a variety of behaviors. That’s how life is and why we are interesting as human beings.”
The burgeoning popularity of team events like the Laver Cup (canceled this year due to a potential conflict with the postponed French Open) support the idea that expressive behavior is a net plus. Few fans groused about the Laver Cup’s streamlined scoring system or active coaching during play (which is prohibited by the ATP and the Grand Slam events). They seemed content with the excitement and energy of team play and the frequent emotional displays it triggered.
Kyrgios, a big fan of team events, went so far as to predict that tennis might wither on the vine without a healthy infusion of team events. “You look at the Laver Cup, you had 17,000 people cheering every night,” Kyrgios said at the Davis Cup tournament in November. “For entertainment purposes, I don’t think too many people are going to tune in to watch a 250 event [a bottom-tier ATP tournament] in Antwerp.”
However, events like Laver Cup and similar exhibitions lack the gravitas of tour events, in which players are competing for precious rankings points and prize money that escalates round by round. Players are of necessity more buttoned-up and serious at tour events.
Martin Blackman, the general manager of USTA Player Development, told ESPN.com that, in his view, the sport has become so competitive and rigorous that emoting, or hamming it up with an opponent or spectators, is an indulgence that most players in tournaments feel they can ill afford. That may explain why Kyrgios, for all his big match wins, has never come close to winning a major or even an ATP Masters.
“The demands of the game today at the highest level, especially at the biggest tournaments, are so high that to be a top player you have to really learn to manage your emotions, stay focused and problem-solve,” Blackman said. “If you allow too much emotion or expressiveness at any moment, it can really affect one of those three tasks. That’s probably the real reason we don’t see that much letting loose.”
Mouratoglou believes that the culture in tennis can, and must, be changed and hopes that the UTS might pave the way. His event is hyping the “showdown” aspect of the matches, and he’s essentially thrown away the code of conduct, encouraging the players to vent with gusto. The weekend’s pairing of Stefanos Tsitsipas and Richard Gasquet is being sold on the UTS website as “The Greek God versus the Virtuoso.”
“Basically, everything is authorized,” Mouratoglou said. “You can even talk to your opponent, tell him his forehand is crap. It’s part of the game. You go into his head. I’m OK with all of this. I just encourage the players to be themselves.”
Mouratoglou hopes that his new “league” (his plans call for a series of UTS tournaments) will gain enough traction to exist in symbiosis with the official ATP Tour. He imagines a future marked by peaceful co-existence rather than rivalry with the ATP Tour.
“It would be amazing to have two tours,” he said, “One [the ATP] more classic for more traditional fans, and one that is more modern and fits better with a younger audience that doesn’t follow tennis now. It could be a great moment for all of us.”