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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Friday April 23, 2020

 
Tennis United

The co-hosts of the new WTA and ATP joint venture are ready to liven up your quarantine.

Photo Source: Tennis United.

There’s a brand new tennis party happening on the internet every Friday and tennis fans of all shapes, sizes—and genders—are invited. Welcome to Tennis United, where there is no cover charge; all that is required is a passion for the pursuit of tennis’ endless summer and a loyal devotion to the unique personalities that make the sport hum.

Before Roger Federer shook up the tennis world with his tweet about the men’s and women’s tennis tours harmoniously convening under one tent, there was this show. Little did we know that this virtual happy hour for tennis junkies (now airing weekly on YouTube) would actually be a launching pad for an oft-discussed concept.

And yet, here it is, the first wave to hit the shores of a brave new unified tennis world. Picture Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Vasek Pospisil, the shows’ co-hosts, tippy-toeing onto the nose of their surfboards, riding the crest of a wave as they approach the shallows.

Tennis United is a first-of-its-kind launch: a joint production between the WTA and ATP Tours, two tennis entities that have developed a reputation for keeping the other excluded from their parties for far too long. It is an improbable union that begs the question: Could this be the beginning of a new courtship between the men’s and women’s professional tennis tours?

Those that have been paying attention to the sports’ luminaries on social media, or the words of new ATP CEO Andrea Gaudenzi, know the answer is yes. The world has given tennis lemons in the form of Covid-19, but the powers that be are clearly hoping to make some lemonade out of the crisis that has ensued.

Mattek-Sands has been all-in from the start.

“Right now our sport is disrupted and I think it’s a moment, it’s an opportunity to see how we can do things better,” she told Tennis Now last week from her quarantine training base-cum-TV studio in Arizona. “And if it starts with the ATP and the WTA coming together and that’s what kicks this all off then I am 100 percent for it.”

Thanks to the ebullient Mattek-Sands and laid-back Pospisil, a pair of Grand Slam champions who have made the lateral transfer from behind the baseline to behind the camera look effortless, the show is off to a flying start. The co-hosts, camped in their respective quarantine camps (Pospisil is nestled in a woodsy cabin in British Columbia), volley one-liners across a virtual net and dial up ATP and WTA personalities to chat about anything and everything.


But the show may feel a little more important on Friday when the third episode airs. Thanks to Federer’s viral tweet, and the support it inspired from other tennis stars like Rafael Nadal, Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova, there has been non-stop discussion about how a potential union of the tours might play out. Is this a buyout set off by an unprecedented wave of economic destruction caused by the Coronavirus? Have the wheels been set in motion for a brave new era of tennis, and if so will the powers that be prove wise enough to view the opportunity not just as a financial merger necessitated by a crisis but an opportunity to grow market share and street cred? Is a potential merger viewed as economic triage or the brilliant pivot that could propel the sport to a position of leadership in terms of understanding, embracing and compensating the power and reach of the women’s athletics?

Suddenly Tennis United is more than a show. It’s a symbol for the beginning of what might be a Eureka moment for the sport. Things are getting real, and the show may be forced to acknowledge what many have guessed from the start; that it is about more than just entertainment.

It's bigger than that.

“We’re the first sport globally to have the men’s tour and the women’s tour come together and collaborate,” Mattek-Sands said proudly last week. “I think it’s huge.”


Mattek-Sands says Tennis United aims to facilitate offbeat, unscripted conversations with tennis’ personalities, letting them shine in the process. Pospisil says it is Mattek-Sands experience and limitless energy that is helping him find his way.

“She is definitely carrying me,” he says. “She has so much energy, it feels like she has been doing this for ten years—she’s a complete pro.”

Pospisil doesn’t need to be so humble. He’s relaxed on screen, warm and inviting. He says he isn’t sure if broadcasting is in his post-playing future, but those words may be coming from the part of him that is itching to get back inside the ATP’s Top 25 again. “I gave it a go and I definitely don’t regret that decision,” he says of his new gig. “It’s been a really fun process, but I’m not sure if I have any broadcasting in my future.”

For the time being, Pospisil and Mattek-Sands march on, spending long hours coming up with content and working on developing their chemistry and evolving their bits. Tennis fans crave authenticity and so far there has been plenty of that through two episodes.

“Vasek is a fun person I’ve gotten to know him a lot better,” says Mattek-Sands. “Obviously I’ve known him on the tour but having an on-screen chemistry is important and he’s a fun guy so we kicked it off right away.” Mattek-Sands says she is still working on finding her “flow” with Pospisil, but the pair have performed seamlessly in the first two episodes. To put it in tennis terms: Mostly winners, not a lot of unforced errors.

Cut to Fabio Fognini and Flavia Pennetta, a pair of living, breathing symbols of WTA/ATP unity that were interviewed on Episode Two. The Italians are married with children now, and Pennetta proudly wears the parenting pants in the family.

Cameras shift to Mattek-Sands and Pospisil on a split-screen giving the thumbs up to Fognini, who has just received praise for taking care of his quarantine chores and helping with the baby in the middle of the night. He looks both happy and sad about it, rather hilariously. Fabio flexes his biceps proudly in another window as Pennetta cracks up.


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“As much as we are doing this for the fans, we are doing this for the players as well. We want to get their brands out there. I want to create more followers for all these players. If you love someone that’s ranked 80 in the world you might not see a lot of interviews from them and I want to bring in more players and create more fans and more opportunities for everyone to tell their story in their way. I think this is a great way to do it and once people start to realize that this is sort of a launching pad for all that I think more will tune in.” -- Bethanie Mattek-Sands


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Mattek-Sands says there are nine or ten production personnel looped in remotely as they conduct interviews, ensuring that sound, videos and other details are up to snuff. But the extra production doesn’t interfere with the easy banter of the interviews.

“Sometimes showing this honest, vulnerable side of yourself really is engaging and it’s authentic,” Mattek-Sands says of the vein she is hoping to tap during the show’s weekly broadcasts. “I think really on the global scheme of things right now that is what people are identifying with. We need something real. If you’re having a breakdown fine. If you want to go have happy hour at noon, fine. If you are training in your gym for like four and a half hours—show us, we want to know.”

Tennis United, in concept and reality, is a logical concept for the sport to be embracing right now. Many feel it should be the status quo but for nearly five decades self-serving agendas and political in-fighting have kept the WTA and ATP Tours isolated on their own islands. Billie Jean King, the legendary founder of the women’s tour, always wanted the tours united. But the men were unwilling and the WTA went its own way.

Nearly fifty years later, the men appear more willing.


“In terms of uniting the WTA and ATP Tours, there’s obviously a big vision there that I believe is being worked on and there are tons of positives that can come out of that,” Pospisil, who is also a member of the ATP Player Council, says. “I think the idea is to grow the sport of tennis in general, we want it to be profitable and we want it to be more popular.”

At its core professional tennis is a sport for both sexes and that is what makes it unique to so many. The men and women come together gloriously four times a year at the Grand Slams and also at many of the biggest tour stops, but so often discrepancies between the tours over scheduling, prize money and media coverage get more media exposure than the fact that women and men are paid equal prize money at the majors.

To many, tennis’ greatest advantage is that it features and embraces equality; to others, despite these undeniable strengths, the focus is on the hidden menace. There are subtle, grating inequalities within the equality, and age-old stereotypes still permeate the inner circle of the sport, dragging it down and keeping it from its full potential.

Tennis United may not be the panacea to those aforementioned inequalities and stereotypes, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that the show is a symbol of a willingness by both tours to take a step in the direction of true harmony between the tours.

“At the end of the day if everyone worked together we’d probably all be winning a lot more,” Mattek-Sands says. “I’m a pretty outside the box thinker, I’m a creative, and I like having conversations that are progressive and move things forward and I really think those are the conversations that we all should be having right now. Especially because we have the time.”

Mattek-Sands, a former doubles No.1 who owns nine major titles (four in the gender-equal discipline of mixed doubles) and an Olympic gold medal (also in mixed), approaches Tennis United through a prism of self-reflection that has been brought on by the Coronavirus Pandemic. With the world shut down the planet is full of people who are recalibrating their expectations and re-tooling narratives.

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“The more united we can be the bigger impact that we can make. You have some fans that are more interested in women’s tennis and some fans that are more interested in men’s tennis. Let’s make it a combination. Let’s just get more fans, period!” -- Bethanie Mattek-Sands


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Teeming with energy, Mattek-Sands is a poster child for the current zeitgeist. No sitting around and whining about what’s been lost. Go create a new reality.

“I think now is the time to do something like that,” said Mattek-Sands. “Being on the tour for a long time I’ve always thought that if the men and the women got together, you are more powerful as a group, combined. I think just in the space, in general in the world, it’s a united front that we can put on.”

 

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