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No Ballboys, No Spectators and No TV Camera Operators – How Tennis has Returned Behind Closed Doors

The Tennis Point Exhibition Series was less than an hour old when German police visited the Base Academy – a five-court hangar in the small town of Höhr-Grenzhausen – to check that all the correct measures were being observed.

After seeing the disinfectant station at the front door, the walkways arranged around the building, and the facemasks worn by everyone but the players and chair umpire, the officers declared themselves satisfied.

But they did warn against a sudden influx of unaccredited media, which could crowd the small venue and risk transmission of Covid-19.

Most of the eight players at this televised event have never experienced such interest. Played behind closed doors over the next four days, the TPES is thought to represent the first live sport in western Europe since Irish horse racing shut down on March 24.

In the first match, Benjamin Hasan – the world No 354, who represents Lebanon in the Davis Cup – overcame 29-year-old Jean-Marc Werner, who has not appeared on the professional tour since 2016.

The tennis wasn’t quite at the level we might have expected from the ATP event in Munich, which would have been approaching its climax this weekend in any normal year. But the good news was that the robotic broadcast technology – based around networked PlaySight cameras, with no operator in sight – worked without a hitch.

The feeling of watching tennis without a crowd is not completely unknown, especially for those superfans who follow the poorly attended ATP and WTA events in Asia, or for the obsessive gamblers who drop down to Challenger or Futures level in search of their fix.

But it did still feel peculiar to switch on the livestream from Tennis Channel International (which is only intended for Germany or the USA, so needs a little technical wizardry to access) and hear the air-conditioning system humming away in the background, as well as the occasional trill of birdsong drifting through the deathly silent arena.

Benjamin Hasan - No ballboys, no spectators and no TV camera operators – how tennis has returned behind close doors - TENNIS CHANNEL INTERNATIONAL

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Benjamin Hasan – No ballboys, no spectators and no TV camera operators – how tennis has returned behind close doors – TENNIS CHANNEL INTERNATIONAL

Another oddity was the way that balls would roll into the bottom of the net, or to the back of the court, and just sit there rather than being collected by the ballkids we are used to seeing at your average professional event.

The coming weeks will see a number of similar events picking up around the world, including the UTR Pro Match Series in Florida, which starts next Friday and features world No 8 Matteo Berrettini.

For those players lucky enough to be invited, such initiatives are gold. They offer a little pocket money – the TPES prize pool for this weekend stands at a little over $25,000 – and, perhaps more importantly, an opportunity to compete in a pressurised environment.

There may be no crowd, but in the absence of any other live sport, the likes of Hasan and Werner have probably never played in front of so many eyeballs as they did on Friday morning.

The excitement level picked up with the arrival of Dustin Brown – the dreadlocked serve-volleyer who ousted Rafael Nadal from Wimbledon in 2015 – with his unconventional game full of drop-shots and howitzer serves.

Indoor clay would hardly be Brown’s preferred surface, but he was still too crafty for his opponent – 584-ranked Constantin Schmitz – in a 4-2, 4-2 victory.

When one of Brown’s service returns hit the net-cord and slid over for a lucky winner on set point, Schmitz grinned broadly, like a man who was just glad to be back on a tennis court. Then, at the end, he gave his opponent a generous thumbs-up. Handshakes, of course, are banned.


Written by How Africa

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