Popyrin battles past Benchetrit in tight UTS opener
The first ever Ultimate Tennis Showdown match has been played and Alexei “The Sniper” Popyrin was the victor, overcoming Elliot “The Underdog” Benchetrit in a hotly contested encounter by a score of 13-9 9-12 15-12 14-12.
Rain delayed the start of the tournament, which was supposed to begin yesterday, but the sun was shining brightly on Sunday afternoon as the players made their way out on to the spectator-less court, both wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts. UTS matches get right into the action without any warm up period and for Popyrin this was clearly not an issue as he hit an ace to win the very first point of the tournament and signal his intent very early on; big serves would prove to be a feature of the match for both players.
Prior to the match, both players picked the two UTS Cards that they would be playing during the first quarter. Both opted for the ‘Steal Serve’ and ‘-1 Serve’ cards and stuck with those options throughout the match. ‘Steal Serve’ allows a player to take away their opponent’s opportunity to serve for two consecutive points, and ‘-1 Serve’ forces the opponent to make their first serve count, again for two consecutive points. For a full round up of the rules and format, read our handy guide to the tournament here.
Popyrin largely dominated the opening quarter, winning it with a comfortable four-point cushion, 13-9. At 8-5 down, Benchetrit called for a timeout to speak for 30 seconds to his coach (in very similar fashion to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’s ‘phone a friend’ lifeline) but due to technical difficulties the time passed without the headsets ever connecting. This was quickly remedied, however, and this minor setback proved to be the only example of teething troubles for the fledgling tournament.
Between quarters the players get a two-minute break but during this time they are interviewed, again via headset, by the commentators. Due to this, Benchetrit peeled a banana but appeared to have very little time to eat any, yet this did not hamper him at all as he came out and levelled the match by winning the second quarter. He quickly took control by moving up 6-1 and although Popyrin was on the comeback trail and had a chance to level at 7-7, a great bit of touch at the net kept the Frenchman 8-6 ahead. Tactics came into play at the end of the quarter as Benchetrit chose to ‘steal’ Popyrin’s serve and close things out 12-9.
New balls were introduced for the third quarter and just like in the first, Popyrin began proceedings by hitting a huge ace. Mirroring his opponent from the previous quarter, “The Sniper” moved ahead 6-1 but was pushed close when Benchetrit closed the gap to 10-12. At this point, Benchetrit took a timeout to speak to his coach and afterwards moved to within one point at 11-12 but then, in the most crucial moment of the match, hit a double fault when serving to level the score. Popyrin went on to win the quarter 15-12 and take a 2-1 lead heading into the fourth.
This time Benchetrit took the early lead, moving up 3-1, but this quarter stayed tight with neither player gaining a significant advantage until Popyrin fought back to move ahead 9-6. In an attempt to push ahead even further, Popyrin then played his ‘Steal Serve’ card and capitalised on this, racing ahead to a seeming unassailable 12-6 lead with just 3 minutes left on the clock. Benchetrit, however, responded by playing his own ‘Steal Serve’ card and fought back gutsily to 10-12. With just 60 seconds left to play, the unlikely comeback looked possible, but Popyrin held firm and took the final quarter 14-12, and with it the match 3-1.
This opening match up proved that the radical new format has potential and that it is capable of producing some exciting tennis. The players had small entourages sitting court-side and so whilst the tournament is closed to the public the matches do not pass completely free of atmosphere and crowd reaction, and the commentators were always on hand to fill in any potential silences and remind viewers of the unfamiliar rules. A slight criticism is that the organisers have opted for a very thick scoring graphic that covers much of the bottom of the screen, and whilst this is partially necessary because there are so many things for viewers to keep track of (quarter scores, match scores, UTS Cards available/used, time outs available/used) it also means that the court has to be shown at a very acute angle, making some of the action behind the net harder to see. It would also be good to see more variation in terms of the UTS Cards that get used (perhaps limit further how many times a particular card can be used per match?) but the tournament have already said through their social media accounts that they are open to ideas and changes regarding the cards over the upcoming weeks. All in all, this was a highly promising start for Patrick Mouratoglou’s new venture and we will have reports on the rest of the action as it unfolds.