Maria Sharapova is coming out of retirement to play. Serena Williams is embarking on another Grand Slam quest. Kevin Anderson, a 2018 Wimbledon finalist, is about to discover what it's like to play doubles with an NFL quarterback.
Those athletes and others will take part in the "Stay at Home Slam" on Sunday. The event will feature top tennis players teamed with celebrities playing Mario Tennis Aces for Nintendo Switch. The virtual event will be streamed to a live audience.
It's another attempt to keep tennis in the public eye at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has shut down the professional game until at least July 13.
Williams is playing with supermodel Gigi Hadid while, among others, Naomi Osaka partners with model and TV personality Hailey Bieber, Sharapova teams with model Karlie Kloss, Kei Nishikori joins DJ and producer Steve Aoki, and Anderson partners with Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The competitors will play the game in their homes, all for the same $25,000 sum that they will then donate to the charity of their choice. The winning team will receive an additional $1 million to donate.
Viewers will be able to watch avatars playing, along with live feeds from the athletes in their homes. ESPN analyst John McEnroe and YouTube personality Justine Ezarik will provide commentary. The event will be streamed on Facebook Gaming and the IMG Tennis Facebook page.
This will be the second video game tournament featuring professional ATP and WTA players within a week and is part of the game's evolving response to the lockdown. The Madrid Open, a staple of the spring European clay-court circuit, was to begin Monday. When it was canceled because of the pandemic, the promoters created the video game version of the event. Currently ongoing, it ends Thursday.
The Madrid virtual event immediately featured an art-imitating-life component, as Gael Monfils withdrew citing injury and Belinda Bencic pranced into her living room -- racket bag and all -- to the Joan Jett classic "I Love Rock 'n Roll."
Since the coronavirus lockdown began, tennis players have been all over social media, posting numerous challenges and feats of athletic skill with the hashtag #tennisathome. The interest in gaming also appears to be gaining traction as a way for players to remain connected with their fans while raising money for charitable causes. The Madrid Open is offering some $325,000 in prize money, with the players ultimately deciding how much of the pot to distribute to lower-ranked peers who are struggling financially.
Lower-ranked tennis players, who are independent contractors dependent mostly on tournament prize money for their income, have been particularly hard hit by all the canceled events. Social distancing and the mandated closure of nonessential businesses has prohibited them from even giving lessons.
At the same time, traditional tennis is slowly making its way back in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The Base Tennis Academy in Hohr-Grenzhausen is hosting an eight-player exhibition starting Friday.
The matches in the Tennis Point Exhibition Series will be played indoors, with only three people on the court: the chair umpire and the two players. It will be livestreamed by Tennis Channel. When not on court, the players will have to wear masks.
Ongoing travel restrictions dictated that the players in the exhibition would be local, low-ranked pros. But the field of ATP journeymen is led by Dustin Brown. A crowd favorite due to his electric, slashing game, Brown has fallen to a ranking of No. 239, but he has an unforgettable Wimbledon upset of Rafael Nadal on his résumé. The eight men will play 32 matches with an abbreviated scoring system.
Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams' coach and an ESPN analyst, is planning a similar event at his eponymous tennis academy in the south of France. The tournament, which has been projected as a five-week event, is more proof that while in-home fitness routines and video game tournaments are valuable diversions, there is a real hunger -- and no adequate substitute -- for getting back on the court and competing.