By Giri Nathan
How can a virtual tennis tournament suffer from player withdrawal? Somehow the Madrid Open, which would have been played on clay courts this week and was instead played on PlayStation 4, found a way. On Sunday, Gael Monfils pulled out of the 16-player e-sports field, citing “conflicting rights between streaming platforms.” (Monfils appears to have built a pretty nice quarantine side-hustle streaming games on the platform Twitch.) Then Rafael Nadal was ruled out due to a “back injury,” which I fell for completely, though this turned out to be a very good joke by Feli Lopez, tournament director of both the IRL and PS4 Madrid Open. Nadal, for his part, says he hasn’t even touched a racquet since Indian Wells, so I shouldn’t have been so gullible, though it is always possible that an elite athlete tweaked something while changing from one pair of sweatpants into another one.
The idea of having athletes duel on digital courts isn’t unique to Madrid. Starved of actual sports, channels like ESPN have showcased NBA players facing off in the game NBA 2K, with bone-crushingly dull results. A tennis version could have been a little more interesting and personal, with each player represented by their avatar, decked out with physical attributes and ground-stroke animations that sort of approximate their own. Madrid made a noble effort, putting together a commentary crew and post-match interviews. But their efforts were complicated by the fact that Tennis World Tour for PS4 is an abysmal video game. For an informed perspective, I turned to a friend, the writer Jeremy Gordon, who has been messaging me his experiences playing this game over the past year, an exchange that, against all odds, became extremely useful this week. Pressed for a one-sentence review, Gordon wrote: “Tennis World Tour is hideously animated, incoherently structured, and bears almost no relationship to what makes tennis such an engrossing sport—that said, because it’s technically the ‘best’ of the tennis games on the market, I played it for 20 hours and hated myself the entire time.”
Now, it’s not necessarily the case that a game that is bad to play is also equally bad to watch. But that bit turns out to be true too. I enjoyed the occasional banter between players, but couldn’t make it through more than a few minutes of a stream at a time; the play-by-play commentators, while well-intentioned, did not ease or enhance the experience with commentary like “Angles are important in tennis.” If your quarantine boredom has reached masochistic levels, you can stream the matches in their entirety over at Tennis Channel and discover the limits of your tolerance.
While I couldn’t stomach the full matches, I did enjoy keeping up with the various technical difficulties during the tournament. Genie Bouchard was disconnected twice, which meant that Donna Vekic advanced by default after winning exactly one point. Denis Shapovalov, who definitely looks like he would be good at video games, struggled to connect to Rafael Nadal for 10 minutes, then saw both players frozen on the baseline as soon as they did connect, and eventually lost once they did manage to play. (Shapo likened it to a rain delay.) Sascha Zverev complained about an unresponsive controller and swapped it out for a new one as if it were a racquet strung at a different tension, then got spanked by Andy Murray anyway. Bianca Andreescu, who knows how to rip a return, was befuddled by her virtual avatar’s shot selection: “Why is my bish always slicing the return? That’s not a good tactic!” Meanwhile, World Tennis Tour, which has been out since 2018, is still getting its bearings, cosmetically. The tennis writer Matt Willis has compiled a few delightful images of actual gameplay:
In the end, the winner on the women’s side was Kiki Bertens, who in a charming turn defended her actual 2019 Madrid Open title. On the men’s side, it was Andy Murray, who downplayed his preparation for this tournament but talked a lot of smack in his matches, and, after all, was so devoted a gamer it supposedly perturbed his relationship with his now wife Kim Sears. Murray claims he’s too busy with dad duties these days to game, but this title suggests that he’s kept up his seven-hour-a-day PlayStation binges while they snooze. He at least knows enough of the nuances of the game to attempt a Nick Kyrgios underhand serve. Sir Andy plans to donate half of his $45,000 prize to England’s National Health Service and the other half to a player relief fund.
All said, I miss tennis, and love video games, but could not be paid to watch another virtual tennis tournament. Though if you migrate it over to Mario Tennis 64, maybe we’ll talk.
The cover of Issue No. 1 designed by legendary Danish illustrator Mads Berg, featuring international showman and French tennis legend Yannick Noah.
Specs: 16x20in on enhanced matte paper.