(Reuters) – Claycourt king Rafa Nadal suffered a fake injury, several players ‘froze’ and one match vanished into thin air as the Virtual Madrid Open made its debut on Monday.
With professional tennis tours closed down until mid July at the earliest because of the coronavirus pandemic, an esports version of the claycourt event is being staged online.
Thirty two of the world’s best players have swapped their rackets for Playstation controllers, courts for sofas, to contest the four-day event designed to offer players, and fans, some action during the lockdown.
Nadal claimed he was a computer game novice during an Instagram chat with Andy Murray last week, but the Spaniard showed impressive fingerwork to beat young Canadian Denis Shapovalov in his opening round-robin match on a digital representation of the Spanish capital’s Manolo Santana Stadium.
Things did not start very well, however, with Nadal and Shapovalov, shown in small screens below the game action being broadcast live on Facebook Gaming, sitting frustrated as their computer characters were left bobbing around on the baseline as the game appeared to malfunction.
It a similar story later when Stefanos Tsitsipas and Fabio Fognini had to hit the re-set button before their armchair tussle could begin — Tsitsipas winning comfortably as Fognini’s strutting computer character threw its racket with relish.
“I’ve not really trained for this because I’ve been cooking and looking after my baby,” Fognini said.
Nadal, five times a champion of the real Madrid Open that should have been played this week, then pulled out of his exhibition match against YouTube star DjMariio.
The 33-year-old warrior, who can go toe-to-toe with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer for hours, was said to have tweaked his back.
Fellow Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, director of the tournament which is raising funds to help lower-ranked pros struggling to stay afloat during the health crisis, later confessed it was a joke.
“Guys, I was joking, of course…” Lopez said. “I said Rafa had a back injury from the pressure of playing on the PS4. We might need some sense of humour please!”
The virtual tournament included many of the features of the real tennis world. Endless chat between host Brandon Smith, esports tennis pro Lorenzo Choffi, apparently from his bedroom, and a rather non-plussed former Spanish player Alex Corretja.
Online fans moaned about the long gaps between the matches, played on the Tennis World Tour game and each lasting about 15 minutes. The duel between Donna Vekic and Angelique Kerber was lost in cyberspace — presumably because of wifi issues.
Despite the understandable teething problems caused by players logging on from all over the world, it was an entertaining day.
Swiss world number eight Belinda Bencic staged a “walk-on”, emerging from up her stairs in full tennis kit before taking her Playstation controller out of her racket bag and polishing off Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro.
Andy Murray, tipped by Lopez as a pre-tournament favourite, got into the spirit of things too — grunting loudly after every ‘virtual’ shot as he beat Frenchman Benoit Paire.
Kiki Bertens, who won the Madrid title last year, could never have imagined that she would be ‘defending’ her title from her living room. She put down the jigsaw puzzles she has been doing to stave off boredom to grab the controls and demolish Kerber who did finally materialise.
“I’ve been practising so much my hands hurt and my eyes hurt,” Bertens, wearing full tennis kit, said. “It’s fun. I’m just glad to put my tennis kit on again.”
Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann, editing by Pritha Sarkar