LONDON (Reuters) - When discussing the favourites to win the Madrid Open the first name on most people’s lips would usually be claycourt king Rafa Nadal. Things are a little different this year though.
The Spaniard, who has won the tournament five times, will have his work cut out when play begins next week, not on the Caja Magica’s three red dust courts, but on gaming consoles.
Like every other tennis tournament since March, and at least until the end of July, the coronavirus pandemic has stopped play, but the hole in the calendar will be partly filled next week as Madrid instead holds a ‘virtual’ event.
Sixteeen men and 16 women will battle it out on a Manolo Santana Stadium that has been recreated in exquisite detail in the Tennis World Tour video game designed by Nacon Gaming.
Friday’s draw, live on Facebook, saw Nadal placed in Group 1 alongside Britain’s Andy Murray, Frenchman Gael Monfils and young Canadian Denis Shapovalov.
The omens are not good for Nadal.
He said during a live Instagram chat with Murray this week that he had only completed one game in his life, although the Spaniard will no doubt be as tenacious with the controller in his hand as he would be with a racket.
Then again Murray will not be able to play as himself because he is not one of the 31 players available to gamers. He hinted that he may play as Australian Nick Kyrgios.
Group 2 features Dominic Thiem, John Isner, Diego Schwartzman and the David Ferrer, coming out of retirement from real tennis to make an appearance in the virtual world.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, Fabio Fognini, Kei Nishikori and Frances Tiafoe are in Group 3, while in Group 4 Alex Zverev and David Goffin are joined by Lucas Pouille and Karen Khachanov.
Kiki Bertens, who won the actual Madrid Open title last year, is in women’s Group 4 along with Angelique Kerber, Dona Vekic, and Eugenie Bouchard.
Canadian Bianca Andreescu, winner of last year’s U.S. Open, is joined by Madison Keys, Kristina Mladenovic and Caroline Wozniacki in Group 3.
While the Esports tournament, the first to feature real players, looks like a fun distraction from the lockdown, it will be covered like a real tournament with fans able to watch the action live on Facebook Gaming from 1400GMT on Monday.
There will even be post-match interviews and fans will be able to get a close-up as one screen will show the action while another window will focus on the actual player.
There will be a 150,000 euro ($161,790.00) purse for both draws, with winners deciding how much they donate to the tennis players currently suffering economically, and 50,000 euros to help reduce the social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I like this original idea very much and I am excited to be part of it”, Shapovalov said.
While desperate times have meant tennis has had to embrace Esports, it could open the doors to a new fanbase, according to Phelan Hill, Esports specialist at Nielsen Sports.
“We’ve seen it in F1 with Lando Norris and (Charles) Leclerc actually playing the online game and in football we’ve seen Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Trent Alexander Arnold playing the games and the fact they engage drives a huge increase in audience.
“Tennis are now taking it on and it will drive engagement. Kids’ first engagement these days is not through watching it on TV. It’s a different journey, it’s another touch point to get people on the customer journey.”
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Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris