Shut and open
Just three months ago, as COVID-19 raged across Europe and North America, the nerve centres of the sport, tennis tournaments began to fold like in an avalanche. The French Open shifted its dates from late May to late September, guided more by hope than logic. Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since World War II. And when the Rogers Cup in Canada, which ushers in the fall season in early August, was dropped, it seemed the virus would outlast the year. But over a frenetic few hours early last week, the sport was given a new lease of life. It was announced that the U.S. Open, normally the last Major of the season, would go ahead as scheduled in New York (August 31 to September 13), and would be followed by the French Open in two weeks’ time in Paris. The Cincinnati Masters, which leads up to Flushing Meadows, and the Madrid and Rome Masters, warm-up events for Roland Garros, were also resurrected. While the ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis, stopped short of announcing the schedule post-Paris, its women’s counterpart, the WTA, went ahead full steam, listing events till the end of November, including the lucrative Asian swing in China.
The restart, however, will be a humongous challenge. A Grand Slam like the U.S. Open is a major confluence of the world’s best tennis players and fans. To play it in a ‘bio-secure bubble’ involving no supporters, restricted movements, strict distancing norms and rigorous coronavirus testing protocols will be like a “sci-fi movie”, as English cricketer Mark Wood said recently. International travel restrictions are expected to be in place for the foreseeable future, thus rendering tournaments far from level playing fields. Just this week there has been an uptick in infections in the United States forcing a few states, including New York, to impose a 14-day quarantine for travellers from areas with high case numbers. The recent fiasco involving Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour exhibition tennis in the Balkans, where a series of players including Djokovic tested positive, hasn’t helped. The World No.1 and the current president of the ATP Player Council came across as anything but a leader, becoming the face of an event which flouted the most important of WHO guidelines, of wearing masks and implementing physical distancing measures. It’s a stretch to say that the upcoming tennis calendar is now in jeopardy. Rather, the episode is a stark reminder of how easily things can go wrong if caution is thrown to the wind.