Staff writer Rose Annable previews the return of professional tennis and gives her thoughts on how we can expect the tour to unfold.
On August 3 the WTA tour will resume in the form of the Palermo Open, marking the first tour-level tennis to be played in five months. Though recreationally tennis was one of the first sports to be reinstated due to its naturally socially distanced nature, professional tennis comes with far greater complications. Unlike other sports to return thus far, tennis requires enormous amounts of international travel. Players are based all around the globe, and tournaments are similarly situated, meaning tennis and its players are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The difficulties and risks of tennis returning have been highlighted by the Adria Tour, an exhibition tournament held in June, organised by Novak Djokovic. Many participants ignored social distancing precautions, and players were seen hugging, shaking hands, and even clubbing throughout the tournament. Before the final could be played, four players, three coaches and two wives (one pregnant), tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, we have seen more exhibition tournaments, most notably the Ultimate Tennis Showdown in France, and the Battle of the Brits in England, come under considerable scrutiny. These have subscribed far more closely to social distancing practices, including being played behind closed doors, regular testing and temperature tests, players not switching ends, and no ball boys and girls. Such measures, as well as the creation of ‘bubbles’ in which players must remain, are likely to become the new norm in all future planned events.
Currently, the WTA has a proposed calendar consisting of a short build-up to the US Open, including the Palermo Open, Prague Open, Top Seed Open and the Western & Southern Open, followed by a compressed clay-court season leading up to the rescheduled French Open. Whether all of these events will actually be held is yet to be seen – it is simply hard to tell given the constantly changing situation regarding outbreaks and infection rates across the world. Even more uncertain is what will follow the French Open; seven big tournaments due to be played in China have already been cancelled, and those tournaments not yet cancelled are surely in doubt. Of the 31 tournaments listed on the 2020 calendar, 19 have been cancelled so far.
So, what should we expect from this season? Well, the simplest answer is to expect the unexpected. It is safe to assume that tournament draws will look somewhat different to what we are accustomed to; Ash Barty, the World no.1, has already withdrawn from the US Open, citing as her reason an unwillingness to travel, and with good reason. Though exemptions to quarantine laws have been granted to tennis players upon entering the US, the same has not been done in Barty’s native Australia, meaning upon returning home she would have to quarantine for 14 days. Simona Halep, the World no.2, had been due to play at the Palermo Open, as had British no.1 Johanna Konta. Both have withdrawn, with Halep citing “anxieties around air travel at this time”, and Konta, “the forever changing nature of the situation”. I suspect over the next month we will hear these reasons being given by more and more players, particularly regarding the run of tournaments taking place in the US – a destination which many players have understandable qualms about visiting due to its high infection rate.
It is tempting, given the irregularity and unpredictability of the remainder of the season, to think of it as a bit of a write-off, and to instead look ahead to a time when tennis will regain something resembling normality. This, I think, would be a mistake. Indeed, the next month, in particular, has the potential to produce some fascinating tennis in the women’s game. 5 months out is a long time for any professional athlete, but will feel longer to tennis players than most; the tennis season is usually tightly packed for 11 months of the year, and top players usually have competition requirements to meet, meaning there is never time for such an extended break. It will be intriguing to see how players have responded to this. As an individual sport, there is far more responsibility on players themselves to take responsibility for their training and fitness, compared to team sports, given the added structure a team provides. I am looking forward to seeing which players have come out of this period match fit and ready, and who struggles to settle back into top-level competitive tennis.
I have a feeling that the combination of players recalibrating to tour level tennis, and potentially strange looking draws for upcoming tournaments, could lead to some surprising results and a few upsets. The women’s game has, in recent years at least, been far more open than the men’s; gone are the days when Serena Williams could be reliably expected to win any tournament she entered. The past 5 Grand Slams have seen five different winners, including three first time winners. The most recent two, Sofia Kenin and Bianca Andreescu, were 21 and 19 respectively at the time of their victories. As a result, there are likely to be plenty of opportunities for young, less experienced players to make a mark on this season.
We have already seen one such result, with World no.14 Joanna Konta losing 6-4, 6-3 to World no.289 Jodie Burrage in her first match of the ongoing Battle of the Brits event. Look out for young players who have been starting to make their mark on the game, such as Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff, the 16-year-old American star, currently sitting at 52 in the rankings, whom I hope to see play in the US Open, and for whom a slightly more open draw may prove enormously beneficial.
Equally, keep an eye out for those players whose quality we have seen in the past, but who have been inconsistent. Garbiñe Muguruza, former World no.1 and two-time Grand Slam winner, will be seeking to recapture form after a challenging couple of seasons; she reached the final of the Australian Open in January, and will be hoping to get another couple of solid tournament results this season. Joanna Konta had her best season to date in 2019, before crashing out of the Australian Open this year in the first round, and will be looking to recapture some form. This unusual season may prove an exciting opportunity for many such players to go deep into tournaments, and pick up some good wins. After all, the rankings system will soon unfreeze, and there will be points on offer to those who can take their chances.