“What is true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.” — Albert Camus, French-Algerian philosopher and writer, from The Plague .
“We are dealing with an unprecedented health problem. If we don’t get control of it, we’ll never get back to normal.” — Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on April 28, 2020.
The worst global health emergency in more than a century has made many Americans realise just how much they miss sports. To prevent the spread of the dreaded coronavirus, a stay-at-home lockdown has shut down sports in the vast majority of states. High school, college, amateur and pro sports practices and games have been suspended or cancelled. That means, with very few exceptions, we can’t play sports and we can’t watch live sports in person or on TV.
For tennis fans, about 90 percent of whom play or have played the game, this shutdown has proved a severe one-two punch. Friends and acquaintances have told me life without tennis has left them bored, frustrated and occasionally, even a bit depressed.
The value of sports as a tonic during a crisis, especially in wartime, was noted by the great writer George Orwell. In, “Money and Guns,” his January 20, 1942 essay just after the London Blitz, Orwell wrote: “Very often as you walk down the London streets, you see side by side on a newspaper poster the news of a great battle in Russia or the Far East, and the news of a football match or a boxing contest…. And perhaps that makes you stop and ask yourself — how can a people fighting for its life find time for football matches? …. A people at war — and that seems, as a rule, a people that is working harder and under more trying conditions than usual — cannot get on without rest and amusement. Probably these things are more necessary in wartime than at ordinary times.”
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Just five days earlier, echoing Orwell’s sentiments, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a letter to Kenesaw Mountain Landis, commissioner of baseball. It was a reply to Landis’s inquiry whether baseball, the national pastime then, should be shut down because of World War II. Roosevelt wrote: “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed [because of increased work in war-supply factories], and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before. Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half and which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.”
With more than a million reported cases of Covid-19 and more than 60,000 deaths (at the time of this writing) — and medical experts predicting countless more this year — Americans need sports recreation now just as much as they did during the darkest days of World War II.
Although tennis is not a high-risk, “close contact” sport such as basketball, baseball and ice hockey — whose seasons were curtailed in March — states, cities and towns increasingly locked tennis courts and removed nets during March and April. With the pandemic escalating, the United States Tennis Association said in an April 3 statement that “it is in the best interest of society to take a collective pause from playing the sport we love.”
Tennis diehards, however, scrambled to find the few remaining open courts. When they couldn’t find a court, they occasionally flouted the law by climbing over fences or squeezing between gates. To the best of my knowledge, though, no tennis players were arrested, as some golfers were for violating Rhode Island’s Covid-19 quarantine order.
On April 22, with some areas of the country, such as tennis hotbeds Georgia, Florida, California and Texas, reopening their economies, the USTA issued an optimistic statement. “The USTA recognises that the coronavirus has been affecting different parts of the country in different ways and with different timing. We therefore believe it will be possible for people to return to playing tennis safely in some cities and states sooner than others. In communities where stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders have been lifted or modified, and where the locality meets the standards in the Federal Guidelines, then tennis, if played properly, can be a great opportunity to relieve stress, socialise with others, and provide much-needed exercise.”
The USTA also stated that these local decisions during the phased opening will not apply to USTA-sanctioned events and programs, which will still remain suspended until at least May 31.
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Concerned that opening up America’s tennis courts could backfire if not done prudently, the USTA released two documents on “Playing Tennis Safely.” The first document specifically focuses on players. Its valuable tips and recommendations includes eight ways to protect yourself against infection. It also has advice on life-saving social distancing when playing and after playing.
The other document is geared toward facilities and programmes. These comprehensive suggestions fall into seven categories: assessing the situation; encouraging social distancing; providing a clean environment; tennis balls; equipment, coaching; and organising activities. The recommendations include the use of every second court when practical; online court bookings and payment to avoid handling cash; the return of balls from another court with a kick or with your racquet; arriving as close as possible to when you need to be there and leaving the court as soon as possible after playing.
What about the thousands of businesses and their employees in American tennis? “Tennis clubs, facilities, programs and retailers are closed throughout the country,” writes editor Peter Francesconi in the May issue of Racquet Sports Industry magazine. “Tennis equipment is held up in the supply chain. Tournaments are cancelled or postponed. Tennis providers are not working and, indeed, many have been laid off.”
Francesconi proposes a tennis emergency response plan, an industrywide collaboration that “would include an extensive communications campaign to both connect consumers and players to facilities, CTAs, member organisations, partners, park & recs, media, etc. — but also to connect these groups and businesses with each other. It would message the health benefits of playing the game and give guidelines on how tennis can be played during this time of social distancing.”
Happily, new USTA CEO Michael Dowse has formed a task force with its many partners and stakeholders to try to keep the tennis business alive while the economy is cratering. (The U.S. unemployment rate, which stood at 3.5%, the lowest in a half-century, on December 6, 2019, had skyrocketed to around 18% in late April — the highest since the Great Depression.)
By late February, the pro tours were building momentum for what many believed would be the most exciting year this century and intriguing storylines abounded. Would Rafael Nadal equal or even eclipse Roger Federer’s record 20 major titles? Would Australian Open champ Novak Djokovic, the youngest and hottest of The Big Three, catch up to his legendary rivals? Would Serena Williams finally match Margaret Court’s hallowed record of 24 majors? Or would The Next Gen — led by Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty, Bianca Andreescu, Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas — thwart these ageless legends? And what about the quadrennial Olympics Games, which Federer and Djokovic had never won in singles?
Exuberant anticipation turned to dismaying shock on March 8, a day that may well go down as the one of the most portentous in tennis history. That was when the escalating coronavirus threat forced the cancellation of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, regarded as the most prestigious annual co-ed tournament after the majors. Four days later, the Miami Open, another popular Masters 1000 event, was also scrapped. Like falling dominoes, the entire European clay-court circuit was cancelled except for the French Open, which the French Tennis Federation rescheduled for September 20, albeit with some controversy.
Next on the pandemic’s path of tennis destruction was the oldest and most majestic tournament. On April Fools’ Day, Federer jokingly tweeted that he would retire from pro tennis. A few hours later, though, upon learning that Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since World War II because of the coronavirus, the eight-time champion tweeted “Devastated.” That memorable one-word tweet summed up the reaction of the tennis world.
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Tennis Channel tried to ease the pain by replaying the epic 2019 Wimbledon final. In that enthralling marathon match, Federer agonisingly failed to convert two championship points, and Djokovic played three spectacular tiebreakers to capture his fifth title. But that rebroadcast and other riveting Wimbledon matches were old news. It’s much less fun when you already know the outcome. Tennis Channel also offered entertaining matches from other Grand Slam events, ATP and WTA tournaments, player features and interviews and musing by determinedly upbeat analysts. For offbeat fare, we watched eye-catching segments like former doubles star Cara Black, then only 16, alternating forehand and backhand reflex volleys against a backboard with amazing precision, speed and consistency.
Tennis fans also turned to YouTube to find out creative ways that tennis addicts, even in pandemic ravaged Italy, managed to get their fix. During the lockdown in Liguria, northwest Italy, Vittoria, age 13, and Carola, 11, became social media sensations after they posted a video of them playing between two rooftop terraces. Seeing is believing .
The Big Three’s compassion
Several pros, led, not surprisingly, by the Big Three, showed their compassion for the victims of the pandemic scourge with generous donations. “These are challenging times for everyone, and nobody should be left behind,” wrote Federer on his Instagram feed on March 25. “Mirka and I have personally decided to donate one million Swiss Francs ($1.02 million) for the most vulnerable families in Switzerland. Our contribution is just the start. We hope that others might join in supporting more families in need. Together we can overcome this crisis! Stay healthy!”
Djokovic and his wife Jelena donated a million euros ($1.1 million) to buy ventilators and other medical equipment to fight the coronavirus in his native land, Serbia, and Italy. The latter donation elicited a touching reaction from Peter Assembergs, the director general of the local health authority in Bergamo. “We never expected to see on our bank account a donation from such a prestigious person,” Assembergs said. “Reading among the donators the name of the best tennis player in the world ... made me emotional.”
On March 27, Nadal and six-time NBA All-Star Pau Gasol launched the #NuestraMejorVictoria (Our Best Victory) campaign to encourage donations from Spanish athletes in the fight against COVID-19. The initiative, which forms part of the #CruzRojaResponde (Red Cross Responds) project, aims to raise 11 million euros and help citizens in need during this health emergency.
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Women pros also stepped up to help humankind. The Women’s Tennis Association and its charitable arm WTA Charities announced the launch of WTA 4 Love, a humanitarian campaign aimed at supporting local communities impacted by the coronavirus. In China, where the pandemic started, two-time major champion Li Na donated about $500,000 for coronavirus relief. Madison Keys, the 2017 US Open finalist, brought athletes together to raise funds for COVID-19 relief with a new initiative called Kindness Wins. And former world No. 6 Carla Suarez Navarro, who retired last year, volunteered her time to help keep the shelves stocked at a Spanish food bank in her native Gran Canaria.
Who will benefit most from the suspension of pro competition? And who will be hurt most?
Mary Carillo, the George Orwell of tennis analysts, cited several categories of beneficiaries. “Players with enough money to hold on to their teams,” said Carillo. “Players who need to recover from injury or get fitter and faster. Players who can work on a leaky stroke, or learn better tactics. Veteran players who know what to do with long breaks and who have played enough matches that when the nets go back up they can rely upon their many years of match instincts.”
Fast-rising Americans Coco Gauff, 16, and Amanda Anisimova, 18, also will likely profit from the layoff. “Coco recently opened up about how she has worried in the past that she is missing out on a normal childhood,” Carillo said. “This break will allow her to relax from all the pressure and expectation she now lives under and catch up on teenage thoughts, emotions, friends.”
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Conversely, the cancellation of the European clay-court circuit, aside from the postponed French Open, had to hit Nadal hard — he amassed 12 of his 19 major titles at Roland Garros and 25 of his 35 Masters crowns there. However, as the pandemic accelerated, his focus immediately turned to Spain, one of the European epicentres of Covid-19. In a video conversation with Federer, Nadal revealed he hasn’t even picked up a racquet since Indian Wells was cancelled.
“Rafa is heartsick over how devastating the virus has been to his country, about the loss of interaction with the people he loves,” Carillo said. “He trains and competes as hard as anyone, and has had many injuries, but never a broken heart like the one he has now. This pandemic will make his return as difficult as anyone’s, especially with the clay court season all but gone.”
Even though Djokovic lost momentum and a chance for a rare calendar Grand Slam this year, Carillo predicted, “Djokovic will be fine, I’m guessing. So will Federer, though he was looking to win Wimbledon and the Olympics this year and now will have to attempt both in 2021 as he crowds 40.” Carillo has no doubt about the champion with the most to lose: “More than anyone, Serena [Williams]. She plays less and wins big matches less often than she used to,” Carillo pointed out. “She and Roger are the same age, but Roger wears his greatness more lightly. Serena’s quest for even more history has become a burden, made tougher by injury. I hope she is using the break to work hard and enjoy her child and her rich life, but this unknown timeline will make things tough for her.”
Tennis pros, unlike athletes in team sports, are independent contractors without guaranteed contracts. As a result, several categories of players will suffer financial hardship. “The older athletes who may lose close to an entire season,” said Carillo. “The lesser-ranked players, especially those without college degrees. Players who don’t come from Grand Slam event countries, where wild cards into majors or its qualifying event help keep them going. And players from countries that have weak tennis federations and host few or no tournaments will really feel this.”
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Fragile tennis ecosystem
The pandemic has underscored how fragile the tennis ecosystem is. “My guess is that there will be players and tournaments who will not survive the crisis,” said Carillo. “There have been well-meaning efforts to keep the lower-ranked players afloat financially, but the biggest sports, like the NFL and the NBA, can rely on their three revenue streams — TV rights, sponsors, and attendance — to stay healthy. In tennis there aren’t a whole lot of tournaments that have those guaranteed profits year after year. Maybe there are 10 of them. The rest must be in a lot of hurt.”
The best ways to recover from tennis’s coming economic crises are cooperation and compromise, according to Carillo. “More than anything, the governing bodies, The Seven Families of Tennis — not to be confused with The Godfather ’s Five Families — have to be willing to compromise, far more than they’ve ever shown in the past. No more stupid silos and turf wars. The Trump administration has had too many failures to document here, but that top Republicans consistently refuse to cross the aisle teaches us how dangerous that policy truly is. Our sport has long been guilty of the same greedy, power-hungry, short-sighted sin.”
Could some good come out of this crisis? One possibility is joint ATP-WTA television packages. That intriguing scenario would create a host of new questions and issues. “Will there be equal prize money in every event, and equal air time?” Carillo wondered. “It took decades for the majors to offer equal prize money, and I think in the end the European Grand Slam events knuckled under to avoid further criticism about the look of the inequity, not necessarily the disparity itself.”
A more momentous possibility is a merger between the ATP and WTA, a political game-changer that women’s rights pioneer Billie Jean King has long advocated. King recently picked up two powerful supporters in the men’s game. Federer tweeted, “Am I the only one thinking that now is the time for men’s and women’s tennis to be united and come together as one?” And Andrea Gaudenzi, chairman of the ATP Tour, told The New York Times , “If you only talk about the WTA and ATP together, it’s probably one plus one equals four. But if you add the Grand Slams into the equation, it’s probably one plus one plus four equals 20.”
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An ATP-WTA merger would also create more questions than answers. “Will the ATP and the WTA fight hard to make deals on their own terms?” Carillo said. “If they do, there will be pushback in the locker rooms from players who still don’t like the effort. There will still be men who resent the move, and there may be women who prefer a separate economic entity, afraid that the ATP’s bigger, stronger financial muscle and savvy businessmen will overwhelm them. That is surely a concern of mine.”
On a lighter note, 2014 Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard more than welcomed the urge to merge with men, or at least one of them. The beautiful Canadian blonde tweeted: “Not complaining, but I feel like quarantine would be a lot more fun with a boyfriend.”
That invitation, plus an image of Bouchard in a revealing bikini, produced a Twitter frenzy from eager, humorous suitors. “Not bragging, but I have 12 toilet rolls in my bathroom,” Lee wrote. Not to be outdone, Matt countered, “I’ve got 6 bottles of hand sanitizer, 18 toilet rolls and various scented soap bottles if Genie fancies a bit of quarantine and chill.”