Tennis can’t quit its Covid bubble
The Parisian lockdown is winding down. During the daylight hours, the streets of the French capital are alive for everyone to enjoy once more — except the world’s best tennis players.
They get an hour a day.
For many professional athletes, especially those in countries where vaccine delivery is moving briskly, life has begun to return to a semblance of normalcy. Tennis players at the French Open, though, continue to exist in a state of high pandemic alert, forced to shuttle mostly between designated hotels and sites for competition or practice while the world jumps back to life around them.
“It is not the best situation,” Rafael Nadal, the 13-time winner of the Grand Slam tournament, said the other day.
Nadal wants to go out to dinner. He wants to enjoy a normal life. “It is not possible today,” he said. “We just wait for it.”
The situation remains somewhat precarious. On Wednesday night, tournament organizers announced that two men’s doubles players had tested positive and been removed from the tournament.
During the French Open, players are allowed to be somewhere other than their hotels, Roland Garros, where the tournament takes place, or a practice complex, but only for the 60 minutes that government and tournament officials agreed to as a condition for holding the tournament. After months of strict limits on their movements, some players said that even that sliver of freedom felt like a godsend.
“I know, for some people, an hour outside may seem like a small detail, but at least for me it just means a lot to go out and get away from it,” said Coco Gauff, the rising American teenager who has spent most of the past three months on the road, playing seven tournaments since the Australian Open.
The pandemic has created major obstacles for every professional sport. But because tennis players and the tours switch cities and countries, and sometimes continents, each week, the sport has been especially vulnerable.
When sports sprang back to life last summer, the big concern was figuring out how to keep athletes from becoming infected and then sidelining a team or forcing an entire tournament, perhaps even a league, to shut down. Now the focus is on preventing players who travel the globe from infecting local communities. As government officials continue to tighten or even close borders, the sport’s organizers have often had to agree to a strict set of conditions to gain permission for tournaments to take place. Those conditions often include serious limitations on player movement.
“This is about finding a balance between allowing athletes into these places to compete and not upsetting current environments,” said Steve Simon, chief executive of the WTA, the women’s professional tour.
The men’s tour recently began offering antigen testing every two days and started to allow players who tested negative to leave their hotels for limited activities, including exercise, dining and shopping. But that can happen only if local officials agree to it.
For the players, the routine is getting old. Alexander Zverev of Germany, the No. 6 seed at the French Open, said this spring that he had reached a breaking point at a tournament in Rotterdam earlier this year, “freaking out” while confined to his hotel and the empty arena with little access to fresh air.
Daniil Medvedev of Russia, seeded second at the French Open, said he had found life on the road confusing these days.
When he visited Moscow, everything was open and he was free to go to nightclubs and restaurants. When the tour moved to Florida for the Miami Open, spring break was in full swing, but players were confined to their hotels. Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece was fined $7,500 for visiting a Whole Foods. Now the tour is in Europe and each city has different guidelines, with some nearly shut down during periods of the day.
“It’s controversial,” Medvedev said. “Depends what you believe in, depends what you think about all this, depends what you see.”
It’s not clear when this all will end. In Australia, where the sport is supposed to kick off its Grand Slam season in 2022 with the Australian Open in January, Melbourne went back into a lockdown last week. Tennis officials are already trying to negotiate a plan to hold the tournament without forcing players into a two-week quarantine, which everyone arriving in the country still must observe.
Craig Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia, said officials were “working on several scenarios.” He rejected speculation that the tournament would have to be moved offshore because Australia’s government has not said when the two-week quarantine for international visitors will end. At the moment, Tiley has pinned his hopes on significant increases in vaccinations in the coming months to ease local concerns about tennis bringing coronavirus cases to Australia, which has nearly eradicated infections by isolating itself.
After the French Open, the tours shift to the grass-court season and Wimbledon, which was canceled last year. London, which has endured months of lockdowns, is beginning to edge toward normalcy since a dramatic drop in infection rates that followed Britain’s vaccination program. Pub and restaurant life is expected to have substantially returned when Wimbledon begins on June 28.
Yet once again, tennis players will largely be cloistered in their hotel rooms, prohibited from even renting private homes near the All England Club, as many of them usually do. Even Andy Murray, who lives a short drive from the club, will have to move to the players’ hotel. Tournament officials have threatened to disqualify players if they or a member of their support teams are caught violating the rules.
Johanna Konta, the British pro who is a member of the players council for the women’s tour, said that players understand the need for a balancing act, but that there is also a need for “giving space to flexibility, to start giving us a little bit of normality.”
That is easier said than done, Simon said. Vaccinations among players could help matters, but Simon said only about 20% of female pros had received a shot, largely because they are not eligible in their countries or are hesitant to be vaccinated. The vaccination rate on the men’s tour is also low, for similar reasons. Roger Federer got one. Novak Djokovic, a vaccination skeptic who has had COVID-19, has refused to say whether he has been inoculated or intends to be.
A period of relief may be on the horizon, though.
After Wimbledon, tennis shifts to the Tokyo Olympics, where health protocols will be extremely strict. But then the sport moves to North America for hardcourt play. That part of the tour can feel like a slog to top pros. The heat can be oppressive, and many players are tiring from seven months of travel and competition.
It’s unclear what will happen with the National Bank Open, scheduled for Toronto and Montreal, with Canada’s government travel restrictions and quarantines still in place, but the expectation is that life in the United States, home of a series of tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open, may be free of nearly all restrictions, even mandatory mask wearing indoors. With the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, postponed from March to October, players have an excuse to extend their stay in the U.S. if they want.
“I am obviously waiting for the week where all of this is going to disappear and none of that is going to be a part of our procedure and routine,” Tsitsipas said. “So really looking to the next couple of months. We might see things go back to normal, and I’m waiting for that day.”
[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]