Professional Tennis During a Pandemic

by Max Gao

October 2020

At the rescheduled French Open, which served as this year’s final Grand Slam, ONTENNIS’ Max Gao caught up with some of Canada’s top players, as well as some of the biggest names in the sport, to talk about the new reality of self-isolating at tournaments and flying during a pandemic.

In the midst of a global pandemic, professional sports have had to take unprecedented measures to allow for a safe return to competition, with tennis being no exception. After a five-month shutdown, the WTA and ATP returned in August for an unpredictable three-month reboot of the 2020 season. With two Grand Slams in less than a month, systematic testing in different “controlled” environments and differing regulations for international travel, the second part of the 2020 season has proven to be quite the challenge for all players, both on and off the court.

Around the time that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, tennis players—like the majority of the global population—were forced to re-adapt in the face of unfathomable circumstances. With the sudden cancellation of Indian Wells and dozens of tournaments in the spring, players scrambled to return home before air travel restrictions and worldwide lockdown measures came into effect.

For three months, the tennis world waited in limbo as the respective tours and tournaments worked toward an uncertain return to international competition. While some players were able to play in warmer climates with looser restrictions, such as Ottawa’s Gabriela Dabrowski, others were forced to ride out the first month of the pandemic in the confines of their own home. For athletes who are used to travelling in Europe every spring, it was certainly an uncanny change of pace, leading to an even more unsettling loss of motivation among players in general.

“I’m a person who loves to play matches and have the motivation to get better, that the tournaments are there and playing better in a match. So in that time when I didn’t really know what will happen, I was so unmotivated to just play tennis,” admitted two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who was disappointed to learn that her favourite Grand Slam would also be cancelled. “I wasn’t really enjoying the tennis in that time. Every day I did some gym, but on the court, it was really struggling and I played like twice, three times per week, so it was really not much.”

As restrictions began to loosen, exhibition tournaments began to crop up across North America, Europe and Australia, giving cash-strapped players a chance to compete with limited spectators. It was not until mid-June that the WTA, ATP and ITF revealed a concurrent plan to resume the tour in August, drawing unsurprising skepticism from players and fans alike. While the abbreviated clay season had been moved to the fall, the relocated Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open would both be played in a bubble at Flushing Meadows—the first of its magnitude in professional sports. The Rogers Cup, however, would be cancelled for the first time since World War II. While the challenges had only just begun, players quickly marked their calendars and began training for the American hardcourt swing.

The Dangers of International Air Travel

As one of the hardest-hit industries during this pandemic, air travel has not only dramatically changed in the last six months but it has also revealed the major inconsistencies that exist when flying from one country to another. With some countries requiring all visitors to quarantine for up to 14 days, tournaments and governing bodies have had to request special exemptions from federal governments to allow players to compete in different “bubbles” from week-to-week.

“It’s a tricky situation because you can’t really organize your travel freely. You need to have your negative COVID test to enter certain countries. It’s not so easy to do on the go,” said Vancouver’s Vasek Pospisil. “Travelling, that’s the toughest part, to make sure you have the paperwork and documentation you need in terms of COVID, that allows you to enter the country. You need all the permissions from the tournaments to enter, for your team.”

With the heightened danger of testing positive and being stranded in a foreign country, most players have had to adopt new habits—including not touching their face and diligently cleaning their hands throughout the day—while still maintaining the healthy habits that they have had for years.

Having flown with a portable air purifier around her neck for years, Dabrowski added a mask to her list of travel essentials. Juan Sebastian Cabal, the World No. 2 in doubles, posted a picture of him wearing a face shield on top of a surgical mask. Jack Sock, a four-time Grand Slam doubles champion, told reporters that he toyed with the idea of buying a beekeeper’s costume to fly. Even players like World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who tested positive for coronavirus after his ill-fated Adria Tour, have taken extra precautions, as there is no conclusive evidence that antibodies against the virus will last beyond a few months of recovery.

“You always get that nervous feeling for the first time when you get to a tournament, do the test. You hope that nobody in the airport is infected or has the COVID,” said Québec’s Leylah Annie Fernandez. “But we’re trying to do as best as we can; stay away from people, sanitize our hands as much as we can, sanitize our seats. Even in the tournament we’re doing the same things.”

“It’s a bit nerve wracking traveling just because I’m doing everything in my power to make sure that I am safe and I keep other people safe,” said Kristie Ahn, a former Stanford standout that faced Serena Williams in the first round of two Grand Slams this year. “But it’s a two-way street, so we need people to reciprocate and sometimes they don’t so it’s a bit frustrating in that department."

Amidst a Growing Pandemic, Inconsistent Regulations Plague the Fractured World of Tennis

While safety regulations have varied from country to country, most tournaments have adopted similar protocols. Upon arrival at each event, all players and team members must take a PCR test and receive a negative result before being allowed to pick up their accreditation and prepare for the tournament. Throughout the event, they are expected to submit to routine temperature checks and additional testing, as well as refrain from spending additional time on-site if they are not practicing or playing a match. In other words, provided that they continue to test negative, players spend all of their time away from the court commuting between the site and their hotel, essentially creating a “bubble” that can justify an exemption from governments.

In a year that has exposed the structural issues that exist around the world, tennis players have been forced to reckon with the clear divisions that exist not only within their distinct tours but also between their limited tournaments. As independent contractors, these players do not receive negotiated salaries and do not currently have a union (while players like Djokovic and Pospisil have been trying to establish one this year). While the sport’s top stars are among the highest-paid athletes in the world, there are still thousands of players that struggle to break even when competing at the Challenger level.

In addition to a consistent disparity in earnings, the organizational structure of tennis is unlike anything in professional sports. The WTA and the ATP have overseen separate tours since they were both established in the early 1970’s. There is no single commissioner that can oversee the day-to-day operations of the sport or provide a robust plan to allow for a safe return to action. As such, the ITF, the international governing body of tennis, has a limited amount of power, even at the Grand Slam level. In the last few months, the tours have come under fire for a lack of consistency when enforcing regulations from one tournament to another.

For instance, shortly before the U.S. Open, France’s Benoit Paire tested positive for coronavirus and was subsequently withdrawn from the tournament and told to quarantine in his room at the player hotel. In comparison, seven other players who had come into contact with Paire were placed under “enhanced protocols”—essentially creating a bubble within a bubble—but were allowed to play before being forced to quarantine as well. After spending 10 days in his hotel room, an unfit Paire tested positive again at a tournament in Hamburg but was still allowed to practice and play a match, leading to even more controversy.

“It was not easy, honestly,” said the Frenchman. “The only thing I wanted was to go home, [but] couldn’t because we had to come [to Roland Garros] for the test. I’m tired physically… I’m tired mentally.”

With some players also testing positive at one tournament and negative at another, many players have called into question the integrity of the bubble, especially at Roland Garros. Compared to the U.S. Open, which had a bio-bubble with no fans, private suites and on-site entertainment, most players were quick to voice their disappointment with the set-up in Paris.

“There is no bubble. You can leave the hotel, you can go to the city [and other tourists can come into the hotel], there’s no problem, there’s nobody stopping you, so New York was done way better,” noted Vaughan’s Denis Shapovalov, who also broke into the top 10 this fall.

“It’s not easy to be stuck in the bubble,” said Pospisil. “You don’t want to be on-site all day because it’s also a stressful environment, right? You have all the competitors around. You want to leave the site as soon as possible. The only place you can go is the hotel. It’s not easy because you can’t even get fresh air, but that is what it is.”

“We Are Not Here for the Fun of It” – The Uncertain Future of Tennis Going Forward

With all that being said, it is not lost on all the players that they are extremely fortunate to even have a job right now, as the economic fallout of the pandemic continues to hit record lows. For players like World No. 7 Alexander Zverev, who reached his first Grand Slam final this summer at Flushing Meadows, any tournament should only be considered a “business trip” until the world gets the virus under control.

“We are not here for the fun of it. We’re not here for entertainment [since you can’t visit anywhere]. We are not here to necessarily have a good time,” he said. “When you’re winning, you’re having a good time. But outside of the court you’re not necessarily here to have a good time. It's definitely different, but I think a lot of players are still appreciating the opportunity to play. Simple as that.”

With players spending a lot more time in their hotel rooms than usual, most of them have travelled with personal items to help them pass the time. After winning nine matches in a row in New York, Victoria Azarenka joked that she had taken some tough off-court losses in UNO, the popular card game. Leylah Annie Fernandez, who graduated high school during the pandemic, has been doing her schoolwork for university. After subscribing to Netflix and Hulu, Eugenie Bouchard started watching Billions and Selling Sunset.

“It’s just acceptance of the situation and understanding that if this is what we have to do to have a job right now then of course I’m totally happy to do it,” said Bouchard. “I mean, as they say: It is what it is. I can’t control the opportunities or the tournaments or COVID, so I’m just ready for whatever opportunity is presented to me [to play more tournaments].”

With the Grand Slam season now over, players are now setting their sights on an uncertain future, which has been complicated by the cancellation of the Asian swing. Following Roland Garros, the WTA only has two events left for 2020 while the ATP has over a dozen, which further highlights the discrepancies that exist between the two main tours. In the coming weeks, Tennis Australia will reveal their plans for the 2021 Australian Open, which will likely involve players being able to practice while quarantining in Melbourne.

As players continue to compete during a raging pandemic, it was 20-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal that probably said it best: “I will not say [tennis] is important, because in the world today there is things much more important than a tennis tournament.”

“That’s our job, and the only thing we can say is thanks to the ATP Tour, to Roland Garros, to the U.S. Open, to everyone who make big efforts to come back to the tennis tour, because [the] situation worldwide is unpredictable, so difficult. Economically the tournaments are suffering a lot, so it’s bit risky to organize an event during these difficult moments. So the only thing that I can guarantee is [I’m] gonna be here, try my best every single day fighting, and trying to give to the people my best every single day, because in some way sport helps the people.”