The proverb, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” was never more apt than when talking about the return of professional tennis in Montreal and Toronto this year.
Of course, every tennis fan knows that due to Covid-19, the 2020 version of the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank was cancelled in Toronto and Montreal. Much of the WTA and ATP schedules, including even mighty Wimbledon, were cancelled after March in 2020, and those tournaments that did manage to run did so with few or no fans.
Even though we were all dealing with the fallout of the pandemic in its early months, hundreds of thousands of Canadian tennis fans were hopeful that it would only last for a few short months and things would return to “normal” in time for the summer tennis season. Little did we know that it would force the cancellation of both events in 2020 AND put the 2021 tournaments in jeopardy as well!
Fortunately, thanks to so many Canadians receiving their vaccines and practicing safe health measures, case numbers and hospitalizations went down in the weeks leading up to the tournaments. These developments, along with the efforts of Tennis Canada in negotiating with the pro tours and all three levels of government, finally led to permission to hold the tournaments in both cities – only a few short weeks before their scheduled start dates and of course, with many restrictions including health screening at the gates, virtual ticketing, limited seating at Centre Court, no fan access to the Grandstand, side and practice courts, or the former retail and hospitality zones.
The grounds staff and contractors in both Toronto and Montreal were forced into overdrive to get the site ready, especially navigating the extra security measures needed due to the pandemic, and they should be congratulated for their tremendous efforts!
A walk around the tournament site of the newly named National Bank Open presented by Rogers in Toronto, once the tournament began, was a stark reminder that the pandemic is still with us. The entire south end of the grounds has been fenced off, allowing access to only about 450 people that have been included in the “inner bubble.” These include players, coaches, press, a few volunteers as well as other essential service people. There is even a vaccination centre set up inside the gates offering first and second shots!
The set-up is also a testament to Tennis Canada, the ATP, volunteers and the players, for showing the determination to hold this historic event and offer the fans a safe, enjoyable environment in which to watch the world’s best.
With no retail and hospitality, the inner bubble area has become a bit of a playground for the players – lot’s of space to relax, practice, eat and even kick the soccer ball around a bit… and of course, there are also matches still going on back there with no fans present. Some players have said that it feels a bit like a resort!
Centre Court also has a different feel to it this year. Fans are a bit more spread out and they are not allowed to linger before and after matches. Masks are mandatory on the grounds and in the stands except for when drinking and eating. The suites have limited capacity and hospitality and, once a session is over, fans must leave the grounds ASAP.
The good news is that tennis fans are adaptable.
Many fans have had to walk a fair distance from parking zones due to the absence of shuttle bus services for obvious reasons, but once inside and in their seats, they have been treated to some very entertaining and close matches so far. Even though the big three are not playing this year (Nadal was forced to withdraw due to injury once the tournament began), the rest of the field has stepped up their game, sensing that this might provide them with an excellent opportunity to gain valuable ranking points and prize money at this 1000-Level tour event.
As one fan noted after leaving a particularly thrilling Centre Court match, “once we got through the gates and into our seats, things seemed normal again. The match was fantastic, and the fans were into it! I didn’t realize how much I missed going to live events and seeing the best players in the world!”
At the end of the tournaments in Toronto and Montreal, deserving champions will have been crowned and we can all look forward to an even bigger and better National Bank Open presented by Rogers in 2022!