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June 12, 2020

Looking for a Solution

If there's anything we've learned over the last few months -- probably something we should have learned a long time ago -- it's that there are seldom perfect answers when things are toughest. And as we continue to wait for official word about what will become of the U.S. Open this year, there's been a lot of conversation and frustration around the possibilities.

After all, with Wimbledon cancelled outright and Roland Garros currently scheduled for the end of September -- the usual capstone of the Grand Slam season could turn out to be the second Major of the year. And it would come under extraordinary circumstances. 

Since the world went on lockdown in March, there's been no official tournament play in months, and there won't be until at least August. Sure there have been some matches -- the UTR exhibition events in May and the kick off this weekend of Novak Djokovic's Adria Tour in Europe, where social distancing seemed to be more of a suggestion than a practice. 

But even in the best case scenario, an actual event, with a single elimination draw, prize money and ranking points at stake, won't take place until August. And when and if that happens, things will be very different.

Let's not forget that COVID-19 is still very much a threat. While some restrictions have been lifted, most of us are still worried about a second wave of infections and have accepted that it'll be a while before things get back to normal. 

We've talked for months about holding sporting events without fans, but there are other steps being considered for tennis and the U.S. Open in particular, from keeping players' teams to just one person -- no cadre of coach, trainer, physio and hitting partner, forget a wife and child -- to requiring players to stay at one hotel near Flushing Meadows in order to limit travel to and from the event.

There are possible structural changes as well -- talk of eliminating the qualifying rounds ahead of the main draw, reducing the size of the doubles field, moving the lead up Western & Southern Open from Cincinnati to New York, again to limit travel, or even moving the Open itself out of New York, by far the biggest hotspot for the virus in the U.S. Or the whole thing could be canceled entirely.

Not surprisingly, players have a lot of thoughts on these options. Simona Halep has voiced concerns over traveling from her native Romania, while Rafael Nadal has questioned safety of New York in particular. And Djokovic has gotten a lot of backlash for saying that limiting his team to just one person puts him in an "impossible" situation -- a statement that drew rebukes from world #51 Danielle Collins, who pointed out that most players on tour, especially the lower ranked ones who are more financially in need of returning to competition to earn a paycheck, are lucky to have anyone in their entourage, much less more than one.

So what if the top players choose not to play the event? Sure, that may give those long shots a better chance at advancing deep into the draws, but no one wants to win a competition that way. Besides, a lack of star power doesn't do much for sponsors and advertisers willingness to pour money into the Open -- and if broadcasters aren't incentivized to air matches, that's a huge problem for fans who can't attend in person and to the development of the sport. 

As much as we'd like to believe that money isn't a factor -- it certainly is.

Cancellation is no good either. While it might lessen health and safety concerns, it'd deal a further blow to those athletes who've already been effectively unemployed since March. And as Collins and others point out, we're not talking here about the million-dollar stars, but the ones who pay their way to get from one tournament to the next for just a shot at a couple thousand dollars.

For what it's worth, it feels to me like the best option is to get out of New York, go somewhere less risky where it's easier to control crowd size. Of course no solution is going to please everyone, but getting players back on court safely should be the priority. The world's economies are all trying to figure out how to get back up and running, and the tennis economy is no different -- and while some sacrifices will certainly have to be made, health should not be one of them.

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