July 31, 2020

The Countdown Begins

We are now exactly one month away from the start of the 2020 U.S. Open, and I don't need to tell anyone how different this season looks than years past.

A host of events slated for the summer have gone uncontested, and players have instead focused on training, exhibitions -- some well executed, others not so much -- and World Team Tennis -- where the not-so-surprising stand out has been a recently out-of-retirement(-again) Kim Clijsters.

But even as the abbreviated summer stretch finally kicks off after a five month hiatus, there remains plenty of tension and quite a few questions about what's to come.

Earlier this week Simona Halep said she wouldn't play in the Palermo Open, what would have been the WTA's first full tournament since March. It's not the most shocking move -- the world #2's homeland of Romania has been seeing a significant rise in coronavirus cases recently, and she'd long ago expressed concerns about traveling during the pandemic. Still, the event's director was not shy about showing her frustration, saying, "We are embittered and profoundly disappointed."

A couple days later, Britain's Johanna Konta, who would've taken the top seed in Palermo in Halep's place, also pulled out, choosing instead to focus on the upcoming U.S. swing.

But those higher profile events are not immune to withdrawals either -- just yesterday Ashleigh Barty said she'd skip both the U.S. Open and the lead-up Western & Southern Open, moved this year from Cincinnati to New York to minimize player travel. She hasn't yet decided if she'll make the trip to Paris next month to defend her French Open crown.

So where does that leave us?

There are still plenty of highly-ranked players making the trip to Palermo: Petra Martic, Marketa Vondrousova, Maria Sakkari and others are all still in the mix. And the Western & Southern currently has Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, as well as Aussie finalist Dominic Thiem and U.S. Open runner-up Daniil Medvedev on the roster. The ladies' draw boasts its own star power, with the newest Grand Slam champion Sofia Kenin competing alongside Serena Williams and three other top-ten players (not to mention Clijsters as a wildcard).

Still there's a lot of time left before the fields are set. With Roland Garros still slated to start two weeks after the U.S. Open ends, many players may be forced to choose between one or the other -- and if push comes to shove, which title do you think Nadal is more likely to defend?

And all of that tells us nothing about what we can expect in terms of actual player performance over the next few weeks. While a handful of players certainly got in some practice match play to keep their games warm in recent weeks -- and others like Serena and Nole often keep their calendars light ahead of the big events -- the vast majority of the field could be well out of practice. And, when coupled with a bracket that may have more than a few holes in it, that could make for some very interesting upsets and results in New York.

Whatever the case, we're certainly on the edge of what could be a very new era in the world of tennis -- and life in general -- and how things play out over the next few weeks could tell us a lot about the future of our sport. Hopefully we're able to pull it off in a way that keeps everyone safe and healthy. And if these events can wash out that stale taste still in our mouths from the Adria Tour and Atlanta, that gives us a lot more hope for what's to come.

July 11, 2020

Wimbledon Serves Up Some Relief

In another world, we would have crowned the 2020 Wimbledon champions this weekend.

But instead we are now in month five of the COVID-induced lockdown, and while there are certainly signs that things are starting to get back to normal, for better or worse, for most people it will be a long time before usual routines -- and paychecks -- are restored.

And that's what makes Wimbledon's announcement yesterday so extraordinary.

In an unprecedented move, the All England Lawn Tennis Club announced it would award more than £10 million in "prize money" to the players who would have competed in the event -- including qualifying tournaments and doubles draws.

"We know these months of uncertainty have been very worrying for [the players], many of whom have faced financial difficulty during this period and who would have quite rightly anticipated the opportunity to earn prize money at Wimbledon based on their world ranking," AELTC CEO Richard Lewis said in a statement.

"We are now in a position to offer this payment as a reward for the hard work they have invested in building their ranking to a point where they would have gained direct entry into The Championships 2020."

It bares noting that Wimbledon had the foresight to take out pandemic insurance, something organizations of all stripes now wish they had done, and was reportedly paid out some £110 million on the policy.

Still it's a solid gesture for the players who would otherwise have missed out on any payment. Of course, it's a far cry from what players could have made -- the highest payout of £25,000 for main draw singles is about half of what players who lost in the first round last year took home -- but certainly better than the alternative.

And it comes at a time when the future of professional tennis remains uncertain.

After the debacle that was the Adria Tour, an exhibition in Atlanta became the new beacon of ill-advised tournaments, with John Isner this time serving as villain after Frances Tiafoe tested positive for the virus.

While the U.S. Open is still planning to go on as planned at the end of the summer, what the field will look like is entirely up in the air. Simona Halep, Rafael Nadal, and even the much-maligned Novak Djokovic have all expressed doubts about coming.

And logistically, travel from parts of Europe, including Spain, the Czech Republic, Germany and more countries home to many of the top names in the sport, is still banned, and New York State specifically is requiring two weeks of quarantine for anyone who's been to high-risk regions in the U.S., like Florida where so many players train. That doesn't make for the easiest of planning.

The frustrating thing is that tennis is one of the lowest-risk activities you can do in these very strange times -- no physical contact, far apart from your opponent, outdoors. So it's unfortunate that we can't figure out a way to hold these events safely.

But as much as we pine for a day when we can again see shots that defy all comprehension and legendary champions crowned on Centre Court, we must first make sure we can do so without threat.

And hopefully Wimbledon's latest move bought us a little time to do that.