Anyone with even the slightest interest in tennis knows that the Slam events – the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open – mean big money. Big money for players; big money for sponsors; big money for organisers. Tennis is a competitive sport played and watched by people who genuinely love the sport, but it’s also a business, and the Slams are peak profit opportunities.
As a result, the Slams have had to lead the way when it comes to responding to the coronavirus pandemic – and it’s fair to say the responses have been very different indeed.
Wimbledon’s decision to cancel its 2020 tournament was perhaps the simplest of all. With infection rates in the United Kingdom high and a tournament scheduled to begin before the outbreak could realistically be controlled, cancellation was inevitable – and the All England Club Lawn Tennis Association duly obliged. The news, which was announced on April 1st, was greeted with disappointment, but overwhelming understanding from tennis fans and players alike.
Plans for 2021 have not been considered at length, which is perhaps understandable with around 12 months to go until the first ball would be due to be hit.
We know now that the coronavirus pandemic was waiting in the wings during the Australian Open of 2020, but it was still a relatively minor news story; there was no doubt that the 2020 Australian Open would proceed as normal. Australia was therefore able to host its Slam exactly as it always has; no masks, no restrictions, no social distancing.
When the scale of the pandemic increased and the lockdowns began, the AO was in a position to essential bide their time. With around 10 months until the event was next due to be scheduled, no immediate decisions had to be made. There was discussion as to what the 2021 event might look like, but there was general optimism that the tournament would indeed go ahead – though with the constant “subject to change pending second wave” asterisk.
Initially, Australia as a whole appeared to manage coronavirus well, and the AO’s patience seemed to bear fruit – but times have changed. Melbourne, where the event is staged, has seen cases rise once more, and now the viability of the AO is once again being called into question. At the time of writing, no formal decisions have been made, but ideas have been floated for alternative options. While some have called for Melbourne to relinquish the tournament to allow it to be staged in a less-affected area, tournament director Craig Tiley has made it clear this is not an option being seriously considered. Playing a broadcast-only tournament, however, could well be on the table.
The French Open announced it was going to reschedule its tournament from May/June to the end of September in the hopes of avoiding the peak of the coronavirus outbreak. At the time of the announcement in April, there was uproar: the new dates meant the tournament would resume around a week after the end of the USO. These two tournaments are played on different surfaces, and the transition genuinely poses a well-being threat to players. What’s more, the date change would also clash with the increasingly popular brainchild of Roger Federer, the Laver Cup.
Undeterred by a decision that seemed to infuriate literally everyone, the French Open are pushing ahead with plans for autumnal tennis in Paris. Tickets will go on sale at the end of July as things stand.
Initially it seemed as if Rolland Garros would be the villains of tennis in the time of coronavirus. However, while the French Open’s unilateral decision to reschedule the tournament is still up there among the pandemic’s most shocking sports decisions, the USO is now taking centre stage and receiving the ire of tennis supporters the world over.
The USO is based in the USA, where the pandemic has hit particularly hard, with New York – the tournament’s home – particularly affected. What’s more, the Citi Open was cancelled on July 21st, with the pandemic, and the associated travel restrictions, cited as reasons for the cancellation – reasons that should, all things being equal, also apply to the US Open.
There have also been worrying signs from elsewhere in the world about what a tournament during a pandemic means and how players respond. Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour, for example, resulted in numerous outbreaks that included coronavirus diagnoses for Djokovic himself, his wife, and Grigor Dimitrov. Alexander Zverev, who should have been self-isolating after the tournament, was then videoed very definitively not social distancing, leading to concerns about just how a tournament and its aftermath can be managed if such prolific players are overlooking concerns or failing to adhere to advice. Djokovic and Zverev have both apologised, but fans have been quick to point out when discussing the USO that assuming players will abide by rules and restrictions is not a given.
Unfortunately, the US Open are still seemingly determined that nothing has changed.
USTA statement on the cancellation of the Citi Open: pic.twitter.com/EWHCAQCTja
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) July 21, 2020
The reaction to the insistence the tournament will continue has been harsh, both from fans of the sport and players. The entire viability of the event has also been called further into question by the potential lack of star power: Rafa Nadal is unlikely to play after committing to the Madrid Open, Roger Federer is injured, and Stan Wawrinka is practicing on clay rather than hard court, furthering rumours he too will avoid the Queens-based tournament.
Gazing into our crystal ball, we suspect that the US Open isn’t going to happen – so it might be wise to hold your bets for the moment. The French Open, however, is more likely, so if you’re looking to bet on tennis in 2021, you could consider betting on who gets to lose to Rafa Nadal this year.