Tennis players are independent contractors. They do not receive salaries and do not have a union. The sport includes some of the richest athletes in the world: Roger Federer tops the list of highest-paid male athletes last year and Naomi Osaka was the highest-paid of all women, just above Serena Williams. The sport also includes many players struggling to cover their travel expenses.
Tennis isn’t particularly cohesive at an organizational level, as the coronavirus pandemic has awkwardly lit up. There is no Commissioner who can solicit feedback and present a comprehensive plan to get back to action. There is no league office. The International Tennis Federation, nominally the governing body of tennis, has limited powers. The Tennis Professionals Association oversees the men’s tour only – it is completely separate from the Women’s Tennis Association. The two organizations have different programs, budgets, rating systems, broadcast rights and sponsors. Within these two tours, each tournament is at least to some extent its own entity and each Grand Slam is completely independent. There are also circuits for lower tier players: the Challenger Tour for men, the 125K series for women, an independent World Tennis Tour for both, Futures matches and so on. Then there is a vast and somewhat obscure ecosystem of exhibition events. Even the journalists who cover the game are mostly far-reaching freelancers: one of the sport’s most experienced reporters, Reem Abulleil, told me that he spends about half a year traveling, paying his own way. In many respects, professional tennis does not resemble anything like the NBA, but resembles a federation of, say, fifty states with separate governments and a dominant ethic of individualism.
The week before Grigor Dimitrov tested positive for coronavirus, the United States Tennis Association issued a press release: the US Open would be played on regularly scheduled dates, in August, in the usual place – Queens, New York – albeit without fans. The Western & Southern Open would be moved from Mason, Ohio, to Queens and played shortly before. A huge portion of tennis tournament revenue comes from gate revenue and on-site sponsorship, which would not be recovered, but the USTA, which hosts the tournament, could at least withhold the money from the broadcast. He had already fired more than a hundred employees. From the beginning there was talk that the tours would not return until all eligible players could come unrestricted and feel safe. Then it became clear that normal life would not resume any moment and that, if they waited, there might be no tours to return to. “We must try to provide income opportunities for our athletes, at our tournaments, to keep them vital,” Steve Simon, CEO of the WTA, told Abulleil.
On June 23, the USTA held a virtual press conference, with reporters teleported via Zoom. It started with a video of Serena Williams in her kitchen. “I can’t wait to go back to New York and play the 2020 US Open,” he said, with a blender visible over his shoulder. “I feel that USTA will do a great job of ensuring that everything is great, that everything is perfect and that everyone is safe. It will be exciting. “
Sure, hopefully; different, no doubt. After the video, the USTA chief medical officer joined a handful of other officials on stage to explain the plan in an otherwise empty Arthur Ashe Stadium, which, two months earlier, had been used as a field hospital. In an attempt to keep the bubble smaller, there would be no media, aside from skeletal TV crews. There would be no qualification tournaments, through which lower-ranked players normally earn seats in the main draw, and there would be no mixed doubles, junior tournaments, or wheelchair tennis. Reduced the range by double. Each Open competitor would be allowed to bring three more people to the site. (A previous proposal limited them to one companion each, but several high-level players, accustomed to traveling with entourage, objected.) There would be regular tests for the coronavirus and they had protocols in place, officials said, to deal with the positive tests.
Not everyone was happy. “For me, A SLAM IS NOT A SLAM WITHOUT QUALIFICATIONS, DOUBLE AND DOUBLE MIXED”, Gaby Dabrowski, a doubles champion from Canada, tweeted. “It leaves a bad taste in my mouth when so many players are opposed to this event moving forward, yet it is moving forward anyway. . . . Something just doesn’t seem right here. “Many wheelchair athletes and their fans were furious and managed to restore the wheelchair tournament. Some high-level players were unhappy with the size restrictions of their support teams. During a conference call with officials from the wheelchair. USTA, one player suggested that attendees receive a higher cash prize, as a kind of risk pay, but the suggestion was not warmly received.
There was also the question of application. At the press conference, Ben Rothenberg, a freelancer who often writes for the Times, asked if there would be any consequences for breaking the rules. “I think as we get back to work, we all have a responsibility to ourselves, to our families, to our co-workers,” said Stacey Allaster, the tournament director. He added: “I have a lot of faith in these professional athletes.” He seemed to be saying no, there would be no consequences, other than perhaps the contraction of the virus.
At that point it was unclear who would come besides Serena Williams. Federer was out for the year with knee surgery. Djokovic was supposed to play, but the status of Nadal, the reigning champion, was in doubt, in part because his signature event, the French Open, had already announced – apparently without consulting the rest of the tennis world – that he was jumping from its normal position on the calendar, from late May to late September. (Wimbledon, which had insurance that extended to cancellation in the event of a pandemic, was simply canceled.) This made it uncertain whether players who attended the US Open would be able to compete in France shortly thereafter. After flying from New York to Paris, would they be required to quarantine? The status of woman number one, Ashleigh Barty, was also questionable. Would you like to travel from Australia, a place where the virus is largely under control, to a country where it is not?
The ATP tour was to resume with the Citi Open, in Washington, DC, in August. But, in July, it was canceled, because no one was sure players would be able to get in and out without quarantining. It was beginning to seem that the most plausible future for tennis, at least in the short term, was a regional patchwork. Patrick Mouratoglou, better known as Serena Williams’ coach, had launched a tournament called the Ultimate Tennis Showdown, at his academy in the south of France, with an experimental scoring format and relaxed code of conduct. (Think rackets they hit.) Czech players competed in Prague; Thiem hosted an event in the Austrian tourist resort of Kitzbühel. Tennis Australia has planned a series of events for local players. Sixteen women, including the latest Grand Slam champion Sofia Kenin, competed in teams dubbed Kindness and Peace in a tournament in Charleston, South Carolina, which aired on the Tennis Channel. In the UK, Jamie Murray, one of the top doubles specialists, held a contest for national supremacy that included his brother, Andy, who had been out most of the year with a hip injury. (Dan Evans, the current British No.1, validated his ranking by taking the title.) Competitive exhibitions were held in Florida, many of which were streamed on ESPN3, with the top 100 players. In Atlanta, Americans John Isner, Sam Querrey and Frances Tiafoe were the protagonists of an event with a limited number of fans and a recommended but optional mask; Tiafoe withdrew after testing positive for COVID-19. (The event continued.) World Team Tennis experienced a kind of bubble in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, with a stocked court that included Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters. Meanwhile, Danielle Collins was fired for driving to Charlottesville to buy health supplements, but none tested positive. The final was broadcast on national television, and tightened to the last point. After the winning team was awarded, the players embraced in a group hug.
While the coronavirus has laid bare the stark divisions in tennis, it has also represented an opportunity to help them bridge them. In April, Djokvoic revealed a plan he was working on with Federer and Nadal calling the top 100 singles and top 20 doubles players to make mobile-scale contributions to a player relief fund. Those in the Top 5 would put thirty thousand each, followed by twenty thousand for players ranked six to ten, and so on; the ATP would add about one million, and the four slams would each donate five hundred thousand, to bring the fund to four million dollars. Players ranked between two thousand and five hundred will each receive ten thousand dollars. Many people praised the idea, but not everyone was happy. “None of the players are starving,” Thiem told an Austrian newspaper. The top hundred, said Thiem, “all had to fight to climb the rankings. I have seen players on the ITF Tour who are not 100 percent committed to the sport. Many are rather unprofessional. I don’t see why I should give them money. “Inès Ibbou, a young Algerian player ranked number 620 in the world, filmed a response to Thiem, explaining what she had to go through to continue her career, and posted it on Instagram; comments, Venus Williams called Ibbou “my hero”.