The outbreak of the coronavirus created the first major disruption of the tennis tours since World War II. With luck, the interruption will be a lot shorter this time, but the disordering of events is picking up pace. French Open officials announced Tuesday that the second Grand Slam event of the year, which traditionally starts during the final week of May, will be played Sept. 20 to Oct. 4.
The WTA Tour currently plans to resume play on May 2, the start date of the Madrid Open tournament, with the ATP Tour relaunching with clay events a week earlier. The International Tennis Federation also announced that it had suspended play until April 20 at the earliest. Nobody knows what the landscape of the game will look like when play begins again or what COVID-19-related issues or restrictions might be in place.
The questions that loomed when Indian Wells became one of the very first major sporting events to be canceled because of the coronavirus will still be with us, albeit in slightly altered forms, along with a few fresh ones. Here are some of them:
What are the main implications of the French Open’s decision?
For players, the postponement translates to an ultra-demanding workload that may end up producing some skewed or unexpected results. Wimbledon ends on July 12 (at least at this point). The Olympic Games are scheduled to begin in Japan 13 days later, to end on Aug. 9. The US Open is scheduled to being on the final day of August and end on Sept. 13. Then the French Open is projected to start just one week later on a clay surface that produces long matches.
It’s hard to imagine that the elite players will risk their health and well-being by playing that full slate. And if they do commit to the schedule, they will surely cut back on all other tournament commitments including the combined Masters (ATP)/Premier (WTA) events of the summer. This could be devastating for the tours and also produce surprising results as second- and third-tier players could walk off with significant titles.
The major question looming at the moment is what will happen to the popular Euroclay events that traditionally prepare players for Roland Garros.
How is this break different from the game’s brief offseason?
Any interruption of habit tends to have a subversive influence on the status quo, a phenomenon that’s been proven over and over again by Davis Cup and Fed Cup events as well as at the Olympic Games. The added pressures, as well as the inspirational power of competing on a team for your nation, render rankings and seedings less reliable.
The particulars are different now, but the disruption is far greater. Players will have a little — or a lot of — time to train, think and hit the reset button or worry about how they’ll fare when play resumes. The break will be welcomed by struggling or physically compromised competitors, less so by players who were chugging along on the upswing.
The 21-match winning streak Djokovic built is on hold. He appeared ready to add to the tally when the ATP Tour went dark just before the two big North American winter hard-court events. He’s still the only man who has completed the “Sunshine Double” (successive wins at Indian Wells and the Miami Open) four times.
Now, even if the clay events take place as planned, he will have to look at them in the context of his mid-to-late summer plans. On the plus side, he won’t have to worry about challenging Nadal on the surface where the Spanish star is most successful. Djokovic can begin planning his defense of the Wimbledon title.
“Since 2011, Djokovic has been the best player in the world,” ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said near the end of last year. “It’s an eight-year run, and now the guy is playing for history.”
That means sub-Grand Slam tournaments and second-tier records are of little interest to Djokovic. He’s banked 17 Grand Slam singles titles, and his main ambition is to retire with more major titles than either of his Big Three rivals (Roger Federer and Nadal). His triumph at the Australian Open in February again showed that he can elevate his game to that vaunted “next level” at the most critical times, with little match play to tune his game. He’s accustomed to taking fairly long breaks between appearances.
Djokovic is the defending champion in Madrid, and he lost to Nadal in the Rome final. But those are tournaments where Djokovic was mainly interested in building momentum for Roland Garros.
Since the start of 2018, Djokovic has won five of the last nine major titles, while banking just six titles in 20 outings in ATP Tour events (including the ATP Cup). It’s hard to imagine Djokovic adding substantially to his current streak after a long layoff and change of surface now that the clay leads to a dead end instead of Paris.
Will the break help or hurt Serena Williams?
It’s unlikely that Williams, 38, will play in Madrid even if the WTA goes back in business in early May. The 23-time Grand Slam winner has shown a preference for the Italian Open (which immediately follows Madrid ) as a French Open tune-up. But with the French Open postponed and Italy hard-hit by COVID-19, it’s hard to imagine Williams playing in Europe at all — especially now that she has a husband and toddler daughter in tow.
Williams said Friday she will be spending the next six weeks in “solitude” as the tennis world goes on hiatus due to the pandemic.
The refrain from many frustrated Serena watchers has been that if she wants to succeed in her quest to match Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slam singles title record of 24, she needs to play more frequently. Theoretically, that would boost her fitness and mental toughness. Williams played just eight events in 2019 and went into both the Australian Open and Wimbledon without any competitive prep work. She was denied the title both times.
Williams seemed to embrace the advice this year with auspicious preliminary success: She won her first singles title in three years at Auckland, adding to her seasoning by a deep run with Caroline Wozniacki in doubles. But despite the prep work, Williams flamed out in the third round of the Australian Open, a loser to Qiang Wang, a player she had beaten 6-1, 6-0 in 44 minutes in their 2019 US Open encounter.
The emerging challenge for Williams is twofold: First, she needs to find the consistency that has eluded her in recent majors. As many older pros can attest, age makes it more difficult to bring your “A-game,” day-in, day-out. Second, Williams must come to grips with, and figure out, a way to manage the pressure she admittedly feels chasing Court’s record.
While everyone hopes that the WTA Tour will be in full swing again as planned in early May, a longer break will work in Williams’ favor. Unlike most of her peers, she has a lot of experience coming back and playing well following a long layoff.
Will Rafael Nadal be hurt by the postponement of the French Open?
The outlook for Nadal had a fairy-tale like quality until the postponement. He seemed fully prepared to lock down Grand Slam title No. 19 with a 13th win at Roland Garros in the spring. The win would leave Nadal tied with Roger Federer for the men’s Grand Slam singles titles record. Now, that effort will have to wait. Nadal might even accomplish the feat earlier, with a win at either Wimbledon or the US Open (where Nadal is defending champion).
Remember, going into Indian Wells, Nadal could have reclaimed the No. 1 ranking from Djokovic in the event he won in the desert and Djokovic lost before the semis. The odds on that happening were not great, but it does show how closely Nadal is hounding his rival.
As the points from the canceled events at Indian Wells and Miami drop off each man’s ranking, Djokovic’s slim lead over Nadal will increase by 45 points (the equivalent of a fourth-round finish at a Masters 1000 event). Nadal will also miss the opportunity to gain ground on Djokovic in two suspended events that he has dominated, the ATP 500 event in Barcelona and the Monte Carlo Masters 1000. Nadal, the “King of Clay,” has won twice as many titles at Madrid and Rome as Djokovic (14-7).
Nadal will find himself in the driver’s seat if the clay Masters events are played, but the feeling is apt to be hollow with no French Open at the end of the road.
The loaded WTA Tour calendar and the commitments it demands have kept Osaka from taking a sabbatical as long as the one she is now experiencing. If the WTA Tour resumes in early May, she will have played just one official match in three months. That could be a good thing. That she is returning on clay, where her success has been limited, not so much.
Osaka’s best clay-court result is a semifinal at Stuttgart, and she’s been eliminated in the third round of the French Open two years running.
Osaka has punched the career reset button a number of times since her struggles began last spring, triggering only fleeting relief. The Japanese 22-year-old lost her No. 1 ranking to Ashleigh Barty after the US Open but appeared to be in ascent again on hard courts last fall. She put together an 11-match winning streak, during which ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said, “It seems like she’s found her confidence. She’s back to being healthy and her power, A-game is working again.”
During her fall run, Osaka logged wins over US Open champ Bianca Andreescu and Barty — both potential career rivals. A right shoulder injury forced Osaka to pull the plug on 2019 after she won her first-round round-robin match at the WTA Tour Finals. Osaka seemed to be back in the mix at the top until she lost in the third round of the Australian Open. She played a desultory match against No. 67-ranked wunderkind Coco Gauff. “It’s just tough,” Osaka said afterward. “You don’t want to lose to a 15-year-old.”
Osaka has slipped to No. 10 in the rankings. It seems the introspective, two-time Grand Slam champion continues to struggle with the pressure every top player must learn to handle. This break will allow her to not only work on any wrinkles in her game, it will give her time and space to work out the mental challenges of stardom.
Whose momentum will likely be most adversely affected by the hiatus?
Pity Elena Rybakina. The 20-year-old Kazak has been on fire all year, compiling a 21-4 record (1-2 in finals) when the WTA Tour was suspended. Now she has to do something to which the young aren’t accustomed: She has to cool her jets.
Some other players who have built up a great head of steam through the first few months of the year will be especially disappointed. On the ATP side, that includes a few unlikely suspects like veteran Gael Monfils (he’s 16-3 on the year, the winner at Montpellier and Rotterdam) and Next Gen graduates like Andrey Rublev (15-3 with two titles, Doha and Adelaide) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (13-5).
Among the women, Sofia Kenin, Garbine Muguruza and Barty exploded out of the blocks. Kenin is 15-5 with titles at the Australian Open and Lyon. Two-time Grand Slam champ Muguruza was in the midst of a furious comeback that has lifted her from No. 34 to No. 16; she’s 16-4 with an Australian Open final. Barty, still ranked No. 1, has one title and an 11-3 record.
Seventeen-year-old Canadian Leylah Annie Fernandez, the latest in a robust stream of prodigies, started the year ranked No. 205. A 12-5 record has lifted her to No. 126.
What can we expect from the comeback of four-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters?
The mother of three was in the very early stages of her second major comeback when the WTA Tour went dark. Clijsters, 36, is unranked. But as a former No. 1 and proven champion, she will be showered with wild cards galore. She received her first two at Dubai and Monterrey and took straight-set losses respectively to tough opponents: a resurgent Muguruza and former Wimbledon semifinalist Johanna Konta.
The events of the Sunshine Double would have been the perfect venues for kicking her comeback into a higher gear. She won Indian Wells in 2003. In 2005, Clijsters became just the second woman after Steffi Graf to complete a Sunshine Double. Clijsters has looked competent in her two losses, but her ability to recover and recoup energy at tightly scheduled tournaments remains untested.
Clijsters’ first comeback yielded a US Open title in 2009 in just her third tournament after a two-year layoff. She added another US Open title the following year and won the Australian Open in 2011. She left the tour for the second time after the 2012 US Open.
Even more than Williams, Clijsters has deep experience in the challenges posed by a comeback. If the clay events go off as planned, she can use them to build her fitness and match toughness as she targets the summer hard-court events where she has always shined.
“It’s a process,” Clijsters told reporters after her loss in Monterrey. “I’d like to take big steps, but I have to focus on small steps and improving day by day.”