Tennis fans celebrated the resumption of live action last week, becoming one of the first major sports to stage and broadcast live competition since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. But what the game will look like in the weeks and months to come is not at all clear.
Two exhibition events featuring round-robin play among a limited number of players under strictly controlled, socially distanced conditions have already happened, with more on tap. The highlight of the coming weekend is the UTR Pro Match Series, which lost ATP No. 8-ranked Matteo Berrettini to an ankle injury on Monday and Australian Open quarterfinalist Tennys Sandgren to a knee injury on Wednesday. The men’s event still features Americans Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul. A four-player women’s event follows May 22-24 and includes Americans Alison Riske and Amanda Anisimova. The competitions will be streamed and broadcast from a private court in the West Palm Beach, Florida, area.
This isn’t your familiar ATP or WTA tennis, featuring draws of at least 32 players in single elimination play. The matches at last weekend’s Tennis Point Exhibition in Germany used the Fast Four streamlined scoring format in addition to adopting numerous virus-related precautions: There were no spectators, ball kids or linespersons (just one chair umpire). The players had individual changing rooms, and the support staff was obliged to wear masks and gloves. The restrictions and ambience at the venue, a tennis academy, created a sometimes murky, weird, lab-like viewing experience. But it was sports. It was tennis. It was live.
“As it turns out, everybody has realized that they would rather watch tennis with no fans than no tennis at all,” Sandgren told ESPN.com. “And it seems sponsors are willing to pay for it.”
The ongoing experiments have made one thing clear: Tennis events can be staged in strictly controlled environments and broadcast to fans under the variable, often stringent demands of the general lockdown.
“These matches remind you of a classic Western,” said Jamie Reynolds, ESPN’s vice president of production. “Just two gunslingers, and they go out into the desert somewhere to have it out, mano a mano.”
That has always been the bedrock appeal of tennis, but the sport has also discovered that it can’t and needn’t be that stark. Not in normal times, and perhaps not even at a time of crisis. Individual matches can easily be swaddled in various technological tricks, from cutaways to interviews with coaches and other players to ambient sound, even computer-generated images.
Tempting as employing those bells and whistles may be, Reynolds and others are leery of going overboard to compensate for the lack of spectators. Bob Whyley, longtime head of production for Tennis Channel (which will stream the upcoming UTR event), said in an interview: “My vote is to keep it live and intimate. We should never think we’re more important than the tennis itself. Once play starts, we want to get out of the way and let the players dominate.”
According to Reynolds, golf and tennis are the sports where it’s easiest to get away without having fans — and with social distancing rules in effect. “You may not be as rocked by the absence of fans in tennis as you would be looking at Foxborough and seeing nobody in the stands,” he said. “At the ATP Finals, they make the entire 02 arena go dark during play. If you’re watching on television, you don’t even know there are people there.”
The ATP Finals is an eight-man round-robin event, similar to the ones created thus far during the lockdown. Of course, the season-ending tour championships are of a different order of magnitude, featuring the top players and massive stakes. Just how many fans will tune in and how much money sponsors are willing to offer for modest exhibitions relying mostly on pros ranked well outside the top 10, remains to be seen.
“No doubt we can stage live tennis matches now,” ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. “But will sports fans be happy watching Taylor Fritz play Tommy Paul? [both Americans] How do you do something that means something?”
The main obstacle to bringing together elite players in an all-star exhibition is the web of restrictions on international travel, prohibitions that have hit tennis harder than most other sports. “Tennis is based on the premise that we all go where we want, when we want,” Kelly Wolf, a vice president at management firm Octagon, said in an interview. “That’s not the case for us anymore.”
The situation confirms that tennis is caught on the horns of a dilemma.
The kind of tennis that can be played and broadcast at the moment, while entirely legitimate, is very different from the stuff that forms the superstructure of the game and provides employment to a few hundred players on each tour. Even as restrictions are lifted piecemeal, tournaments will not count in any official way unless all eligible players are free, as the system has always demanded, to enter based on ranking or qualification. The prospects of returning to that degree of normalcy anytime soon, with or without spectators, are grim.
“I’m not very positive, to be honest,” Madrid Open tournament director Feliciano Lopez, a former ATP star, told a Eurosport podcast. “The fact that some countries have different restrictions than others is going to make things very, very difficult. The tour is going to be open when the world is completely open, and everybody can travel freely.”
Lopez’s friend and compatriot Rafael Nadal shares his sentiments. On Tuesday, Nadal told Spanish media: “I’m more concerned with the Australian Open (of 2021) than with what happens later this year. I think 2020 has been practically lost. I’m hopeful of being able to start next year.”
But players want to play. John Isner, still the top-ranked U.S. player at No. 21, has not been approached about playing in any of the recent or planned livestreamed events. He’s wary of expecting too much of such events.
“I’d love to play again,” Isner said. “Everybody would. But I’d like for us to get back to what we’ve been accustomed to, and that looks like it will take time. We could lag behind a little.”
“The tournament game is our bread and butter,” Micky Lawler, president of the WTA, told ESPN.com. “At the same time, we can’t ask our players not to take advantage of opportunities to play.”
The ATP, in a similar bind, wrote in a statement via email: “The ATP’s priority is the health and safety of its players, tournaments, staff, fans and general public. Players are self-employed independent contractors and, as such, are free to make decisions concerning their own activities during the time the Tour is suspended.”
The tours will not resume until, at the very earliest, July 13. But the WTA has already canceled the Rogers Cup, slated to start in Montreal on Aug. 10, due to the Quebec provincial government’s decision to extend the lockdown on large gatherings to at least Aug. 31. The ATP’s own Rogers Cup, scheduled to begin Aug. 10 in Toronto (the tours take turn each year hosting in those two cities) still has a green light.
Some see the disruptions caused by COVID-19 as a time when entrepreneurs can create new events, or new ways to present the sport.
“If we find out that there will be no tennis this summer, more of these things (like the round-robins that have been livestreamed) can be put together,” Wolf said. She added that the pandemic has stimulated stakeholders to look for different business models. “Things like regional events offering prize money but not rankings (because such tournaments would not be open to all qualified players) are just one possibility.”
The four Grand Slam tournaments are the gold standard in tennis. When they come back online, they’re certain to command attention, perhaps more than ever before. But the lifeblood of the week-to-week tour are those ATP 250 and WTA International events, and they’re the ones most at risk because of the pandemic.
“I think the game will be drastically different when it resumes,” John Tobias, who represents Sloane Stephens, Eugenie Bouchard and others on behalf of GSE, told ESPN.com. Tobias wondered how ATP 250s and other small events can survive without attendance revenue and with reduced revenues from sponsors.
Isner, a member of the ATP player council, said: “The 250s are already the most challenging tier of tournaments. They desperately rely on the ticket and sponsor revenue.”
Most of those low-grade tour events depend heavily on recruiting two or three bigger-name stars in order to create buzz and ticket sales. Tobias predicted that with lower prize money and less appearance money on offer, elite players may decide that traveling to and playing smaller events just isn’t worth the effort.
Lower-ranked players are clearly endangered, as they need to play week to week in those smaller events. Doubles has always supplemented their singles income, but social distancing rules threaten that form of the game. Prize money distribution was a sizzling hot topic in tennis at the time the pandemic hit. Now, players who just months ago were hoping to make a better living may be looking at no living at all.
“There will be a shakeout,” Wolf predicted. “A lot of events will be filtered out, and many of those players in that group ranked from No. 250 to 700 won’t be around when all this is said and done.”
The conviction that tennis needs significant structural changes was another lively issue in the days leading up to the outbreak. The public and the players were in lockstep on one major theme, the desire to create team events, like the Laver Cup, on a calendar chock-full of those regular, often struggling, small tournaments of which Tobias and Isner spoke. Those events have mostly been muddling along, but a review of the economics might force them to contemplate different business models.
“The bigger-picture issue to me is the question of whether this is the time to make significant changes in the game,” said McEnroe, who is a fan of team events and also is outspoken on the need for more equitable prize money distribution. “You have to start thinking of alternatives if you have no business, and nobody is getting paid.”
It would be difficult to affect wholesale structural change, though, as the tours are wedded inextricably to the tournament structure.
“We [the WTA] have agreements with broadcasters, tournaments and sponsors,” Lawler said. “We can’t take our eyes off that ball and suddenly start looking at things like regional events.”
One thing most everyone seems to agree upon is that when the tours return full swing, things will not be as they were, at least not for long. There’s a lot of long-view planning going on as officials try to dig out of the current disaster.
“We never had time to look at what else can work because we’ve been too busy going week to week to keep the whole system going,” Wolf said. “Some people are trying to hold on to the past. Maybe they think they can save it, but you can’t save it. We’re going to have to come up with something new.”
Tennis matches livestreamed without ball kids, spectators or coaches scheming in the courtside boxes is not what Wolf has in mind, but it’s a start.