American tennis star Coco Vandeweghe feels like she is weeks, if not months, away from being in prime match condition.
With her San Diego-area gym still shut down because of local lockdown restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2017 Australian and US Open semifinalist has managed to get a few weights for her house and just only returned to a court with the recent opening of her tennis club.
Meanwhile, five hours away in Scottsdale, Arizona, Vandeweghe’s friend and occasional doubles partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands has been able to train on a tennis court consistently throughout as private facilities in her area weren’t forced to close. She has spent her three-month (and counting) break working on improving and making some tweaks to her game. The five-time Grand Slam doubles champion has only had this kind of time off when rehabbing an injury.
COVID-19 conditions and restrictions have varied radically depending on where someone lives, and plans for reentry before a coronavirus vaccine becomes available have also been all over the map. And now, with Tuesday’s announcement from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that the US Open can be held at its previously scheduled date in late August, tennis players, like other professional athletes, are left with tough decisions about what to do and how to proceed.
Vandeweghe, in an interview prior to Tuesday’s announcement, pointed to those global disparities as part of the reason it would be misguided to return to official WTA-sanctioned action anytime soon.
“There’s no way right now you could consider this a level playing field, because it’s so different depending on where you are,” she told ESPN.com. “Some states have more fluidity than others in what you’re able to do, [if you can] go outside, go for a walk, go for a run. Some countries and states you’re unable to do that unless you’re going to the grocery store or doing something that’s considered absolute necessary. Instagram is a very easy way to see what people are doing, and with so many tennis people in Florida, I can see that they’re back in gyms and training on the courts at academies.”
A return to normalcy?
Across the Atlantic, Caroline Garcia, who trains at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, Spain, faced some of the harshest early quarantine restrictions following the cancellation of the BNP Paribas Open in March.
In the first phase of the pandemic, the former world No. 4 was stuck in an apartment at the academy and only allowed outside for essential trips to the grocery store, pharmacy and bank. Her workouts took place in the confines of her apartment, where she was forced to get creative in such a small space. As soon as Spain managed to get the virus somewhat under control, restrictions were eased, and Garcia was able to return to the court and use the academy’s facilities in early May.
In Croatia, 24th-ranked Donna Vekic said things feel like they have returned almost completely back to normal. The country enforced strict guidelines early, with 107 deaths in total and just nine confirmed cases since May 23. Vekic, a member of the WTA Players’ Council, was able to organize a four-day tennis tournament without fans in attendance for herself and other pros residing in the country in early June, with proceeds going to local coronavirus research.
This past week, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour series in Belgrade, Serbia, faced criticism as thousands of fans filled the makeshift stands at Djokovic’s Belgrade tennis club. There appeared to be no social distancing measures in effect, and few fans wore face masks. Djokovic defended the event by explaining they were simply following current Serbian protocols.
“We have different circumstances and measures, so it’s very difficult to think of international standards,” he said before the opening of his charity tour.
First things first- Kid’s day!👫
Before we kick off with Adria Tour, let’s celebrate sport in the best possible way- with children!🎾
A numerous number of sports activities are organized for our little ones from tennis matches, football, to jumping…⚽ Let the games begin!❤️ pic.twitter.com/xuHXkK6F0H
— Novak Djokovic Foundation (@novakfoundation) June 12, 2020
“I see these pictures and videos, and I’m like, ‘Cool, I can’t do that at all,'” Vandeweghe said. “So it’s kind of tough in terms of preparation if we do come back to play as far as where I’ll be versus some people that have had full access for a long period of time, and I’ve tried to reiterate that to the WTA.”
Earlier this month, Vandeweghe wrote a lengthy email to the WTA Tour detailing her concerns about returning in 2020. The WTA, which has been holding weekly meetings for its players to provide updates and give them a chance to ask questions, was receptive. CEO Steve Simon personally responded, as did members of the players’ council. Ultimately, the ATP and WTA on Monday embraced the USTA’s proposal of holding a two-tournament bubble starting in August, which is expected to serve as the restart of the season. Under the plan, the Western & Southern Open, normally played in Cincinnati, will be moved to Queens and players will remain in the borough for the US Open. Players, traveling with potentially just their coach, will stay at designated housing in Queens throughout the duration. There will be no fans in attendance at either event.
“We recognize the tremendous responsibility of hosting one of the first global sporting events in these challenging times, and we will do so in the safest manner possible, mitigating all potential risks,” Mike Dowse, USTA chief executive officer and executive director, said in a statement on Tuesday. “We now can give fans around the world the chance to watch tennis’ top athletes compete for a US Open title, and we can showcase tennis as the ideal social distancing sport. Being able to hold these events in 2020 is a boost for the City of New York and the entire tennis landscape.”
It is unclear if the WTA or ATP shared player perspectives like Vandeweghe’s with the USTA, or if the organization sought out opinions directly from players. But many were outspoken in their disdain for the tournament’s decision to go forward as the news made its way around the globe. Australian Nick Kyrgios called it “selfish” for the US Open to be held, and he went on to say via Twitter that he would “Get my hazmat suit ready for when I travel from Australia and then have to quarantine for 2 weeks on my return.”
Smh – people that live in the US of course are pushing the Open to go ahead 🤦🏽♂ ‘Selfish’ I’ll get my hazmat suit ready for when I travel from Australia and then have to quarantine for 2 weeks on my return.
— Nicholas Kyrgios (@NickKyrgios) June 16, 2020
Other players, including Djokovic, Nadal, Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep also have publicly voiced their displeasure over this idea before it was confirmed. Some players have indicated they may not participate if the event was to happen due to New York’s struggles to contain the virus, the importance of having their team by their side and the other intense suggested restrictions.
“If you [ask] me today, today I will say, ‘No,'” US Open defending champion Nadal said earlier this month when asked about his intentions to play in the major.
While there was an increasing number of skeptics and critics prior to Cuomo’s approval of holding the tournament, Vekic said she would be willing to do whatever is required in order to play the US Open.
“To be honest, I’m not scared of the virus,” she said before the announcement was made. “I wouldn’t even mind playing in front of the full stadium, personally. So I would be happy to go and play right now, to travel and everything. I’m not scared.”
For other players, the decision is not so clear. The United States still has some areas with spiking cases of the virus, and that is troubling in the minds of many coming from outside the country.
“It’s very difficult to even imagine [the proposed scenario] at this point,” Garcia said last week. “There’s so much unknown. I think we all know the situation where we are, but we don’t know what it’s like anywhere else. It’s a long flight [to New York], a lot of flights, a lot of people, so even if we are put in a bubble, we’re not really in a bubble. What about the person that drives us to the facility? I don’t think they would be staying with us so there would be people coming from the outside.
“Of course, I think we all want to play matches and competition, but it’s complicated, and I don’t even know what to think about it. I think it’s normal to have some fear and apprehension about it, but you cannot fear everything because in that case that would mean we couldn’t do anything. Would we stay in our apartments for a year? Two years? We can’t do that, so I think it’s safe to have some fear and take precautions and do the best we can.”
While it is hard for many to envision playing or watching a match in the middle of an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium, the world’s largest tennis arena with a capacity of 23,771, some would just be happy to play.
“I would rather play in front of no fans than not play at all,” said Jennifer Brady, currently ranked No. 48. “I know most players don’t agree with that, but many of us know what it’s like to play without fans watching [on side courts, early or late in the day] so it wouldn’t be very new to us. It’s mainly the top players who say they don’t want to play without fans.
“They’re so used to playing in packed stadiums, or on Arthur Ashe when it’s full. So no fans is something that is completely different for any top player, and it may help someone who is used to not playing in front of fans. Obviously everyone loves playing in front of fans, it’s more enjoyable, but there will be TV, so we’ll be playing in front of fans in that sense.”
A financial decision
As it stands with the current plan, there will be one week following the conclusion of the US Open and the start of the French Open, which was rescheduled from its typical spring date.
Players expressed concerns about the grueling physical tolls of playing back-to-back Slams and lack of preparation on clay courts, as many players will only have a few days to get acclimated to the new surface. Vandeweghe compared going from one surface to another to the changing of the seasons.
“People that grew up in cold-weather climates are going to adjust to the winter much better, and that’s how I feel about clay. I grew up on hard courts, so I am so familiar with that and it’s like second nature, but it just takes me a lot longer to adapt to clay.”
Still, while the concerns are varied about tennis’ potential return, there’s one undisputed fact that for many makes virtually everything else irrelevant: No one is getting paid.
Unlike in team sports where players are guaranteed money regardless of how the team performs or during a shutdown during a pandemic, tennis players are paid directly by the tournament solely on performance at the event. The low pay in early-round exits in some of the tour’s smaller tournaments has been highlighted before, but it has never been more glaring than now. Many sponsors are not paying their athletes during the shutdown, so some of the lesser-ranked players are understandably struggling with no income.
For some players, their financial well-being and survival in the sport is dependent on being able to play and play soon.
Vandeweghe feels fortunate she has had enough success on tour to not fully feel the strain. She doesn’t feel ready to play the US Open and the French Open, but she is eager to return to competition. She says there should be small tournaments, like the upcoming Charleston event, that allow for players and tournaments to earn money and fans to get the chance to watch a live sporting event on TV but with no ranking points involved.
Mattek-Sands, who will be one of the two captains of the 16-player Charleston event, agrees. She says this is a perfect opportunity for the sport, which is steeped in tradition, to try some new ideas and potentially generate new fans.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for tennis to go outside the box a little bit and test out some things,” she said. “Let’s test out shorter scoring systems, let’s test out coaches staying on court and being miked and miking doubles. We need to find ways to make these tournaments successful without the fanfare and get the sponsors and fans excited.
“I’m pumped up to play Charleston. It’s a team event for the girls. I think this is awesome. I just think there’s a lot of ideas that we can throw out there and test in this space and see once the tours start up. Let’s move forward. Let’s be the future here for tennis and get our fans more connected, and get them knowing more than just four players. This is a great time to do that.”
World TeamTennis announced its plans to hold its season exclusively at the Greenbrier, a luxury resort in West Virginia, as opposed to having teams travel to different cities across the country to play. The compressed season will begin July 12. Nine teams will all be housed at the hotel for three weeks and play in front of up to 500 fans at a time. Although that requires players to stay in one location for a lengthy period, that doesn’t seem to be as polarizing a decision for many. Participation in the league is completely optional.
“Being at WTT for three weeks feels different because it’s at the Greenbrier,” said Sam Querrey, the former world No. 11 and Wimbledon semifinalist. “It feels like a fun little Utopian resort with beautiful grounds to walk around on, tennis, horseback riding, [a] gym. I don’t know what it will be like, but staying at Greenbrier for three weeks sounds like more fun than staying at a quarantine hotel in New York for three weeks.”
Although players are grateful to have events like Charleston or the WTT schedule ahead of them, many are struggling to stay motivated without a set timetable for a return to the tour. Those who have been able to get back to training on the court are grateful but aren’t sure how hard to push themselves just yet and would focus on different aspects of their game depending on how soon they will be playing.
The sport typically has a short offseason from early November to late December. Players usually take a few weeks off and then return to full training before heading to Australia and New Zealand for the lead-up events to the Australian Open in January. With the exception of breaks for injury, players have never had this type of extended layoff. While players now have the US Open on the calendar, it has been difficult for many determining how to train with so much unknown about the future of the season.
“It’s difficult because we just don’t know when we’ll be back on court [for a match] so there are days where you wonder why you’re training,” Garcia said. “In our sport, we always have goals, and there’s always a Slam coming up, so that keeps us motivated. Now I’m like, ‘Will I have a match in four months?’ It’s difficult but some days are better than others.”
Before Tuesday’s announcement about the Western & Southern Open and the US Open, Vekic said the worst thing that could happen now would be to announce it was happening only to have to eventually cancel it.
“As long as they say, ‘We’re ready,’ then they’d better [actually] be ready,” she said. “Because I really don’t want to do two weeks preparation, two, three weeks of full practice, and then they cancel it. Because then it’s not fair … I mean, nothing’s fair at the moment, so it’s tough. But I’ll be pissed if I have to then rest again and then start again and then whenever.”
So for now, it seems for the first time since March, players have something to prepare for. The question now is: Do they want to?
ESPN tennis reporter Peter Bodo contributed to this report.