Barring any last-minute snafus, the WTA Tour is expected to announce imminently that the women’s portion of the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. will go ahead.
Held the week of Aug. 10, it would be the first hard-court Tour event in North America, the week after the first event back in Palermo, Italy the week of Aug. 3 and the same week as a similar one the tour hopes to hold in Prague, Czech Republic.
But the questions still remain: should the WTA play at all? And how do they manage all of the restrictions and outside factors that make it unfair for so many players who can’t play?
Open Court has heard the playback of the WTA’s meeting Friday with players and Tour officials, a weekly occurrence that generally remains under tight wraps.
(It’s a snapshot in time – a work in progress, if you will, perhaps halfway through the third quarter of the game. And tomorrow, next week, things can change again. But this is how things stand right now).
While a final decision on Palermo, Prague and D.C. needs to be made this week (in the case of Palermo, this weekend), the recent announcement from the European Union about the restrictions to entry for citizens of several countries has thrown a monkey wrench into the proceedings that rivals the omnipresent and ever-changing safety concerns.
“The (EU) announcement, combined with the continued growth of the virus, is clearly very troubling and challenging for us. It confirms the volatility we’re dealing with, and have to accept,” WTA Tour CEO Steve Simon said on the call.
The WTA doesn’t want the events to incur expenses if they are not going to be held. And it doesn’t want its players to incur travel expenses if they’re not going to play.
Nearly half Palermo field can’t play
Simon said on the call that if you look at the first 50 players on the Palermo entry list, fully 23 of the 50 could not play the tournament under the current EU conditions. That’s 48 per cent of the total.
In the case of Prague, 11 of the top 28 players entered – or 39 per cent – can’t play as things stand, with the EU list scheduled to be updated every 14 days.
It puts the WTA into a position where it may have to back down from its original position, which was that if all the players didn’t have equal opportunity, they would cancel the season.
“I think we have to recognize that the situation is changing and have to be open to constantly considering new ways of approaching it. The environment is changing so much around us,” said Vanessa Webb, the Canadian former Tour player recently re-elected to serve another term as the WTA Board member representing top-100 players.
“What we have on our Tour, we have players who want to play, and we have players who don’t want to play. We have players who can play, we have players who can’t play everywhere and a few players who can’t play anywhere, who can’t get out of their countries.”
The upshot of that, Webb said, is that if the WTA wants to operate in 2020, it will have to operate as more of a regional tour. Otherwise, because not everyone has equal access to earning a living, then no one would earn a living.
And since there’s no end date for the effects of the coronavirus, that could mean that all the players could literally be out of work for as long 18 months.
Ranking fairness the big issue
Beyond the issue of holding events safely – an issue that players council member Sloane Stephens seems to be spearheading, per what was said – there’s the issue of rankings and trying to make them fair in incredibly unfair circumstances.
Needless to say, neither tour has a handle on this yet. And, needless to say, there is probably no calculation that will be fair to everyone.
Webb pointed to the ATP’s current idea of using a “better of” ranking as one that might help mitigate the fallout.
A player who lost in the second round in Madrid last year, for example, earned 45 points. If that player didn’t play it in 2020 (assuming it goes ahead), he would keep those 45 points on his ranking for another year. If he did play, and reached the quarterfinals, those 45 points would be replaced by 180 points in the player’s tally.
It’s almost like “extra credit”, Webb said. It would at least blunt, to some extent, the effect of inactivity.
But, as New York Times writer Christopher Clarey points out, it would also mean that US Open champion Rafael Nadal, who would be defending the 2,000 ranking points he earned, would keep those points on the docket even if he chose not to play it this year. And, given the heavy clay-court swing that comes right after it, it might well be in his interest to do so even if, as we know, a Slam is a Slam.
For those players who can’t even get out of their own countries, or who don’t feel safe playing out of safety concerns or pre-existing health conditions, the rankings from March could still be frozen – in effect, making them almost like special injury rankings.
“It will not be completely fair, but it will go a long way and I think the alternative we’re looking at is to shut down the Tour. As we think about that, there are real repercussions for you guys as we look at what the Tour looks like next year and the year after. If it’s safe, we want to try to create these opportunities to compete and earn income,” Webb said.
Konta looks at the big picture
Great Britain’s Johanna Konta, a member of the WTA player council, said during the meeting that it was important to look at the long term.
“My opinion is that the world we’re living in now has always been incredible unfair, but now, it’s a new type of unfair. I think it’s important for us to have a big-picture perspective when it comes to the decision we will make now. The repercussions for obviously not playing just this year, but the years to come. What the tour will look like,” she said.
“I know I feel very strongly about making sure whatever we decide, means the players that come in the future have the best possible chance to play on the Tour. I personally do think it’s really important we do everything we can to play; we can’t afford to put the WTA in a position where it can’t exist anymore,” Konta added. “It’s hard to make any decision as a player; we can’t look at it in an unbiased way. So maybe listen to the business side on this, to make sure we have a Tour to come back to.”
“No points” not an option
In response to a question from a player about the fairest way to go about things being having no ranking points at all, Simon said that was not an option.
“We’ve looked this this. We’ve discussed it with our tournaments, our commercial partners, broadcasters. They all feel very strongly there has to be the ranking component to give credibility to the Tour, and to these events (so) they don’t just become exhibitions,” he said. “They’re also important due to the different financial investment that’s coming in from all the various events events. If we don’t have ranking points, that’s going to throw that system completely off as well.”
Play now, rank later
Simon said the thought was to go ahead with Palermo the week of Aug. 3 – conditions permitting, of course – as they work through the ranking repercussions. Another few weeks remain before the bigger decision on the rest of the season has to be made.
The Tour also had a meeting Friday with the prime minister of the Czech Republic. Simon said “it appears” there is support from the prime minister to give players who want to play the Prague event a waiver for both entry and isolation/quarantine. But that would still have to be signed off on by several ministries, so it’s far from a done deal.
As for the Citi Open, Simon said that while the waiver is in place in the U.S. for professional athletes to be able to enter the country, the question about isolation and a 14-day quarantine upon arrival is not a done deal – at least, there is no written confirmation they wouldn’t have to undergo it.
Self-quarantine a big challenge
As well, will players from the EU – if they do travel to North America to compete – have to self-quarantine for 14 days upon their return to Europe?
If they must, that would mean their participation in the US Open would compromise their ability to compete in the scheduled tournaments in Madrid and Rome, prior to the re-scheduled French Open.
The other challenge is the new travel ban imposed by the Tri-State area – New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – on travel from 16 other U.S. states with high infection rates.
All of these issues must be settled and finalized before all the big decisions are made about the “Cincinnati”-US Open bubble plans in August and September. Those are to be made in the last two weeks of this month.
Friday’s call also featured tennis legend Chris Evert, who weighed in and noted that with the current restrictions in New York, and her being a Florida resident, she wouldn’t even be able to travel to the US Open in her work as a commentator.
“If women’s tennis is to survive, and not go bankrupt, it has to take the opportunities that we can get in finding jobs for as many players as we can. If affects hundreds of players, it affects sponsors, it affects TV, if affects everyone working in this bubble. It provides a living for many. But it has to be in a safe environment, with none or a low number of outbreaks,” she told the players on the call. “I think the rankings are very, very important. They have to be as fair as possible; we have to find formulas to soften the blow.”
Long story short, while the return to professional tennis has been scheduled – it remains a big leap from planning, to reality.
And when you look at the case of Frances Tiafoe testing positive for COVID-19 at this weekend’s exhibition in Atlanta – one that did try to prioritize health safety at least in terms of the fan seating (but from what we hear, didn’t do a great job of policing the players off-court – again) you know there’s still a long way to go.