October 23, 2021

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As USTA Pro Circuit returns, COVID-19 testing level aspirational

Macon

(Photo: Mercer Tennis Classic website)

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Macon, Georgia is set to host the first “non-US Open bubble” pro event in the U.S. since the Challenger in Indian Wells in early March.

And the difference compared to the comprehensive testing at the Grand Slam and ATP/WTA level is significant.

That’s not a knock – it’s just the reality at that level.

The lower-level events just don’t have the same type of budgets in normal times, never mind during a pandemic. And, as it is, the long checklist of increased sanitary precautions is already an added expense.

And so the Mercer Tennis Classic, an $80,000 ITF event taking place in Macon, Georgia next week, won’t test any of its players until Tuesday.

Play – then take a test

The tournament itself doesn’t start its qualifying event until Monday.

But that means that there will be 32 players in that draw – and their “plus-ones” – who will be on site and competing before being required to take a test.

The doubles is scheduled to begin Tuesday; so some of those players also could be on court competing before they get to the player hotel to take the PCR test.

The requirement to get credentialed and access the tournament site is to show proof of a negative test upon arrival.

But that window has leeway of 96 hours – four days. Players and guests also must complete a screening questionnaire.

The tests (which are being paid for by the USTA) are all scheduled to take place on Tuesday between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. That will include qualifying players still in the draw, main draw singles and doubles players, and guests.

The singles main draw is only scheduled to start on Wednesday – which means that to win the tournament, the players will have to play five consecutive days up to Sunday’s final.

There will be no spectators on site. And the players and guests will be required to wear “appropriate masks at all times unless on court.”

Site to open from Sunday

Another item on the tournament’s fact sheet is that the players were not to be allowed to access the site until Sunday.

Canadian Genie Bouchard practiced at the Mercer University courts on Saturday.

That was the site of the tournament in previous years; this year it is taking place at the John Drew Smith Tennis Center, a public Macon County facility. (Thanks to @YtsurTennis for the correction)

Bouchard poses at the Mercer Tennis Classic site on Saturday, before the start of the ITF event. (Instagram)

Please don’t share a room

So, to sum up, as many as 75 or so players, and their guests, will be on site at the event with a negative test that could go back as much as nearly a week.

The tournament is “strongly discouraging” the sharing of rooms at the player hotel, which is going for a rate of $89 a night.

That’s a lesson learned too late for a couple of players in the Roland Garros qualifying. They were sharing a room with a coach who tested positive. And then they found themselves withdrawn from the tournament.

But of course, they can’t mandate it. The “no sharing” recommendation flies in the face of the level of player that most often competes in these tournaments. They aren’t exactly flush, and often bunk together to save money.

It’s also unlikely that there will be home billeting options, as often is the case at ITFs, because of the pandemic.

(You can book a room at the player hotel online – for a better rate than the players are getting from the tournament. So it will be a fairly public lodging option).

Transportation options

The main airport is Atlanta, some 70 miles away.

The tournament suggests a transportation service to get them to Macon, which has outlined a lot of increased safety measures. But it’s still public. As well, the event will have two 15-person vans shuttling back and forth from the hotel to the site. Even half-full and socially distanced, those are fairly close quarters.

The local mask ordinance in Macon County does not require the wearing of a face covering, if people are outdoors and maintaining social distance. And in various other circumstances.

Because, you know … Georgia.

On the plus side, Macon Country has been one of the least-badly hit counties in the state over the pandemic.

One test fits all

There is no mention in the tournament information of subsequent PCR testing following that initial test.

At the Grand Slams and ATP/WTA tournaments, there typically have been re-tests every four days.

If that’s indeed the case, that will mean that the players will be on the hook for finding places to get tested between tournaments on this fall swing.

Most of the players will move on to another $80,000 tournament in Tyler, Texas the following week and a $100,000 event in Charleston the week after that.

If the same “96-hour rule” applies at those events (and you would assume it would), they will be looking for tests at the end of the week in Macon, and then in Tyler.

The USTA does have general COVID-19 guidelines for all (click below to see the full document).

A sheaf of ITF documents

The International Tennis Federation produced a heap of documents – for players and tournament organizers alike.

You can find them here. And here.

The only mention of COVID-19 testing is that tournaments must supply a local location where testing can be done (at the participants’ expense).

At the same time, the lists of requirements that must be adhered to are incredibly detailed, and virtually impossible to police at an individual tournament level even with best intentions.

At lower levels, no testing at all

If the testing at the $80,000 Macon event seems basic, it’s even more basic than that at the lower levels.

For next week’s $15K women’s tournament in Monastir, Tunisia, the prevailing rules are that of the country.

The players, allowed on site from Saturday (even if they might well already be there because they’re playing several events in a row), have their temperature taken and fill out a self-declaration form.

To enter the country, the players must have tested negative before travel. And depending on their country, might be subject to a quarantine period upon arrival.

In Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, players must come armed with a negative PCR test to gain entry to the country at the Cairo airport. The window of time for that test is 72 hours.

In addition, the Sharm el Sheikh event requires the players to show proof of medical insurance coverage.

The ITF threshold for body temperature is 38C. But in Egypt, per the tournament detail sheet, it is 37.5C. And the stricter of the two takes precedence. The tournament warns that if a player’s temperature exceeds that threshold, they “will be required to seek medical assistance and will likely be ruled ineligible for the tournament.”

But again, it appears there’s no testing on site.

And these two events are held at resorts that are open to the public. So there are innumerable situations where the players are mixing with everyone.

French challenges in Cherbourg

At the $25K women’s event in Cherbourg-en-Contentin this week, there are additional challenges.

The nearest airport is more than 120 km. away. And so the players had to complete a complicated itinerary involving a half-hour bus ride, a 10-minute walk to the train station, a 75-minute train side, and then get to the hotel.

The tournament does list several testing centres in the area, where player can (at their own expense) get those needed negative tests.

It’s a commute to get to the women’s ITF in Cherbourg. But once you’re there, you won’t get a COVID-19 test. (TCEH Facebook page)

It’s no wonder that some of the qualifying spots at these ITF tournaments are available.

The pandemic has been a game changer on every level. It is exponentially harder to find places to compete, with so many tournaments cancelled week after week. And the events at that level simply can’t afford to provide the ideal amount of testing required.

So not only are the risks increased, there’s no way to really know how many positive coronavirus cases are coming out of these lower-tier events, because most are not testing.

As if it weren’t already challenging enough to try to climb up the ranks.