April 15, 2021

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Tennis’s new reality: more fans, lack of distancing, masks optional

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Tournament director Raul Zaratuza and ATP supervisor Gerry Armstrong take in a match courtside in Acapulco Thursday. (TennisTV.com)

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We all get it. Everyone is tired of wearing masks, of being in a bubble. We’re all worn out from keeping our distance, having a curfew and not having any fun.

But if this week on the professional tennis tours is any indication, we’re about to go next-level.

It’s like the pandemic is over.

Or it’s like governments in other countries preparing to host Tour events and are developing strict protocols to allow that to happen aren’t … paying close attention. They have to be.

Even coaches who know the cameras will be on them can’t be bothered with the masks any more.

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We get that it’s hard to coach from the player’s box with a mask on. But Team Tsitsipas made it a group effort in Acapulco.

The big question, of course, is whether or not the ATP and WTA Tour are being vigilant in their protocols. A 52-page document sets those out for the ATP. And numerous documents from the WTA outline the rules not only for players, but also for their support staff.

It appears, on the whole, that the efforts are ongoing and vigilant.

The tournament bubbles remain very strict, although there’s no transparency on whether players or team members are being fined for any transgressions.

But their focus remains the safety of their players.

The tours seem to be able to exert a lot less control over how the individual tournaments operate.

And the events this week have been eye-opening.

Even if the players themselves remain largely safe from potential infection, the big picture is that if a tennis event ever becomes a super-spreader – it’s over.

Acapulco Insanity

In Acapulco, it was a little casual on the player/staff side and – of more concern, on the fans’ side as well. At least outside the private areas.

Here’s a rogues’ gallery of various Tour coaches who couldn’t be bothered with their masks this week in Mexico. With a side order of the fans flouting the masks rule in the stands.

(All screenshots from TennisTV.com and WTAtv.com)

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Social distancing, masks gone with the wind

The Abierto Mexicano Telcel took great pains to publicize its safety measures. It even got the players on board.

Fans (a maximum of about 3,500 per day – or seemingly more than the 30 per cent capacity originally advertised) had to have negative “quick” saliva tests to be allowed on site.

And with that, the tournament set out a host of requirements. But many in the well-heeled Acapulco crowd were visibly ignoring them.

Of bigger concern this week in Acapulco was not so much the lack of precautions during the matches. It was the (Covid-relative) mob scenes after the matches.

It’s hard to fathom the tournament didn’t anticipate having thousands of people at a tournament wouldn’t mean the usual post-match snatch and grab. Because it’s situation they have plenty of experience with.

But it seems they didn’t.

As well, it’s spring break time. And Mexico (like South Florida), is full of revellers with easy access to the country. The late-night schedule for the Acapulco event means those fans could be all over the place during the daytime. Perhaps they lolled on the crowded beaches, in the hotels where occupancy is steadily rising, or other busy areas.

Given the known incubation period for the coronavirus, and the new and more contagious strains, a quick test snapshot of the state of affairs today is not a guarantee that everyone coming on site is virus-free.

Acapulco fans jammed together in pursuit of swag

It felt like “normal” times in Acapulco. The fans jammed into the front rows of the courts to beg for towels and ask for selfies and autographs. They were all over each other.

Canadian Milos Raonic has been one of the staunchest advocates for pandemic safety throughout all this. He even said, concerning the long-overdue haircut he had before Acapulco, that the reason it went so long was that he hadn’t felt it was safe enough to do it. And that he found someone who had been “as safe as him” to finally cut it.

Raonic was calm but concerned at the rush that followed his first-round victory.

You can see all the people at the side of the court, waiting for him.

Raonic asked the chair umpire what the procedure was for handling the crush. The chair umpire was no help; he said that he’d received no specific guidance from the Tour supervisor, and that basically it was “up to” Raonic.

The Canadian said that he felt he was being put in a very uncomfortable position (his words). Still, he wasn’t going to disappoint all those fans. So he asked the chair umpire for a fresh mask (which boasted the logo of a rival clothing manufacturer).

And he just went to work. Signing autographs, posing for selfies. There was little security presence until – finally – one intervened when some joker decided he had to put his arm around Raonic for the selfie.

No mask, as Paul carries on

American Tommy Paul, who had just been beaten by Raonic, clearly had no such concerns.

He signed autographs maskless, and left the court that way.

Better measures the following night

An ATP spokesperson told Open Court that this particular issue had been flagged. And that there had been discussion as to whether to make an announcement to fans that no autographs would be permitted.

By the time Lorenzo Musetti and Dominik Koepfer competed the next night, there was some significant movement on this.

Security was more present and while Koepfer did a few selfies, he didn’t sign anything.

Dominik Koepfer posed for a few somewhat socially distant selfies after a match in Acapulco. (TennisTV.com)

Musetti didn’t go over at all.

A large crowd gathered after 19-year-old Lorenzo Musetti’s match – packed in tightly. But the Italian wisely opted not to get too close. (TennisTV)

Many of the players, in the interest of staying safe, had to apologize to the fans who gathered for them.

Those did not include Stefanos Tsitsipas (We’re told that the beach was NOT in the green zone, which did not stop some from partaking. Let’s be real; we can’t really blame them).

This young lady had herself a time this week.

And then, the TD comes up positive

To add an extra wrinkle to all this, Acapulco tournament director Raul Zurutuza announced Friday evening that he had tested positive for coronavirus.

The lack of reaction to this news has been somewhat surprising.

A big part of the tournament director’s gig during the event is to schmooze the players and agents and work on securing players for the following year’s event. Also, to gladhand with the sponsors and high net-worth fans.

Lots of contact with Zurutuza

Zurutuza would have been all over the place for a week, potentially exposing hundreds of people.

On the plus side, we’re told that he did NOT have access to the “green zone”, the restricted zone for players and various staff. But it’s unknown how long he might have been contagious before, asymptomatic, he announced his positive test on Friday.

Zurutuza sat courtside – right next to the towel boxes. Considering how humid it is in Acapulco, all the players on the stadium court were making regular trips there.

That area is also right next to one of the player boxes. And Zurutuza interacted with some of them – notably, on this night, with the overwhelmingly maskless Dimitrov camp.

Tournament director Zurutuza ( blue mask) at close quarters with the players and their towel boxes Thursday in Acapulco. The next day, Zurutuza announced he tested positive for COVID-19.

(We reached out to Zurutuza for comment, but have not yet had a response).

The protocols for the Acapulco event, for those considered close contacts, are that those close contacts need to quarantine for a minimum of seven days at the tournament hotel. On that day, they are to have a PCR test and if it is negative, they are released. No word on whether anyone in the player group was deemed a close contact of Zurutuza’s.

Meanwhile, all these people are now jetting off to Miami.

The WTA Tour not immune

The Guadalajara tournament director rightfully bragged during the trophy ceremony for his event that there hadn’t been a single positive test for COVID-19. But the same can’t be said for Monterrey this week.

Slovenian player Kaja Juvan tested positive in the wake of a routine test following her first-round victory in singles Tuesday in Monterrey.

As a result, per the protocols, she must isolate in a hotel room there. And she was forced to withdraw from the qualifying at next week’s Miami Open.

According to her representatives, she had been ordering room service and not going out. In other words, same conditions as other weeks in the WTA bubbles. And there was no indication of who might have transmitted the virus.

Juvan was tested a second time to ensure that the first result wasn’t a false positive, we’re told. Same result.

Who is deemed a close contact?

But … just a day or two before, Juvan spent a significant amount of time on the doubles court. She and partner Varvara Gracheva lost a first-round match 10-7 in the match tiebreak. Their opponents were Heather Watson and Zheng Saisai.

The WTA defines a “close contact” as someone who has been within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes, from two days before the test until that person is isolated.

Those players remained in the tournament, so hopefully all is well. Watson and Zheng made the doubles final Saturday,. Gracheva was on her way to Miami to get tested again and prepare for the qualifying, which begins Monday.

A positive test, but mild symptoms, in Monterrey means Juvan was withdrawn from the event and will miss Miami (WTAtv)

A spokesperson for the WTA said that any close contacts were being closely monitored. They wouldn’t confirm that those on the doubles court with Juvan qualified as close contacts. Generally, per the documents, the players are tested every five days.

“As per WTA COVID-19 protocols, all players and support team members, along with tournament and WTA staff, are entered into a regular testing cycle at all WTA tournaments.  In the instance of a positive case (and in Monterrey), all close contacts are informed of their close contact status and are tested on a more regular cadence, every two days, as well as increased controlled measures of practice and competition only and minimal interaction with others,” the spokesperson said.

Masks as chin accessories in indoor St. Petersburg

Meanwhile, across the world in Russia, the WTA tournament in St. Petersburg took it to the next level.

Before the tournament, director Alexander Medvedev said they were able to operate at 75 per cent of capacity. He said they were “taking into account the results achieved in the fight against the pandemic, the launch of vaccinations.”

(Less than two per cent of Russians are fully vaccinated, as of this weekend. And there are media reports of vaccine shortages in St. Petersburg).

It was difficult to judge in the darkened stands exactly how many fans were on hand for Sunday’s all-Russian final. But they were numerous.

In many cases, masks were used as chin warmers. And this is an indoor facility. It’s not as though Russia is rocking it on the curve-bending front. At best, it’s staying relatively stable but at a high level.

And the South African variant has arrived.

Hopefully, in both cases where there were big crowds this past week, there are no significant consequences in the short term.

Viewers and on-site fans who have spent more than a year taking every precaution may have to get over the shock of seeing all these people in one place

But if all seems to end well, that’s not the worst problem. If it doesn’t, it will have consequences going forward.

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The St. Petersburg website offered lots of hashtags with COVID safety tips – largely ignored by the fans in the indoor arena.

Miami Open a contrast with its environment

The irony is that at this week’s Miami Open, the safety measures are at premium levels. But its location in south Florida is an unmitigated Covid-denying disaster.

Fan attendance will be capped at a very small 15 per cent, per reports. And fans (and media) can only have access to the two bigger courts.

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There will be no scenes like this (in 2019) at this year’s Miami Open, where the practice courts will be off-limits to the fans.

The practice courts and field courts – popular places for fans at any tournament – are off-limits to everyone but players and officials.

Even some areas inside the stadium are limited to players only and their immediate, necessary staff. Regular guests have their own area.

The players are required to stay in one of the two tournament hotels. Mercifully, those are located in Miami, on the “good” side of the causeways into Miami Beach. After spring break revellers made a mockery of coronavirus precautions, those will be closed for at least 72 hours.

As close as they are to South Beach, though, they won’t be allowed to go there. And they still will face a stiff commute back and forth to the site at Hard Rock Stadium.

If things take a turn for the worse there, it will set off alarm bells in a lot of countries.

It’s not as though Russia, Mexico or Florida are rocking the pandemic.

France, Spain, Italy, and the U.K., who also have had a tough time with the coronavirus, must be watching as they try to prepare for their own big events this spring and summer.