October 23, 2021

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Cincinnati

(This story has been updated with a statement from Tennis Canada)

What will Tennis Canada do about the National Bank Cup tournaments in 2021?

It’s complicated. As it is everywhere.

But the Canadian events, an oasis in an American summer, have special challenges in a pandemic year.

All options are still on the table as to what form this summer’s events will take, as Tennis Canada is keenly motivated after having to cancel them in 2020.

And one of those options is relocating the event to … Cincinnati this year.

The situation in Canada is what it is regarding COVID-19 and government restrictions. Both the women’s tournament in Montreal and the men’s event in Toronto have been going through hoops with their respective provincial governments trying to get approval to hold the tournaments at all.

As it was, in speaking to a high-ranking official a few weeks ago, it is unlikely there would be any fans, or any media. A closed-bubble situation – still – some 17 months into the pandemic.

In Ontario right now, recreational players aren’t even allowed to play – not even outdoors (not that people aren’t flouting that regulation with impunity. But that’s another story).

Open Court has learned that a potential relocation this summer to Mason, Ohio (a suburb of Cincinnati) has been discussed at the highest levels.

The Western & Southern Open (a joint men’s and women’s 1000 tournament) is to be held there the following week.

Quarantine exemptions still a challenge

The Canadian governments’ intransigence about issuing quarantine exemptions to professional athletes is another hurdle. That’s been a relatively easy hoop to jump through in most of the countries. But at this point, that’s not the case in Canada.

High-performance amateur athletes are allowed, though. Hockey, baseball and soccer players got exemptions last fall because their organizations had strict “COVID mitigation plans”.

Professional hockey players who play overseas could not get exemptions when they returned home after the season. According to that story, some 750 Olympic and Paralympic athletes and support staff were granted “some” exemptions leading up to the Olympics. But it doesn’t appear they will be exempt upon their return from Tokyo if it happens, despite the plan there for an aggressive health protocol.

A tennis event requires hundreds of people to travel from a number of different counties with various levels of transmission and safety protocols – and for some, only to be in Canada for a few days. It’s a different kettle of fish, even if the number of positive cases just before and during tournaments has been very small. Especially relative to some of the American team sports.

But there are still lockdowns and curfews in many parts of the country. And some provinces are tightening restrictions, still, not loosening them.

How will Tokyo change things? Will there be a Tokyo?

Throw in the fact that if the Tokyo Olympics go ahead as planned, they butt right up against the National Bank Opens. That’s always a challenge in an Olympic year. But especially so this year.

More? The logistics of the players having been through the heavy spring and summer in Europe and the U.K., with two Grand Slams, going right into the Olympics, and then … onto Canada. And then straight to the U.S.

Just that alone will ensure, in a season during which many of the top players have significantly scaled down their schedules, that a lot of the big guns will opt to skip the Canadian event.

That’s so even if there are rumblings from some players that they might take a pass on the Olympics.

But what if they … didn’t have to travel as much?

Post-Olympic tennis in D.C., Cincinnati … and New York

In addition to the combined event in Cincinnati, the early summer hard-court tournaments in Atlanta and Stanford and Washington, D.C., also all are held in the U.S.

That’s also the case for the final tuneups in Cleveland and Winston-Salem.

And then comes the U.S. Open.

Serena Williams has played in Montreal once in her career – in 2000, when she retired against Martina Hingis in the finals, and in 2014, when she blew everyone away with her French, and lost to sister Venus in the semifinals. Chances she might come in 2021, given all that’s going on? Unlikely. But she might go if it were in Cincinnati.

It is a complex web that the tournament organizers in Canada have been trying to untangle for months, game-planning all possible scenarios with constantly shifting parameters and no small measure of uncertainty.

You wouldn’t want to have their jobs this year.

And all this comes in the wake of the 2020 cancellation.

The resulting massive loss of revenue put Tennis Canada in a fragile financial position and resulted in dozens of layoffs and furloughs. And it scuttled any ability to host lower-level events at all over the last year. Those events are key, in part, because they offer rising young tennis players to get pro match experience without having to travel around the world.

The revenue shortfall, as well, wreaked havoc on budgets for promotion and player development.

A possible solution? Move Canada to Cincinnati

Cincinnati
There are always Canadian supporters in Cincinnati – although if they still can’t drive across the border in August, it’s hard to judge how many might come.

If the Canadian events relocated to Cincinnati for 2021, they would become part of a two-week Masters 1000/WTA extravaganza held at the same site.

There is precedent for that. The Cincinnati tournament relocated to New York in 2020, and became part of a three-week tournament hub at the US Open site in Flushing Meadows, NY.

The players could settle in for a long period in one place (albeit in a tightly-controlled hotel-tournament site bubble that led to its own dramas).

Cincy
The US Open Grandstand – with appropriate signage – was used as the “centre court” for the relocated Cincinnati event in August 2020.

They put out the “Cincy’ signage for the week of that event, using the Grandstand court as the main stadium court.

And then they switched everything over to the regular US Open sponsorship boards around the courts in time for the Grand Slam tournament.

Television revenue the key

In the end, if the fans can’t even attend the Montreal and Toronto events, it matters a lot less where the tournament takes place.

If they planned to use Hawkeye Live (another not-insignificant expense) to cut down on on-site personnel, it’s not as though the local line umpires who look forward to the tournament every year would be able to ply their trade anyway. The ballkids (most of them) will hopefully have next year.

But splitting all the additional expenses involved in holding a tournament during a pandemic is cost-effective. And if Tennis Canada can still reap the television revenue from having the tournament (which seems to be the nexus), it might end up on the right side of the profit line for the 2021 events.

Maybe even some of the bums-in-seats revenue, if the state of Ohio is so inclined by August.

That would be some positive financial news the federation could certainly use.

On the downside, it’s not a great situation for the many sponsors of the Canadian tournaments. But at least if their signage is visible on television, that’s something.

As former title sponsor Rogers stepped back in recent months, National Bank – which has long supported tennis at the lower levels and has its name on the Grandstand court in Montreal – stepped up as it seeks to increase its national profile.

It seems dug in for the long haul.

The ATP players had complaints for years about inadequate facilities – notably practice courts – after the women joined as a Premier. Before that, it had been separate weeks. But recent expansion has improved things. And if they can do it for one week, they can do it for two.

No official word either way so far

The Cincinnati tournament moved to Flushing Meadows last summer, part of the US Open bubble that turned out to be very successful, if fanless.

Open Court has reached out to all parties to get some comment on what we’ve been told.

We were able to confirm that discussions have been held. One official said they’d heard the same thing. But so far as they knew, it was still only a rumour.

Another said the intent was still to hold the tournaments in Toronto and Montreal as planned.

Omertá from everyone else, on both sides of the border. Not even a denial.

It’s too logical not to have at least been discussed seriously. Which doesn’t mean it’s a done deal.

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