August 9, 2020

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If the US Open were to begin next week, Rafael Nadal says he wouldn’t be there to defend his title.

“If you ask me today if I want to travel today to New York to play a tennis tournament, I will say ‘No, I will not,’ ” Nadal said Thursday in a Zoom conference call with the media.

“In a couple of months I don’t know how the situation is going to improve. Hopefully it’s going to improve the right way, and I’m sure the people who organize the event, the USTA., want a safe event, same like the French Federation.”

Under normal circumstances, Nadal likely would be preparing for a semifinal match at Roland Garros right now. Instead, he’s at his academy in Mallorca – back training, but like most players unsure of what he’s training for.

“We need to wait probably until we have more information about how the virus evolves, how the situation’s going to be. New York has been one of the places that has been hit most strongly by the virus,” he said.

Fans, no fans? Vaccine, no vaccine?

If Roland Garros does go ahead as (re)scheduled this fall, the stands may well look exactly like this.

Nadal was on the fence about a few issues, but there’s nowhere else to be but on the fence at the moment. Because no one knows what’s going to happen.

He doesn’t want to play before empty stands. But if that’s the only way tennis can come back, it is what it is.

He doesn’t want to play until it’s “fair” – until all players from all countries can travel freely and enter all the tournaments.

“We have a worldwide tour. We need to be clear. We need to be responsible. We need to be sending a strong message, and we need to be a positive example for the society,” he said. “My feeling is, we need to come back when all the players from all the countries of the world are able to travel and in safe circumstances.”

World and sport must go on

Except … if that doesn’t happen, he may well come back and play despite the fact that he doesn’t feel it’s right.

Nadal said a long time ago (well, not so long in actual time, but an eternity in pandemic time) that he didn’t expect there to be tennis in 2020.

The possibility of a vaccine also plays into his thinking. Nadal said that if a vaccine were ready to go by December – a highly optimistic timeline relative to the history of vaccines – it wouldn’t be worth it to start back before then.

“But if they say we will won’t have it until two years, then we need to find ways to go back to some kind of normality because the world and sport can’t stop for so long,” he said.

At the moment, everything on both tours is officially cancelled until the end of July. The first tournaments back would be the joint ATP/WTA event in Washington, D.C. and the WTA stop in San Jose, Calif. (although we’re hearing that one may already be off the schedule).

The Rogers Cup in Toronto is not officially cancelled yet. But don’t expect to see Novak Djokovic at the Aviva Centre in August. (Stephanie Myles/OpenCourt.ca)

We can forget about the Rogers Cup in Toronto the next week, even if it’s not officially a no-go yet.

The dollars just don’t make sense – and that’s especially true now that the NHL and NBA playoffs could well be going on concurrently. That would have an impact on what television revenue there is.

And the risks of a major financial outlay to even try to prepare for the event in this uncertainty is not something Tennis Canada can realistically envision – especially as tomorrow is the last day of work for about two-thirds of their employees either through layoffs or furloughs.

A US Open tournament bubble?

Will the US Open – in modified form, with reduced doubles, skeleton staff and likely no junior or wheelchair events, go on as planned? That’s the $100 million question. (Stephanie Myles/Opencourt.ca)

On Tuesday Christopher Clarey of the NY Times broke the story of a potential plan to salvage the Cincinnati Masters 1000 / WTA Premier 5 event, which is scheduled from Aug. 17-23 – ending a week before the scheduled start of the US Open main draw.

The theory there is that that moving the Cincinnati tournament to Flushing Meadows (the men’s event is owned by the USTA; the women’s event by the Octagon agency) would “help draw the needed support of government and public health officials as they manage the outbreak, travel and the economy.”

It’s an interesting schedule, as it’s not expected that there will be qualifying at the US Open. So what, then, to do with that week in between?

Would the players practice on site for another week – as if they wouldn’t have already practiced the last few months? Would some of them “leave the bubble” to play still-scheduled tournaments in Albany NY for the women, and in Winston-Salem for the men?

Would those tournaments basically end up being for players who would normally have played the qualifying in New York, but risk being shut out? And given that reducing the US Open doubles draws from 64 teams to … 24 teams is under serious discussion, what of all those players?

As it stands now, the figure most discussed in terms of the prize money for the players is at 80 per cent of last year’s amount. Which, all things considered and given how much revenue the US Open will give up by not having fans in the stands, is pretty good.

The latest possibility floated by the USTA is the relocation of the Cincinnati event, which has different owners for the men’s and women’s side, to Flushing Meadows.

All of the planning is moot, of course, if New York City can’t make it happen.

Among the ideas being floated are a limit of one entourage member per player, something top WTA Tour player Donna Vekic said was worse than playing with no one in the stands.

 “Okay to play without fans” but “really the worst thing is if we can only come with one team member,” she told the New York Times. “I just don’t see how that is going to be possible and how the top players are going to accept that.”

From hard to clay – toot suite

With the US Open scheduled to end Sept. 13, there then would be a run back to Europe for an immediate switch to clay courts. That’s a tougher transition than the other way around.

They’re going to try to squeeze in the Masters 1000 tournaments in Madrid and Rome before the rescheduled French Open.

During what would have been the first week of this year’s French Open last week, construction crews were onsite at the Roland Garros site. Will they play it in October? Time will tell.

The Roland Garros site has the dates from Sept. 20 – Oct. 4, although there has been much chatter about that being pushed back a week to accommodate an extra clay-court tournament. The ATP schedule doesn’t have it … anywhere.

UbiTennis reports a complicated latticework of reduced draws and overlapping tournaments, with Madrid having a 48-draw that would allow late second-weekers in New York to get a first-round bye, and a Tuesday final. The Rome tournament would begin as Madrid ends, with a Monday final that coincides with the start of the French Open. And both tournaments would have significantly reduced prize money.

(As an aside, French Federation president Bernard Giudicelli says they have a plan to fill those notoriously empty seats on the newly-refurbished Court Philippe Chatrier. Giudicelli came on Gaël Monfils’s Twitch channel and said that grounds pass holders could pay a premium, and receive a text message telling them that a specific seat on Chatrier is available for them to use until the actual ticket holders return).

It’s an ambitious schedule, built entirely on the shifting sands of the pandemic, which is going to decide everything. Squeezing both tournaments in is a very tight fit.

Madrid offers more prize money overall; plus, the Italian Open has displayed a willingness to move indoors – perhaps even to Milan, in lieu of the Next-Gen Finals in November. The Caja Magica still plans to host the Davis Cup finals at that time of the year; not only does that require turning clay into hard courts, the attendance was so poor its first year it’s hard to fathom two major tennis events there within two months.

In short, everyone is trying to get tennis back on the courts. A decision about (what’s left of) the U.S. hard-court summer should come in 10 days. And that decision impacts the next chunk of tournaments.

And what about Asia?

The big WTA event in Wuhan would run right up against the potential first week of the French Open, if it is held as scheduled.

If we want to look ahead at the part of the schedule no one wants to even talk about yet, here goes: what about the Asian swing?

There are 10 WTA tournaments scheduled in Asia during the proposed European clay-court swing, including big tournaments in Wuhan and Beijing.

For the men, there are seven – and the Masters 1000 in Shanghai would be the week right after Roland Garros.

If travel within Europe is simpler by then, all the better. But travel to another continent – including China – may well be something that is not only challenging, but a deal-breaker for many players.

The ATP has a conference call set up with its players next Wednesday, to update them on the situation. No doubt there will be a wide range of opinions.

There seems to be a lot of faith from the players – too much, perhaps – that the tournaments have their best interests at heart and won’t hold the tournaments unless they’re confident they can guarantee their safety. We heard some of that in Australia at the start of the year, as information from Tennis Australia about the effects of the brushfires was sketchy, but players on their tour councils expressed that confidence.

But as we all know, money is the loudest voice.