A most unpredictable season begins. Steve Tignor and Joel Drucker discuss the new 2021 schedules, and gives thanks to Melbourne for being tennis’ much-needed port in a storm in this week's Rally.
“Any port in a storm,” perhaps?
That’s what tennis, like all sports, is faced with as it tries to maneuver through a pandemic. With COVID restrictions varying from one country, one state, one city to the next, the tours can’t worry about where their seasons have traditionally begun. For now, the players can only go where they’re allowed.
With that in mind, I think the tours have done the best that could have been expected with what was available, and possibly created a model for the rest of the season. That model is similar to the bubble that we saw in New York around the US Open. This time it will be created in Melbourne, which, after a strict lockdown, has freed itself of the virus, at least for the moment. If all goes as planned, players from both tours will arrive in mid-January, quarantine for two weeks, play warm-up events at Melbourne Park the first week of February, and then play the Australian Open starting Feb. 8. The men will also play the ATP Cup in Melbourne the week before the Aussie Open, and the women will play a WTA event during the second week of that Slam.
All in all, I’d say tennis owes a big thank you to the officials and people of Australia, the state of Victoria, the city of Melbourne, and Tennis Australia for giving the game that port in this pandemic storm. Can the Grand Slam bubble formula be repeated at the other majors? As of now, with the U.K. canceling Christmas, France’s president testing positive for the virus, and cases rising again in New York, the answer would seem to be no. Let’s hope the vaccines can make a difference, quickly.
As far as the first seven weeks are concerned, my one question is: Should the ATP really kick off its season in Delray Beach? It’s a great location and tournament, but there have been 20,000 COVID deaths in Florida, and 1,800 in Palm Beach County. The state has few restrictions, which is why the men are going there, but couldn’t the event be played later in the year, when, presumably, the virus will be better controlled?
Spot on about ports, storms and the attendant, highly sensitive logistical challenges tennis will face in 2021.
Agree with you about Delray Beach and how treacherous things are in Florida. And yet, where is this not the case? Tennis must start somewhere, and while we fans are grateful for the chance to watch the pros from our sheltered homes, there’s no question that the 2021 tennis year is going to be very tough for all the players and tournament organizers—arguably even more challenging than 2020.
In 2020, after five months of no ATP and WTA events, all were glad merely for the chance to at last play and get in a bunch of matches at the close of the year at tournaments in North America and Europe.
But now, as the start of a new year nears, tennis’ geographic sprawl really comes into the spotlight. An ATP event in Delray Beach. Australian Open qualifying in Doha. A WTA tournament in Abu Dhabi. And then, of course, off to Melbourne. At least these are all outdoor events. Still, there’s lots of travel. Lots of security checks. Lots of COVID tests. Uncertainty of what’s to come, both in the near term and for the balance of the year. And, as all these factors compound, tons of stress. Call it, The Year of Playing Dangerously.
So how can a player be best-equipped to compete effectively? When I read how tournaments are limiting player entourages to a select few people, I’m reminded of a classic line from The Godfather: leave the gun, take the cannoli. The tennis equivalent might go like this: leave the coach, take the physio. For my suspicion is that, at least during tournaments, it’s most important for a player to have someone near-at-hand who can keep his or her body exquisitely tuned. As much as I respect Roger Federer’s coaching team, my belief is that the real genius behind his longevity is his personal trainer, Pierre Paganini.
My hope is that a great many players have followed Federer’s example and have worked extensively with their teams to be as fit and healthy as possible. Certainly, there are longstanding stretches and other training routines that aid the body. Might the pandemic have also generated inquiries into the best nutritional practices? Who knows, maybe there’s a new kind of COVID-inspired smoothie that will become the new hit in player lounges.
Steve, what do you think will be the key for players thriving in 2021?
The Year of Playing Dangerously—an apropos name for 2021. You’re right about the effort it will take to travel in 2021, from COVID tests to security checks to quarantine rules. It may be hard to know where and when you can move from one country to the next. Patience will be the utmost virtue, and an ability not to worry about the future too much, because we have no idea what it’s going to hold from one month to the next.
Yet once everyone is ensconced in Melbourne, the conditions should be ideal for the players to thrive, or at least to focus on the job ahead. They will be allotted five hours of training time per day, which seems like a lot until you realize there’s essentially nothing else for them to do; it’s that or the hotel room.
I wonder who will benefit most from two weeks of boot camp. On the one hand, you might think that these unusual conditions could lead to unusual results; on the other hand, the hyper-restricted conditions in Melbourne might help the best players find their best form. For example, I could see Serena Williams working herself into a fearsome groove over after two weeks of five-hour sessions. Could the same thing happen to Federer, or will his body balk at that kind of training block? He has committed to traveling to Australia, but is still unsure of whether he’ll be able to play after his most recent knee surgery.
Speaking of focused, each player will only be allowed one other training partner during the first week in Melbourne, and then two more the second week. Rafael Nadal and the young Italian Jannik Sinner will start together. An interesting pick for Rafa (assuming he made the choice, and not the other way around). He’s probably thinking that if he can get used to Sinner’s pace, he’ll be ready for anyone. For Sinner, what could be better than two weeks of watching and absorbing that famous Nadal intensity?
Joel, do the conditions that the players will face in Australia make you rethink your predictions for the start of the year?
Predictions? Yikes. These are always difficult to make even we’re seeing the players in action frequently. Now, in the wake of so much disruption, who can dare say how these tournaments will go?
As a tip of my hat to your zeal for music, I’m dubbing the two weeks of pre-Australian quarantine and practice, “The Melbourne Sessions”—a blend of the exiled Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and the youthful Elvis Presley’s Sun Sessions.
It will be fascinating to see how the players treat those two weeks. As a start, how do they spend time when they can’t be training? The usual mode at tournaments is to enjoy the city in many of the ways you’d expect from a young, well-compensated athlete—most of all by heading to lots of local restaurants. And when it comes to food, Melbourne is as good as it gets.
But all that’s off the table (pun intended), so will players who can afford it bring tons of their own food, or personal chefs? Will others rely relentlessly on room service? Besides meals, then what? An ex-pro once explained to me that in a sport when you rarely know what time you’re playing, much of the day is spent finding ways to creatively kill time without squandering your competitive firepower. Jimmy Connors told me he didn’t want to watch Western movies lest he get caught up in a chase scene.
These days, figure that the Internet will get quite the workout. Not sure, though, if I’d want to engage too heavily in an arduous game of Words with Friends. Maybe better to watch clips on YouTube or TikTok. Or perhaps some of the more theatrical pros like Bethanie Mattek-Sands will make their own videos—or even create a hotel lobby talk show? Maybe, in a more low-key way, one future Gordon Forbes will be keeping a diary, later known as A Nose Full of Test Strips.
As far as the on-court aspect goes, practice will take a different dimension than it does during a tournament. When the event is happening, it strikes me that players are most invested in keeping fresh, the kind of knife-sharpening practice useful in the thick of competition. But now, several weeks ahead of the competition, what shape will practice take? For some, lots of practice sets. For others, drills, or hitting, or certain drill-based games. And again, looming over all of this, the threat of COVID and the uncertain ways it can be transmitted.
One thing for sure about tennis in the year 2021: It won’t be boring.