World No 1 Ash Barty is one of a growing list of players to opt for vaccination against COVID-19 after she was one of the player field given access to a COVID-19 vaccine through a WTA Tour initiative in Charleston, South Carolina earlier this month.
It was nice to know that we have got that small layer of protection. We still do the right things and abide by all the rules and the guidelines set in place by the Tour but knowing that we had that little bit of extra protection puts us at ease a bit more. Ash Barty
Barty, who turns 25 on Saturday, and her Australian coach Craig Tyzzer were among those who took advantage of the WTA’s offer, but said she made sure they were not ‘jumping the queue’.
“We were looking at different avenues to try and get vaccinated without jumping the queue in Australia to see what our options were, and we weren’t able to get much of an answer before we left in March,” she told reporters in Stuttgart.
“We were able to get the vaccine, as were a lot of other players, through the Tour, and that they had organised through a certain pharmacy that had extras, and that was important to me, knowing that those who were the most vulnerable were able to get it first.”
The WTA offered Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines for Charleston entrants, and Anastasia Potapova and Oksana Kalashnikova were among those who took advantage of the special COVID-19 initiative facilitated by the women’s tour.
There is still some resistance amongst players on both tours to getting vaccinated for a variety of reasons.
For Potapova, the World No 75, it was an aversion to needles she had to overcome.
“It’s always a battle for me to do a blood test or anything that includes needles,” she admitted.
Like everyone else, players have seen their job landscape change significantly, with tournament bubbles, hotel quarantines, slashes in prize money, limits to traveling team members, playing behind closed doors and reductions in playing opportunities below the tour level among the impacted areas WTA and ATP athletes have been forced to accept.
“All participants got an email, like a day or two before the tournament started, about the possibility to get vaccinated,” shared Kalashnikova, ranked No 65 in doubles. “It was up to every player to confirm if she wanted to get her shot.”
In cooperation with the Volvo Car Open and Plantation Pharmacy, a local drugstore, WTA secured single dose, Johnson & Johnson Janssen COVID-19 vaccinations for their entrants.
The program was available for two weeks, with the LTP Daniel Island Tennis Center hosting consecutive tournaments.
“With the state of South Carolina opening up vaccine eligibility on March 31 to everyone over the age of 16 to anyone that desires to be vaccinated, the WTA and Volvo Car Open were provided the opportunity to secure vaccines while remaining respectful to the priority of local access,” said Amy Binder, the WTA’s Vice President of Global Communications.
“We are very grateful for this opportunity, especially with the single dose vaccine, which is ideal for the global nature of our tour.
“We of course hope to have other chances to secure the vaccine when it is feasible, factoring in various countries and their own vaccine rollout.
“The WTA does encourage everyone that has the opportunity to get vaccinated to protect not only themselves, but the communities in which they reside.”
Potapova’s agent originally spotted the prospect and encouraged the 20-year-old to check her email. Her first reaction was, ‘Why not?’. While she admits a decision to proceed wasn’t easy, Potapova opted in after taking a few days and consulting with her team.
And her needle problems? They were soon quashed.
“I was super nervous, but I was so wrong. It literally took three seconds to do it,” she says. “I didn’t feel the shot at all. After a few seconds, I felt a bit of soreness in my arm but in five minutes, it was gone.”
Kalashnikova, who previously contracted COVID-19, felt a bit lightheaded shortly after being inoculated, but outside of that, her side effects were limited and by day two, deemed herself back to normal.
The 30-year-old’s motivation to take advantage of the unexpected offering extended beyond her well-being.
“I wasn’t planning to get one but then realised it would help me with travelling,” said the Georgian.
“Every player sent a request and was given the day and time when to get her shot, but only when you were out of the tournament.”
After her immunisation was complete, Potapova headed straight for the airport and, beyond her initial sore arm, the Russian experienced a round of chills but was soon without symptoms.
“I didn’t plan it at all, so that’s why it was so surprising for all of us. It’s better to have the vaccine than the virus,” Potapova said.
“Really thankful to WTA for this opportunity, I hope one day we can go back to normal.”
Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka said she had pulled out of Stuttgart as it coincided with her scheduled COVID-19 vaccination.
“I will unfortunately not be able to compete in Stuttgart … next week as I will be receiving my first dosis (sic) of the vaccine at the same time,” the Belarusian World No 15 said on Twitter.
Simona Halep was one of the first active players, at least publicly, to get the COVID-19 vaccine after the 29-year-old received her first dose in February in Romania, and she got her second dose in March.
The World No 3 was eligible for the vaccine because of her status as an Olympic athlete.
While it is up to each nation to decide if and when to vaccinate its athletes ahead of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, which start on 23 July 23, organisers have said they will not require athletes to be vaccinated to participate.
Halep contracted COVID-19 last autumn after skipping the New York swing and losing in the fourth round of Roland Garros.
While both the ATP and WTA Tours are encouraging athletes to accept vaccine shots when available, some of the top players have expressed a reluctance to get vaccinated.
Under updated COVID-19 protocols on the men’s tour, players who have been vaccinated are no longer considered as close contacts of anyone testing positive for the coronavirus.
Barty, who spent the last year back home in Australia, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, played the Miami Open, which was her first tournament overseas since February 2020.
“It was nice to know that we have got that small layer of protection,” Barty said, adding that she had experienced a few side effects from the vaccine.
“We still do the right things and abide by all the rules and the guidelines set in place by the Tour but knowing that we had that little bit of extra protection puts us at ease a bit more.”
Back in November, Andy Murray backed a compulsory vaccine programme for tournaments, saying all players should be required to have a coronavirus vaccination before they are allowed to take part on the ATP Tour.
“I think that probably should be the case.,” he said. “I would hope that all the players would be willing to do that for the good of the sport — providing everything has proved to be safe, clinical trials and everything have been done and there are not any significant side-effects.”
World No 1 Novak Djokovic, however, generated headlines with his anti-vaccination comments, although he later said that he was not against vaccinations, but did not like the idea of being forced to have one.
Murray admitted it would be difficult to force players to take a vaccine, but he hoped common sense would prevail.
“I guess it would be difficult. I also read a few weeks after he’d said he [Djokovic] wouldn’t be keen on doing that, [but] if it was something that had to be done for him to play the sport, he would,” Murray added.
“So I guess we’ll have to wait and see what the ATP and the ITF decide their position is going to be on that, but I’m confident that players would be into it, if it meant the tour going back to normality.”
Murray has contracted COVID-19 twice, the second time in January preventing him from travelling to Australia for the hard court swing there.