As the game welcomes a new season, the turmoil surrounding the pro tours continues because of the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in a delayed Australian Open, due to start at Melbourne Park on 8 February, and Indian Wells already a casualty in the calendar.
These are uncertain and challenging times, but I believe it’s critical for us to stand united as players, and as a sport, to pave the best way forward. Roger Federer
Before COVID-19 struck, it would have been unheard of for a major to stage its qualifying rounds in another country, but the AO has opted for two locations in the Middle East for its qualifying competitions to be staged from 10-13 January.
Plans to host a tournament solely for Australian players in either Sydney or Brisbane after Christmas to help determine AO wild cards were shelved by Tennis Australia at the last minute, as the spike of coronavirus cases in New South Wales and the impact of border closures play more havoc with the summer calendar Down Under.
Almost all wildcard spots for the first major of 2021 have been filled, including slots for former World No 1 and five-time runner-up Andy Murray, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Daria Gavrilova.
At a time when some Australian players are normally preparing for cut-throat qualifying at Melbourne Park in an attempt to secure prized main draw spots, a swag of them will leave Australian shores next week for men’s events in Doha and women’s events in Dubai.
“It’s certainly a unique situation having to travel overseas to compete,” TA Performance Director Wally Masur said. “It’s been an unusual year for all players, and the best results will come to players who can quickly adapt.”
Sixteen successful qualifiers, as well as those Australians who have flown over but don’t make the cut, plus 6 alternates, will be part of a cohort of up to 1,100 people jet-setting into Melbourne in mid-January, before undergoing a mandatory two-week hotel quarantine under special conditions.
After months of intricate negotiations between tennis officials and the government, players secured the right to leave their hotel rooms for a daily five-hour training block in an arrangement bank-rolled by TA to guarantee that the AO would not be cancelled as Wimbledon had to be last year.
Officials, however, are maintaining a watching brief as 3 cases of COVID-19 positive swabs were registered by the health authorities in Victoria over the New Year, the first after 61 virus-free days in the Australian state.
Health authorities are working to track and trace those in contact with the people who tested positive, and the government is to publish a list of areas potentially exposed to the virus.
After a period of calm in Australia, virus anxiety is returning that could well impact plans for the AO, given the problems that the US, UK and Europe are currently facing.
New ATP Player Council
Against this turbulent background, the WTA and ATP are struggling to come up with schedules that balance both health and safety regulations and protocols with job opportunities.
Staff, players and tournament representatives are fully engaged in finding working solutions and are having to adjust to an ever-changing and worsening global pandemic backdrop.
Elections for the ATP Player Council for 2021-2022 have just been completed, which sees the return of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer alongside Andy Murray, Kevin Anderson, John Millman, Bruno Soares and Felix Auger-Aliassime.
Gilles Simon also returns to the Council, having served previous terms, while Pablo Andújar and Marcus Daniell were elected to serve their first terms on the body.
Colin Dowdeswell, who played for Rhodesia, Switzerland and Britain during his time as an athlete, remains the alumni representative, while Daniel Vallverdú has become the coach representative.
The new Player Council was voted on by ATP player members and will have its first meeting this month to elect a President and Vice President.
Notably absent is the World No 1 Novak Djokovic, who stepped sown in August to form the new Professional Tennis Players’ Association (PTPA) with 61st-ranked Vasek Pospisil, causing a different kind of turmoil, and while the 33-year-old had accepted the nomination to run in the ATP Player Council elections, he withdrew last month when the ATP rules prevented the Serbian from sitting on both the Player Council and the PTPA.
The formation of a rival player organisation has irked the ATP, and both Nadal and Federer have spoken out about their opposition to such a move when unity against a common adversity, the pandemic, is called for.
In September the ATP, WTA, ITF and Grand Slams issued a joint statement, saying: “Now more than ever we need collaboration and strong relationships, and we fully support the ATP in its role in representing the best interests of players throughout this process,” read the statement.
“It is our responsibility to ensure that our sport emerges from this crisis with strong foundations on which we can build.
“It is a time for even greater collaboration, not division; a time to consider and act in the best interests of the sport, now and for the future.
“When we work together, we are a stronger sport.”
Nadal and Federer were among 6 ATP Player Council members who wrote a letter to players urging them not to join the new body and addressing concerns over relations with the ATP, the potential for tournaments to not go ahead and who would take responsibility for a potential loss of income.
“These are uncertain and challenging times, but I believe it’s critical for us to stand united as players, and as a sport, to pave the best way forward,” was Federer’s message.
Murray was more guarded but said he would not be joining the PTPA: “I’m not totally against a player union, but I feel like the current management that are in place should be given some time to implement their vision and I feel like that would send a much more powerful message if the WTA were on board with it as well.”
The ATP and WTA have, indeed, been working more closely together although the called-for merger between the two organisations by Federer still seems a long way off.
Nevertheless, joint statements in the face of the pandemic, moves to standardise the categories of events on the calendar and the launch of a short film entitled ‘Tennis is Life’ all point to a better collaboration between the two bodies.
The film comprises clips from tennis players’ own social media channels documenting their experiences from lockdown to competition, and is voiced by major stars from both Tours, as they read a powerful passage from Andre Agassi’s acclaimed autobiography, ‘Open’, which explores parallels between life’s ups and downs and the game of tennis, through the shared language of both.
Closing with the line, ‘this is being stronger, united’, the film underscores the greater collaboration seen in tennis last year, and symbolises a vision for unity in the sport, to enable it to fulfil its true potential.
Both organisations said their marketing teams will continue to come together on joint campaign creatives, as well as through the alignment of tournament category nomenclature, which was announced by the WTA alongside its rebrand last month.
Meanwhile, players have been been sending good wishes and thoughts for 2021: “Hello everyone, I hope you’ll are doing well,” said Nadal. “I wish you all the best for 2021.
“The situation is really tough today and 2020 is a year to forget without a doubt.
“Hopefully, with the vaccine, the situation will improve dramatically. I wish u all the very best and see u soon in 2021”.
Two-time Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova is also looking forward to brushing aside the ills of 2020 and remains optimistic for the new year: “A year of many ups and downs, but hopefully we all enter 2021 having learned some important lessons and ready to put them into action!” Kvitova said.
Three-time Grand Slam winner, Angelique Kerber said: “In a year that has tested the courage of us all, I would like to thank you for your support.”
Grigor Dimitrov stated: “I want to thank everyone for the support during this challenging year. I am excited to put 2020 in the past and start afresh chapter.”
Already, however, the fluidity of the current situation is apparent as Murray, who accepted a wildcard to play at Delray Beach next week, has now pulled out of the event because of the flaring global health pandemic.
The three-time Grand Slam winner said in a statement: “After much deliberation with my team I’ve decided not to travel to play in Delray Beach.
“Given the increase in COVID-19 rates and the transatlantic flights involved, I want to minimise the risks ahead of the Australian Open.
“I’m really thankful for the understanding of the tournament and I look forward to playing there soon.”
Kei Nishikori has also pulled out of the Delray Beach tournament, which kicks off the 2021 ATP Tour season on Monday, while the women begin their’s in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.
Fans can catch all the live action of both on Amazon Prime Video.