London | Back on court with social distancing

Recreational players took to the courts for the first time in England on Wednesday, carefully following LTA guidelines and relishing the joy of hitting tennis balls for the first time in almost two months due to the coronavirus lockdown.

You don’t want to get injured straight away, so basically we just hit up and down the middle, a few volleys here and there, and just rolled the shoulder over with the serve. Nothing too strenuous. It’s obviously nice to get back on the court. It was tough not being able to play. Neal Skupski

Tennis is recognised as a good example of an activity that can be undertaken in a way compliant with social distancing restrictions and so improving the mental and physical well-beings of people.

Based on discussions with government and following the adjustment of lockdown restrictions this week, the LTA has developed a set of practical guidelines for venues, coaches and players to follow so that tennis can be played in England during continued lockdown, where the local environment allows.

These guidelines, which currently apply to England only, cover both tennis and padel, and outline adaptations so that on court activity can be enjoyed in a way that is in line with government advice and helps to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

They include measures to limit hand-to-shared surface contact and minimise unnecessary interactions with others and, as a result, many tennis clubs have re-opened, although the LTA’s National Tennis Centre in Roehampton remained shut and the ever cautious All England Lawn Tennis Club has elected to resume play for members on a limited number of courts from Saturday.

With government guidelines on elite sports training published at about 3pm on Tuesday, the governing body of British tennis said it was unable to open its courts before clarifying the various safety protocols and measures and officials there hope to re-open on Thursday, following the nod from government.

Heather Watson, the British No 2, was among several professionals who had to cancel practice plans after failing to find a suitable venue at which to play.

Others were more fortunate, with the Northern Club in Didsbury, Manchester, welcoming Liam Broady, the British No 5, to train with his sister Naomi, a former top-100 player, while brothers Neal and Ken Skupski, who have both represented Great Britain in the Davis Cup, practised at Palmerston, their childhood club in Liverpool.

“We had 30 to 45 minutes on the court,” Neal Skupski told Stuart Frazer of The Times. “It was pretty much a light hit really because you don’t want to put too much into it after two months off.

“You don’t want to get injured straight away, so basically we just hit up and down the middle, a few volleys here and there, and just rolled the shoulder over with the serve. Nothing too strenuous.

“It’s obviously nice to get back on the court. It was tough not being able to play. I have basically been trying to keep the fitness levels up.

“The LTA sent me a load of [exercise] equipment and I’ve been doing Zoom video calls with Andy and Jamie [Murray], Jonny O’Mara and Aidan McHugh. It’s nice to get out there now as it’s been a while.”

As part of the guidelines for elite training, players who use the National Tennis Centre will have to receive temperature checks on arrival and any equipment used must be thoroughly cleaned, while some courts must be left vacant to ensure a safe distance.

Those who are fortunate to be members of the All England Club, such as the Murray brothers and Johanna Konta, will be able to use the facilities there over the weekend, although there will limited availability with only three outdoor courts, two hard and one clay, initially open across the 42-acre site.

“Access to further courts is dependent on the progress of this initial phase,” an AELTC spokeswoman said. “The safety of members and staff remains our highest priority.

“At all times, anyone on site will be asked to adhere to the government’s social distancing guidelines and the practice of public health advice for hygiene.”

Uncertainty surrounding a resumption of the international tours means there is nothing for the pros to target as yet, and there are no dates fixed for the mooted domestic competitions this summer, so some players are in no rush to get back onto court.

Jamie Murray is working on plans for a closed-doors tournament featuring the country’s top eight male players, while British coach Barry Fulcher is hoping to run a similar event for the women.

“It’s tough at the moment not knowing when we are able to get back competing, so we won’t go too mad and train every day,” Neal Skupski said.

“We will probably hit four or five times a week, trying to keep our eye in, and just wait to see what the ATP say about the schedule really.

“I think it is the Canadian Masters [in Toronto from 10 August] where we are meant to start off, but I can’t see anything happening [internationally] this year.”

Many clubs reported a steady flow of players on Wednesday without any issues, although the continuing closure of indoor clubhouses and services did mean present a problem for Annabel Croft, the former British No 1, in her first hit since March.

“Anyone know who can string rackets?” Croft tweeted. “Just broken all my strings and spoken to my stringer who is furloughed.”

Nicolas Mahut trained in Paris after lockdown ended on Monday

© Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, in France, players returned to the courts on Monday after having been in lockdown since 17 March, releasing Nicolas Mahut and others gingerly back into training.

“It feels good to play tennis again. Everyone had missed it; the players, the coaches,” Mahut said after his session trading shots of varying speed and accuracy with practice partner Grégoire Barrère at a training center near Roland Garros.

“The big risk is to get injured. We played leisurely for one hour and there are already a few pains.

“What’s different is that this isn’t even like an injury. Everyone’s had an injury, and been away from the circuit for five, six months. But this was a different feeling.

“We weren’t on holiday — far from it for all the people who were confined — and we weren’t injured. It was a really complex situation to deal with.”

It felt strange with the many new obligatory measures aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, such at not sitting down on a chair, using different balls than your opponent, and sliding on gloves to wipe down the net cord with disinfectant after the session.

“Hopefully we can quickly have some normal training conditions again,” Mahut said. “But you have to respect the rules … We’re already lucky enough to be back playing.

“You don’t lose the feeling with the racket, or very little. What’s really hard is serving, your feet are heavy. We’ll need to wait a while before reaching the highest level again.”

He hopes that will be at Roland Garros, a few hundred meters away in western Paris where the clay-court Grand Slam was due to start on 24 May but has been postponed until 20 September because of the virus.

“My optimistic side tells me that we will play at Roland Garros,” Mahut said. “But my more realistic side tells me it could be a very complicated season [with] no play at all.

“What’s for sure is that we can’t start playing again if there’s a risk of contamination,” Mahut added.

Wearing a blue face mask, Dr. Bernard Montalvan supervised the training session, helping to ease French players back into training, with Mahut and Barrère expected to be tested shortly for the virus.

“I can’t say when the vaccine will be ready, probably not for a long time,” Montalvan said. “We’ll see what the directives are, but I imagine professional tennis will resume before a vaccine is validated.”



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