Two months have passed since the world of tennis came to a halt with the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells getting cancelled for the first time in its history. Since then no tournament has been played due to the COVID-19 pandemic with many questioning if or when the 2020 season will resume.
In light of the uncertainty, tennis federations around the world have taken matters into their own hands with a series of events being played in accordance with their laws regarding the pandemic. The Czech Republic, Germany, Austria and America are just some of those taking this approach. Meanwhile, in Rafael Nadal’s homeland of Spain, one prominent coach on the WTA Tour has plans for his own event.
Carlos Martinez is a familiar face in the world of women’s tennis. Under his guidance, he oversaw Svetlana Kuznetsova win two WTA titles during 2016 to qualify for the WTA Finals that year. In 2018 he coached Margarita Gasparyan to win the Tashkent Open whilst ranked 299th in the world. Now he is working alongside former top 10 player Daria Kasatkina.
Martinez is organising a 32-player event at the Club de Tenis Mollet on the outskirts of Barcelona. An academy located just over 20KM from the Real Club de Tennis Barcelona, which hosts the most prestigious men’s tournament in the city every year.
“The dates of the tournament will depend on when the tour will start but it will more or less be between the end of July and end August,” Martinez told Ubitennis.
“The format is the same as the normal situation with tournaments, but I will design four groups with eight players and they will all play against each other in the group. Then the first two players of each group will go straight to the main draw. Then they will play quarters, semis and final.”
The tournament is set to feature a field similar to what you might expect to see at a WTA International. Those interested in playing the women-only event includes Kasatkina, Carla Suarez Navarro, Kristina Mladenovic, Marie Bouzkova and Sara Errani. Other players have also expressed interest but their participation depends on travel restrictions. There will be no prize money available with funds instead going to local hospitals located near the venue.
Martinez, who was a former top 200 doubles player on the ATP Tour before switching to coaching, believes events like his are vital for those in the sport given the current situation. Professional tennis tournaments have been given the provision return date of July 13th, but it is speculated that this deadline could be extended over the coming weeks.
“This tournament will be very important for all players because all of them can play a minimum seven matches and maximum 10 so it is the best practice for all of them before the circuit will start again,” he explains.
“After some weeks of practice they need to compete again and the best way is to do it like this. Thinking about my player (Daria Kasatkina) is the best way for her after practicing for a long time.”
‘Kasatkina is a champion’
Fortunately for Martinez, he has been able to continue his work with Kasatkina as best as he can throughout the lockdown. The Russian is currently based in Barcelona and enjoyed a mixed start to 2020 by winning nine out of 16 matches played. Her best run occurred at Lyon Open where she reached the semi-finals. Lyon was one of the last tournaments to take place before the Tour shutdown.
“Daria is fortunately living in Barcelona and it helps a lot because she can come every day to my club and work hard as always,” Martinez said of the world No.66.
“I mix weeks by practicing and few days resting because like this she can come with more motivation. At this moment it is not easy for players to be motivated because they don’t know when they’re gonna play tournaments again. She shows me every day that she is a champion and very ambitious.”
Kasatkina has been ranked as high as 10th in the world back in 2018 and is also a two-time Grand Slam quarter-finalist. Reaching those milestones during the same year she broke into the top 10.
Undoubtedly the 23-year-old Russian will be a key attraction in the upcoming tournament. Martinez’s hope is that the event will not only benefit the players, but Spanish tennis fans as well. Last week the country’s most prestigious tournament in Madrid was meant to be played with uncertainty over its chances of taking place later this year. Meanwhile the upcoming Davis Cup Finals, which is held at the same venue, is also in serious doubt.
“I think that it is very important to organize these kinds of tournaments because it’s a very good opportunity to watch the best players in our country,” he said.
“All of them are travelling all season and it is very difficult for spectators to follow them. Also for the players it is very comfortable and brings them nice emotions where they played a long time ago (on the Tour).’
“But in the end the players like to play big events and travel around the world.”
Whilst Martinez’s event is full of intrigue and excitement, it is by no means a substitute for the WTA Tour. Something he hopes will be returning sooner rather than later.
“In my opinion they have to start as soon as the pandemic will be controlled. If it can be this season better, if not as soon as possible after pandemic,” Martinez concludes.
“All players are a bit nervous because they have no idea and that makes it more difficult.”
For now it is a waiting game to see when the sport will return. However, thanks to the likes of Martinez, officials are trying to fill the void whilst giving something back to society at the same time. Something that has to be commended.
Provisional list of players confirmed for the tournament
- Kristina Mladenovic FRA (No.42)
- Marie Bouzkova CZE (No.47)
- Jil Tiechman SWI (No.63)
- Daria Kasatkina RUS (No.66)
- Carla Suarez Navarro ESP (No.68)
- Arantxa Rus NED (No.70)
- Nina Stojanovic SRB (No.86)
- Sara Errani ITA (No.169)
EXCLUSIVE: Inside The Melbourne Bubble – ‘Top Names Get Preferential Treatment But That’s Part Of The Tour’
Marcelo Demoliner celebrated his birthday in quarantine, his doubles partner isn’t allowed to leave his room for 14 days and he believes there is a difference in treatment between the top players and others. Yet, he refuses to complain about the situation he finds himself in.
Like his peers, Brazil’s Marcelo Demoliner passes his time in Melbourne quarantine by training, sleeping, eating and posting amusing videos on social media.
Demoliner, who currently has a doubles ranking of world No.44, is required by Australian law to abide by a strict isolation period before he is allowed to play any professional tournament. Although he is allowed to train unless he is deemed to be a close contact of somebody who has tested positive for COVID-19. An unfortunate situation 72 players find themselves in, including Demoliner’s doubles partner Santiago Gonzalez
During an email exchange with UbiTennis the Brazilian sheds light on what he labels as an ‘usual experience’ that has prompted criticism from some players. Roberto Bautista Agut was caught on camera describing conditions as a ‘prison’ in a video leaked to the press. Although he has since apologised for his comments. Demonliner himself is not as critical as others.
“It is an unusual experience that we will remember for a long time,” he told UbiTennis. “It is a very complicated situation that we are going through. Obviously, it is not ideal for us athletes to be able to go out for just 5 hours a day, but mainly for the other 72 players who cannot go out, like my partner Santiago Gonzalez. They have a complicated situation of possibly getting injured after not practicing for 14 days, but it is what it is.’
“We need to understand and adapt to this situation considering Australia did a great job containing Covid.”
With three ATP doubles titles to his name, Demoliner is playing at the Australian Open for the sixth year in a row. He has played on the Tour for over a decade and has been ranked as high as 34th in the world.
Besides the players complaining about food, their rooms and even questioning the transparency of the rule making, Tennis Australia also encountered a slight blip regarding the scheduling of practice.
“I was a little lucky because I stayed in one of the hotels that we don’t need to take transportation to go to the training courts. It made the logistics issue much easier. The other two hotels had problems with transportation and logistics in the first two days, but I have nothing to complain about, honestly.”
Demoliner remains thankful for what Tennis Australia has managed to do in order for the Australian Open to be played. Quarantine can have a big impact on a person mentally, as well as physically. Each day players spend at least 19 hours in their hotel rooms which was no fun for the Brazilian who celebrated his 32nd birthday on Tuesday.
“Without a doubt, it is something we have never been through before. I’m luckily having 5 hours of training daily. I am managing to maintain my physical preparation and rhythm. It is not the ideal, of course, but I can’t even imagine the situation of other players who are in the more restricted quarantine.”
Priority given to the top names
As Demoliner resides in Melbourne, a selected handful of players are spending their time in Adelaide. Under a deal struck by Tennis Australia, officials have agreed for the top three players on the ATP and WTA Tour’s to be based in the city. The idea being is that it will relieve the strain on Melbourne who is hosting in the region of 1200 arrivals.
Craig Tiley, who is the head of Tennis Australia, has insisted that all players will have to follow the same rules wherever they are based. Although some feel that those in Adelaide have some extra privileges such as a private gym they can use outside of the five-hour training bubble. Japan’s Taro Daniel told the Herald Sun: “People in Adelaide are being able to hit with four people on court, so there’s some resentment towards that as well.” Daniel’s view is one echoed also by Demoliner.
“I do believe they are receiving preferential treatment, quite different from us. But this is part of the tour,” he said.
“The top tennis players always had these extras, we are kinda of used to it. We came here knowing that they would have better conditions for practicing, structure, hotels… they also have merits to have achieved all that they have to be the best players in the world. I don’t know if it’s fair, but I believe the conditions could be more similar than they are in this situation.”
Some players were recently bemused by a photo of Naomi Osaka that surfaced on social media before being removed. The reigning US Open champion was pictured on a court with four members of her team, which is more people than what those in Melbourne are allowed to train with.
As the Adelaide contingent continues their preparations, those most unhappy with them are likely to be the 72 players who are in strict quarantine. Demoliner is concerned about the elevated risk of injury that could occur due to the facts they are not allowed to leave their rooms. All players in this situation have been issued with gym equipment to use.
“I think that they will be at a considerable disadvantage compared to who can train. But we need to obey the law of the country, there is not much to do … until the 29th they will have to stay in the room and that is it,” he said.
“Whether it is fair or not, it is not up to me to say because I am not in this situation. The thing about having the other players who didn’t have contact with the positive cases to also stay in the rooms is the concern about the risk of injury, specially for singles players. It will be a tough challenge, especially at the beginning of the season.”
In recent days, officials have been holding video calls with players to discuss ways to address these concerns ahead of the Australian Open. Which will start a week after they are allowed to leave their rooms.
When the tournaments do get underway there are also questions about how the public will react to players who have made headlines across the country for their criticism of the quarantine process. A somewhat sore point for Australian’s with some nationals unable to return home due to the government restrictions. On top of that, people in Melbourne are concerned about a potential outbreak of COVID-19.
“It is a very complex situation. I fully understand the reaction of the Australian population considering the recent events… the effect that the players are bringing, the risks to the population,” Demoliner said of the current circumstances.
“We know this and obviously they are concerned with the whole situation, which is still very uncertain. On our side, though, they did allow us to come here to play. It is important to remember that the decision to welcome us was approved by the Australian Government, otherwise we would not be here.”
Demoliner is one of three Brazilian doubles players ranked to have a top 100 ranking on the ATP Tour along with Bruno Soares and Marcelo Melo.
EXCLUSIVE INVESTIGATION: Does Tennis Have A LGBT Inclusivity Problem?
Is it just a coincidence that there are no out players on the men’s Tour or is there a more significant reason that the sport needs to be aware of?
Tennis has an illustrious reputation when it comes to LGBT representation compared to some other sports.
Billie Jean King, who was first outed by the media in 1981, played an instrumental role in the formation of the WTA Tour and the campaign for equal pay highlighted by her infamous Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs. It was also during 1981 when Martina Navratilova came out as gay for the first time. Despite being one of the sports biggest stars, the multiple Grand Slam champion admits that she lost endorsement deals due to her sexuality. Nowadays the treatment and promotion of LGBT players have improved for the better, but does more need to be done?
In recent years tennis has dabbled in and out of the Rainbow Laces campaign with the British Lawn Tennis Association throwing their weight behind it. The initiative was created by LGBT charity Stonewall and initially marketed specifically towards football’s Premier League. The idea is to get players to wear rainbow laces in order to raise awareness of LGBT representation within sport. As for its effectiveness in combating homophobia, it is debatable.
“In the UK, sports teams have also been holding Rainbow Laces for the past seven years, yet homophobic language also remains common. Two-thirds of teenage football players and nearly half of male rugby players admit to recently using homophobic language with teammates (for example, fag), which is generally part of their banter and humour. At the amateur level, gay and bisexual males remain invisible,” Erik Denison from Monash’s Behavioural Sciences Research Laboratory wrote in a 2020 report.
“However, recent research suggests that refocusing the current Rainbow Laces campaign, which is underway, away from professional teams and strongly towards amateur sport settings could help fix these problems. We also need to change the education that is being delivered.”
It is important to take Denison’s conclusion with a pinch of salt as his assessment focused solely on team sports and not tennis. Inevitably, some of his findings might be also applicable to tennis, but it is unclear as to what extent.
If the rainbow laces approach does help the LGBT community to some degree and therefore any potential closeted player, should tennis bosses do more to promote it? UbiTennis has approached three governing bodies to generate their view with all of them saying they would be in favour of allowing players to participate.
“The work Premier League and Stonewall are doing to drive awareness around LGBT inclusion sets a great example, and we would absolutely support any ATP player that wishes to support such an initiative, or personally express themselves,” an ATP Spokesman told UbiTennis.
“We believe that tennis has an important role to play in promoting inclusivity in sport, and across wider society, and earlier this year Tennis United served as a platform for ATP to amplify voices around this important topic. The ATP has directed efforts for positive change across many causes via the ATP Aces For Charity programme, and we are currently reviewing our overall approach in this space.”
Unlike their female counterparts, there is currently no openly LGBT player on the ATP Tour and few historically. Bill Tilden, who won 10 Grand Slam titles throughout the 1920s, struggled with his sexuality during a time where gay sex was illegal and not accepted by society. More recently, America’s Brian Vahaly was a former top 100 player during the early 2000s, but chose to come out after retiring from the sport.
The WTA points out that they have been working with the ATP last season and addressed LGBT topics during their ‘Tennis United’ chat shows which was broadcast online.
“The WTA was founded on the principles of equality and opportunity, along with positivity and progress, and wholeheartedly supports and encourages players, staff, partners and fans’ commitment to LGBT+ initiatives,” a statement reads.
“The WTA supports tournament and Grand Slam LGBT+ projects both logistically and financially, amplifies our athletes’ voices on this topic through the Tour’s global platforms, and increased awareness by incorporating the LGBT+ spirit into our corporate identity in June across our digital platforms.
“Despite the challenges 2020 has presented, this year saw the WTA mark Pride month with a series of podcasts and web articles, interview guests on the WTA & ATP digital show Tennis United from the LGBT+ community, and through WTA Charities collaboration with You Can Play, offer equipment and financial donations and players participate in a virtual panel discussion.”
The International Tennis Federation is responsible for overseeing the running of the junior Tour, Davis Cup, Billie Jean King Cup (previously known as Fed Cup) and the Olympic Tennis tournament. A spokesperson said they would endorse any campaign which would support an equal playing field in the sport. Making reference to their Advantage All campaign which aims to ‘develop and maintain tennis as an equal advantage sport.’
“Tennis has a proud history of its athletes being at the forefront as advocates of positive social change, using their voice and platforms to raise awareness. We would be supportive of initiatives that reinforce the positive message that tennis is an equal advantage sport which is open to all,” UbiTennis was told.
EXCLUSIVE: How To Survive A Pandemic If You Work In Professional Tennis
Amid the heavy financial implications caused by COVID-19, UbiTennis looks at how two leading sports businesses have managed to survive over the past year.
At the start of 2020 it was business as usual for Sports communications agency The Emilia Group and their partnership with tennis. January saw them collaborate with one of the sports biggest events, the Australian Open, followed by the Thailand Open a month later. It was all going to plan until the COVID-19 pandemic not only slowed down their business but forced them to find a new direction.
Tennis has been one of the heaviest affected sports due to the virus with all professional tournaments being cancelled for months during 2020. Victims included Wimbledon, which hasn’t been cancelled since the Second World War. Across the globe, players were left without any earning opportunities and businesses working in the sport faced a bleak outlook.
“We lost eleven events, most of which were cancelled or postponed in the space of a few weeks in March and April, including major events like the Olympic Games and Wimbledon,” Emilia Group director Eleanor Preston said during an interview.
“We’re a small business and in a matter of a month or so we went from being on course to having one of our most successful years since we started the company ten years ago to having our most challenging year by far.”
Over the past decade, Preston and co-director Faye Andrews have managed to establish The Emilia Group as one of the prominent businesses within the sports directory, the International Tennis Federation, two Grand Slam tournaments and an array of events in Asia have been just some of their clients in recent time. Still, their resume was not enough to shield them from COVID-19 with the company losing an estimated £110,000 in potential or confirmed business last year due to the pandemic.
On the other hand, other companies have had a different experience. LiveWire Sport is a BAFTA-winning content agency who have constructed some of Wimbledon’s most popular videos such as the ‘we cheer for them’ video which was narrated by Roger Federer.
“Working in the digital space meant that actually our ability to do our work was not affected hugely, and demand for the kind of services we offer was still high – albeit many of our clients had to balance up the decrease in revenue from live events with the desire to find a way to still engage with sports fans on a global scale and of course to deliver value for their commercial partners, often via social and digital,” Livewire Director and Co-Founder, Caroline Cheese, said.
“We worked with our existing clients to build campaigns to maintain fan engagement, whether that be via esports and gaming, or maximising archive.”
A change in tactics
Like other industries, diversification was the key for survival. Joining most of the population, The Emilia Group got on board with the use of online video chat platforms by launching their own ‘media lounge’ via Zoom. Their goal was to keep the tennis community together while there was no sport happening. Not only was the idea a success with the Tiebreak Tens group backing them, it is now something they intend to do for the foreseeable future.
“They proved to be really popular because people were really missing the informal interaction that you get at events – the chats in the coffee or the sandwich queue, the laughs and the gossip. We wanted to recreate some of that, albeit virtually,” Preston explains.
“It’s something that we plan to keep doing because we could see journalists having to cover events remotely for a while to come.
“I was a tennis journalist on the Tour before doing this job so I’ve spent a lot of the last twenty years travelling and packing or unpacking a suitcase. Tennis is a travelling circus and I love it but it’s also been nice to slow down and step away from it for a while and remember that tennis isn’t everything.”
For LiveWire the timing of the pandemic was ironically advantageous for the launch of a brand new app they have been developing. Its aim is to try and generate content from athletes quicker than before which plays into the hands of the COVID-19 restrictions with those taking part being encouraged to do so from home.
“The LiveWire Studio app is designed to get high quality video from athletes, ambassadors and fans to video editors as quickly as possible. Its launch proved timely, with many sports organisations looking for a way to film content remotely and to harness the power of user-generated content,” Cheese explained about the project.
Adapting was another key element for their survival with The Emilia Group receiving a reprieve from the Lawn Tennis Association. With professional events halted last summer, the LTA launched their own series of events for British players.
Their task was to help with the promotion of The Progress Tour which featured a female-only line-up.
“Faye was on-site for that and the tournament itself was very successful. Those early events were so important for showing how tennis could adapt to the pandemic and still host competitions in a safe way,” Preston points out.
Undoubtedly there is light at the end of the tunnel after what has been a turbulent year. Although the clouds of uncertainty are not going away just yet, Tennis’ return date in 2021 was thrown into chaos due to a plan allowing players to enter Australia in December being ruled against by the government. They will now be arriving from January 14th onwards. Besides questions being raised over the Australian Open, there are also fears even more of the smaller events could be chopped as a consequence in the coming months.
Preston is refusing to reach the point of despair as she aims to recover some of the revenue her company lost, like many around the world she hopes the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines will help aid the recovery more rapidly when it officially comes into effect.
“There’s reason to be optimistic beyond that because even if the vaccines are rolled out more slowly than we are all hoping, the industry and the Tours have done a great job of adapting and showing that tennis can carry on in a safe and manageable way,” she said.
“I think we’ve all learned that there are different ways of doing things and that can be a good thing because it’s our job to make sure that we keep improving the service we deliver.”
Cheese is also optimistic but admits to having concerns about the long-term impact the pandemic could have on the foundations of sports such as tennis.
“The fact that we have weathered the storm so far means I think we remain confident about the future. My main concern is for the smaller sports, events, leagues and clubs, as well as for the long-term impact of the pause in grassroots sport,” she said.
The financial impact of COVID-19 on tennis has been widespread. In Britain, the LTA has seen an estimated 40% fall in income which is roughly £30 million. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic this year’s US Open took place despite a 80% drop in revenue compared to 12 months prior.
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