Five months since the last professional tennis tournament took place, the task of restarting the WTA Tour relies on a tournament taking place on the Italian island of Sicily.
The Palermo Open officially marks the return of WTA tennis following its lengthy suspension due to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. All eyes will be placed upon the event which has already experienced its fair share of obstacles. Wimbledon champion Simona Halep withdrew due to ‘travelling anxiety’ despite being assured that she will be exempt from quarantine rules. On top of that, a player in the qualifying draw pulled out after testing positive for the Coronavirus over the weekend. These scenarios are the ones set to become the new normal for the rest of the year at least.
Overseeing events taking place this week is long-time tournament director Oliviero Palma, who admits that ‘everything is different’ in 2020. Due to the current climate, the number of people allowed to enter the 1500-capacity centre court has been slashed to 350 and the prize money pot has been cut by $27,500. Nevertheless, the 31st edition of the tournament boasts a strong field with every seed being in the world’s top 30. Croatia’s Petra Martic is the highest ranked at 15th.
“The first tournament after the suspension is more concerned with the safety aspect firstly. Sport comes after,” Palma told ubitennis.net. “Even though we had little time, we are being able to control and foresee all kinds of situations.’
“The world has been waiting for the first tournament post- Covid with the public and to understand whether we can go back to normal, although with all due precautions.’
“Previous tasks do not count now, this is not the 31st Palermo Ladies Open, this is the first tournament after lockdown. Everything is different.”
Even with balls being hit on the courts at the Country Time Club, which is the venue of the Palermo Open, it is evident that there is a lot of uncertainty in the air. Within the past two weeks all events in China have been scrapped, Japan has lost its premier women’s event and the Madrid Open is on the brink of being cancelled. Meanwhile, in Italy the country’s biggest tournament in Rome scheduled for September has been warned not to welcome fans to the event.
Given the circumstances, the fact Palermo is happening at all is an achievement in itself. Palma says his event has been able to go ahead due to a lower number of cases of COVID-19 and what he describes as ‘faith’ from the local government.
“The Sicilian government had and has faith in the 31st Palermo Ladies Open and opened the Centre Court to a limited number of spectators, exactly to test this opportunity. I’m so concentrated on my tournament I haven’t had the possibility to follow Internazionali d’italia,” he said.
Thousands of euros will be lost
Palma doesn’t sugarcoat the fact his event isn’t taking place without a significant economic hit. In a recent interview with Reuters he said the event will ‘bear losses’ in order for the Tour to start again. But how significant will these losses be?
“This is an act of love for tennis. We didn’t look at the balance sheet, this year,” he explains to UbiTennis.
“Our marketing experts explained to us that we will have to evaluate the revenues over this and the next year. Losses, however, are estimated to be around 50,000 euros.”
Instead of dwelling on the financial turmoil that many other tennis tournaments are also facing, Palma and his team hope to lead the way when it comes to their COVID-19 testing. Players undergo two types of tests called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and Serological.
“Thanks to the strictness of protocols, we successfully intercepted a positive case,” Palma said in reference to Saturday’s announcement.
“The protocol dictates that players arrive in Palermo having already undergone (about 4 days before) a PCR test. As soon as they arrive, they do a serologic and a PCR test. They then go to their hotel room, which they can’t leave until we have the test result, normally within12 hours. As she receives the negative result, she leaves isolation, receives the badge and can start training.”
The player who reportedly tested positive was Bulgaria’s Viktoriya Tomova who did not show any symptoms at the time. Tomova was the only player to withdraw from qualifying due to ‘illness’ but there has been no official confirmation.
Tomova highlights the complexities faced by players and tournaments with guidelines being constantly updated. For example, in an interview by The Hindustan Times on July 29th quoted Palma saying that players could ‘have a tour of the city if they wish to, since the virus is barely circulating.’ However, since the interview his view on this matter has somewhat changed.
“WTA protocols do not encourage tourism or city tours; on the contrary, they are highly discouraged,” Palma points out.
Whatever happens this week, Palermo will forever remain the event which kick-started the world of tennis during the troublesome COVID-19 pandemic. As other tournaments start to disappear, the WTA and ATP have a lot of space to fill during the final quarter of this season. So what about having a second Palermo Open or an equivalent in the region later this year?
“Why not! We would only need to see the conditions,” Palma concluded.
No Change To Olympic Qualifying Criteria Despite Updated ATP Ranking System
UbiTennis also finds out why women can take part in the Olympics at a younger age than men!
The International Tennis Federation has confirmed to UbiTennis that the qualifying criteria for the Olympic Games will not be adjusted following a recent announcement from the governing body of the men’s Tour.
Earlier in the week the ATP announced that they will be using their revised ranking system until the week of August 9th to support players during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the rules a player’s position will take into account tournaments played between March 4 – August 5th 2019. The reason is because all of those events did not take place in 2020 due to the pandemic. Although the ‘Best of’ period from 2019 will only be counted at 50% until 2022. For example, Roger Federer won 1000 points at the 2019 Miami Open and can therefore keep 500 points even though he is not playing the event this year. Furthermore, the same tournament can’t be used twice in the calculations so players will keep either 50% of points from what they earned in 2019 or the full value of this year depending on which one is the highest.
Whilst the move has been made to support those during the pandemic, some critics have argued that it could have a negative impact on players trying to climb the rankings. It is possible that a player who has won a series of matches in recent weeks may not be able to overtake somebody who produced a strong run of results 12 months or so ago.
One event this could affect is the Olympic Games which partly determine a player’s entry based on their rankings, as well as other factors. Although the International Tennis Federation confirms that they will not be making any changes to their system.
“The ITF has no plans to change its current Olympic Qualification System which has been approved by the IOC for the Olympic Tennis Event,” a spokesperson told UbiTennis. “Tour Rankings only form one element of the entry and eligibility requirements for the Olympic Games and have been updated to provide for the disruption to the tournament calendar caused by the pandemic.”
The only adjustment that has been made is that if a player hasn’t met the minimum entry criteria regarding Davis Cup or Fed Cup ties. If any ties they were set to play in was cancelled due to issues related to COVID-19 is classed as a ‘special circumstance.’
One confusing part of the criteria is the minimum age of eligibility. Despite tennis being one of the top sports for equality the rules state that WTA players are eligible to play the games if they have reached the age of 14 by the opening day of the Olympic Tennis event. This is a year younger than their male counterparts.
“These ages have been determined in consultation with the ATP and WTA, respectively,” the ITF explained.
“Age eligibility is an extremely important topic. The WTA has done much research in this area and have an established policy determined by data.”
The Olympic Tennis event will start on July 24th.
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.
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