No let-up for tennis players in Covid bubble

PARIS • The Parisian lockdown is winding down. During the daylight hours, the streets of the French capital are alive for everyone to enjoy once more - except the world's best tennis players.

They get only an hour a day.

Tennis players at the French Open continue to exist in a state of high pandemic alert, forced to shuttle mostly between designated hotels and sites for competition or practice while the world jumps back to life around them.

"It is not the best situation," said Rafael Nadal, who wants to go out to dinner and enjoy a normal life.

"It is not possible today."

The situation remains somewhat precarious. On Wednesday night, tournament organisers announced that two men's doubles players had tested positive and been removed from the tournament.

During the French Open, players are allowed to be somewhere other than their hotels - Roland Garros, or a practice complex, but only for the 60 minutes that government and tournament officials have agreed on.

"I know, for some people, an hour outside may seem like a small detail, but at least for me it just means a lot to go out and get away from it," said Coco Gauff, the rising American teenage star.

The pandemic has created major obstacles for every professional sport. But because tennis players and the Tours switch cities and countries each week, the sport has been especially vulnerable.

When sports sprang back to life last summer, the big concern was figuring out how to keep athletes from becoming infected and then sidelining a team or forcing an entire tournament, perhaps even a league, to shut down.

Now the focus is on preventing players who travel the globe from infecting local communities.

"This is about finding a balance between allowing athletes into these places to compete and not upsetting current environments," said WTA chief Steve Simon.

The ATP Tour recently began offering antigen testing every two days and started to allow players who tested negative to leave their hotels for limited activities. But that can happen only if local officials agree to it.

For the players, the routine is getting old. Alexander Zverev of Germany said in April that he had reached a breaking point at a tournament in Rotterdam earlier this year, "freaking out" while confined to his hotel.

Russia's Daniil Medvedev said he had found life on the road confusing these days.

When he visited Moscow, he was free to go to nightclubs and restaurants. When the Tour moved to Florida for the Miami Open, players were confined to their hotels.

Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece was fined US$7,500 (S$10,000) for visiting a Whole Foods. Now the Tour is in Europe and each city has different guidelines, with some shut down during periods of the day.

It is not clear when this all will end. In Australia, where the sport is supposed to kick off its Grand Slam season next year with the Australian Open in January, Melbourne went back into a lockdown last week.

Tennis officials are already trying to negotiate a plan to hold the tournament without forcing players into a two-week quarantine.

Craig Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia, said he has pinned his hopes on significant increases in vaccinations in the coming months to ease local concerns about tennis bringing coronavirus cases to Australia.

After the French Open, the Tours shift to the grass-court season and Wimbledon.

London, which has endured months of lockdowns, is beginning to edge towards normalcy since a dramatic drop in infection rates that followed Britain's vaccination programme.

Yet once again, tennis players will largely be cloistered in their hotel rooms. Officials have threatened to disqualify players if they or a member of their support teams are caught violating the rules.

"I am obviously waiting for the week where all of this is going to disappear and none of that is going to be a part of our procedure and routine," Tsitsipas said.

"So really looking to the next couple of months. We might see things go back to normal and I'm waiting for that day."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2021, with the headline 'No let-up for tennis players in Covid bubble'. Subscribe