(REUTERS) - A handful of prominent late withdrawals may have taken some of the sheen off the Palermo Ladies Open but the importance of the clay-court event is not lost on the sport as it marks the return of professional tennis on Monday (Aug 3) after the Covid-19 shutdown.
Plenty of exhibition events have taken place across the world since the sport was abruptly halted in early March but the women's tournament in the Sicilian capital will be the first across both the elite WTA and ATP tours in five months.
Later on Saturday (Aug 1), the WTA said the event will continue as planned even though a player set to participate has tested positive for Covid-19.
The WTA did not name the player but said she had pulled out and all those who may have been in close contact with her were being tested.
“A player has tested positive for Covid-19 at the 31st Palermo Ladies Open and has subsequently withdrawn from the tournament. The player is asymptomatic,” the WTA said in a statement.
“Following this information, the WTA, in coordination with the Tournament Infection Control Officer and along with its medical advisers and infectious disease specialist from the Mayo Clinic, immediately put its Covid-19 response plan into action.
“Any individual who tests positive will remain in isolation until cleared by a physician per the established protocols, and will receive proper medical treatment.”
The organisers had earlier said that two players tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies, adding they returned negative results when they underwent a polymerase chain reaction test currently being used to detect the virus.
WTA chief Steve Simon recently told Reuters that he hoped Palermo would provide a blueprint for tournament operations for the rest of 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The WTA International-level event would usually attract only a modest field but its initial entry list boasted a host of players in the top 20, including twice Grand Slam champion Simona Halep of Romania.
World No. 2 Halep has since withdrawn from the tournament owing to concerns over international travel amid the coronavirus pandemic as has Britain's Johanna Konta, who will be focusing on hard-court events in the United States.
Croatia's Petra Martic will be the highest-ranked player at 15th with Czech Marketa Vondrousova and Maria Sakkari of Greece being the other top 20 players in the field.
The event has put in place strict health protocols with everyone having to undergo Covid-19 tests before they come to the tournament as well as on arrival and then every four days.
During the event players have to handle their own towels and there will be a smaller team of ball kids and line officials but a limited number of spectators are allowed in the stands.
"We are happy to play in front of the public, even though in a drastically reduced number due to Covid-19 prevention measures," tournament director Oliviero Palma said, adding that only a few tickets remained unsold.
"Now more than ever, we could have filled a 5,000-spectator stadium."
Palma has said that the event, which will have a reduced prize pot of US$202,250 (about S$278,000) due to financial constraints, will run losses but his responsibility was to prove that professional tennis can resume safely.