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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Before US Open’s start, tennis is the last thing on most minds

The US Open, which begins on Monday, will be played entirely behind closed doors. It may not have as many big names competing this time, but the storylines are still intriguing.

Written by Shahid Judge | Mumbai | Updated: August 31, 2020 8:30:36 am
US Open players in action at the Western and Southern Open in New York. (Source: Reuters)

Amidst the raging Covid-19 pandemic, confusing quarantine rules, a bio-secure bubble, and the Black Lives Matter movement, ‘tennis’ is the last thing on people’s minds as the tour prepares for its first Grand Slam tournament since lockdown.

The US Open, which begins on Monday, will be played entirely behind closed doors. It may not have as many big names competing this time, but the storylines are still intriguing.

A rival players’ association

When the world no. 1 Novak Djokovic begins his campaign against Damir Dzumhur on Monday, it is expected that questions about the match will be a rarity during his post-match press conference. After all, a lot has been left hanging for the past few days.

Two days before the major, the Serb led the establishment of the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA).

In effect, it rivals the ATP Player Council – a group designated to look into the grievances of players and work with the governing body for solutions.

A total of 64 players attended a meeting at the Louis Armstrong Stadium on Saturday to form the PTPA, but the exact workings of the body are still unknown.

No doubt Djokovic will be expected to fill in the blanks, especially since the US Open will be the first event since the association came into existence.

Novak Djokovic, Novak Djokovic to skip US Open, Novak Djokovic on French open Both Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil have resigned the players council of the Association of Tennis Professionals. (Source: File)

“We don’t have answers to all the questions right now,” Djokovic said after beating Milos Raonic in the relocated Cincinnati Masters final.

“We don’t know yet who will be the people who will represent the players. We have a broad outline of what the association will look like. This is not a union. This is the players’ association. So, we are not calling for boycotts. We are not forming parallel tours.”

Djokovic had resigned from his position as president of the ATP Player Council days before forming the PTPA, which he will co-head for two years along with Canadian Vasek Pospisil.

The PTPA’s objective, as described in a statement, is “not to replace the ATP, but to provide players with a self-governance structure that is independent from the ATP and directly responsive to player-members’ needs and concerns.”

READ | Federer, Nadal object to Djokovic proposal for player union

Meanwhile, Djokovic’s biggest rivals on court, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, took a stand against the PTPA on Twitter.

“We all, players, tournaments and governing bodies have to work together. We have a bigger problem and separation and disunion is definitely not the solution,” Nadal wrote. A short while later, Federer and Nadal, along with four other members of the ATP Player Council, wrote a letter to all players asserting the ATP and a new body cannot co-exist, and also put down questions that the PTPA has not yet addressed, such as: “What happens if tournaments go against us?”; “What is the contingency plan to protect us if this goes ahead and badly?”; “Who is taking responsibility for any fallout with our careers, income and negativity?”

India’s highest-ranked singles and doubles players Sumit Nagal and Rohan Bopanna have also joined the PTPA. Former world no. 1 Andy Murray, however, refused, claiming that women players should also be part of it.

Will the bubble work?

The US Open is scheduled to begin August 31 without spectators and players like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Bianca Andreescu, and Ashleigh Barty. (Source: File)

With no fans allowed in the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre, the areas normally designated for fan activities have now been converted into entertainment centres for players. The activities include mini-golf, pool tables, PlayStation provisions, basketball courts, and several lounges.

The hospitality suites reserved for VIPs and guests at the Arthur Ashe Stadium have been converted into locker rooms to be used by the seeded singles players.

In addition to the entertainment and recreational arrangements in place, there is also an underlying fear of the coronavirus inside the bubble. And changes in quarantine rules have made the players a bit more antsy.

Days before the Cincinnati Masters (which was relocated to New York to set up the bubble), South American players Guido Pella and Hugo Dellien were forced to self-isolate and withdraw from the competition after their trainer Juan Manuel Galvan tested positive for Covid-19. The players themselves tested negative and were not sharing a room with Galvan, but were still forced to withdraw – which went against the rules they were told about before coming to the United States.

READ | US Open players bemoan the sound of silence

“My understanding (of the rules) was that if a team member tested positive, but you were not sharing a room with that team member, you would be allowed to play providing you were negative,” Murray had explained in a press conference.

“I think that’s what all of the players thought the rules were. So when (Pella and Dellien) were withdrawn from the tournament, the players were like, ‘that isn’t what we understood the rules to be’.”

According to Spanish newspaper Marca, Djokovic and other top players were considering boycotting the Masters event to protest the exclusion of Pella and Dellien – who have been in quarantine and not allowed to practise at Flushing Meadows ahead of the US Open.

The BLM Movement

osaka Naomi Osaka joined professional athletes in basketball, baseball, and football in demanding change after Jacob Blake was shot by police. (Source: File)

Tennis is considered a rich, white-dominated sport, and so far there has been no reported case of a player ‘taking the knee’ before or after a competitive match. But after several teams in the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer decided to suspend play to protest another case of police brutality against African-American Jacob Blake, Naomi Osaka announced that she will skip her Cincinnati semi-final.

“I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority- white sport I consider that a step in the right direction,” read a part of her statement. Her move led to the ATP, WTA and USTA taking an unusual step and cancelling an entire day’s play.

They also convinced Osaka to continue in the tournament. Though she won her semi-final against Elise Mertens, she pulled out of the final due to a more conventional reason – a hamstring strain.

Though not all players, especially non-Americans, are well-versed with the social movement, Osaka did receive a lot of support from her peers.

“A lot of us are from different parts of the world, but we come here to the US to play every year,” Raonic said. “I think probably a third of the big (tournaments) are here. We should do the right thing to protest this inequality and unfair, unjust behaviour.”

READ | Billie Jean King hails Osaka as sport’s latest torchbearer for change

On the other hand, former world no. 1 Victoria Azarenka refused to talk on the subject, though she resides in the US, and asked for only tennis-related questions. It was almost a plea.

“I want to talk about tennis, and I want to focus on my tennis. And then maybe when I’m ready to speak about what’s on my mind that has nothing to do with tennis, I will,” she said ahead of the final. But with all that has been going on in the tennis world, the sport is the last thing anybody wants to talk about.

Benoit Paire tests positive

French world no 22 Benoit Paire has tested positive for Coronavirus according to French newspaper L’Equipe on Sunday. The 17th seed at the US Open had retired from his opening match at the relocated Cincinnati Masters against Croatian Borna Coric.

He was scheduled to play Polish player Kamil Majchrzak in the first round at the major.

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