As the tennis world turns back to watching matches, I’ve been thinking back on the past 5 months, and it’s hard to believe that so much, and so little has happened in this time. The COVID-19 pandemic hit just as players were heading to Indian Wells, or, in many cases, had already arrived in the California desert only to find themselves stranded there with no tennis to be played. Remember when we were waiting it out? Thinking that maybe they would play Miami, that life might return to normal by April? Or May? Or June? Unbelievable.
The early days of the pandemic had an almost pioneer spirit, with players, media, coaches and just about everyone else finding a forum on Instagram Live, but as the public health and economic disruptions continued, things took a more serious turn, which became even more pressing as people all over the world grappled with the centuries old problem of racial injustice, brought to the broader public consciousness by the murder of George Floyd.
As is typical in our age, there’s been a lot of humor, and a lot of controversy. Here are my grades for some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the stoppage period.
Coco Gauff, Francis Tiafoe, Naomi Osaka: as the young conscience of the sport. This trio of young superstars aren’t the first tennis players to take up the mantle of fighting racism and racial injustice. But in a sport where many players are hesitant to risk offending fans, sponsors, and colleagues with strong stances, these three distinguished themselves in advocating for Black Lives Matter and pushing their colleagues to do the same.
Wimbledon: Of course the tournament that does everything just so would be one of the few events anywhere in any sport to actually have pandemic insurance. But what made this even better is that Wimbledon shared the wealth, paying out approximately $12 million in prize money to players who qualified for the 2020 Championships and donating some of those famous strawberries to front line NHS workers.
Nadal + Instagram Live: Seeing Rafa struggle with Instagram Live while talking with a similarly technologically challenged Roger Federer as well as Andy Murray was one of the first real laughs I got from tennis during the pandemic. There’s something so perfectly earnest about Rafa talking about his efforts to try to stay fit, admitting he hadn’t played tennis for weeks, and his own struggles with staying positive during the pandemic. And then watching the gigglefest that was the Fedal chat, the good natured teasing from Murray, and the down to earth conversation with Marc Lopez was a welcome respite during the tough early days of the pandemic.
Grigor Dimitrov: Grigor started this period showing off his abs to Coach Venus, but it took real bravery for him to come forward as the first player to publicly reveal that he had tested positive for COVID-19 while playing on the Adria Tour. His explanation of the obligation he felt towards anyone who could have possibly come in contact with him is a great example of the kind of leadership tennis needs to keep players and everyone around them safe. While he faced criticism early, ultimately, by coming forward, Grigor’s experience helped to force subsequent events to take safety and public health precautions very seriously.
Coach Venus: Whether it was the weekly dance workouts, or bringing Grigor’s abs to her loyal viewers, or cleaning in her bathing suit, or working out with champagne bottles as weights, or real talk with Victoria Azarenka, Venus Williams brought her unique brand of humor, inspiration, commitment, and fun to Instagram Live. Long may she continue.
Nick Kyrgios: It wouldn’t be a day that ends in “Y” if Nick Kyrgios weren’t inspiring hot takes. But his candor and willingness to take on his colleagues when it came to pandemic behavior was a refreshing use of his loose cannon ways. While Nick’s on court behavior has merited some of the critiques he has gotten, his willingness to call out the lack of social distancing among his colleagues was welcome at a time when such lapses had real life consequences to the health of the players and those who came in contact with them. Also, anyone who can use doughnut and potato as their chosen insults deserves a bit of praise.
ATP-WTA Merger: What started with such promise with a reveal by tweet by Roger Federer with an assist from Rafa Nadal soon revealed itself to be not entirely well thought out, and then the ATP tour’s COVID-19 woes, especially the Adria Tour outbreak and aftermath, overshadowed the conversation. Tennis is at its best when both tours work towards a common purpose, but as the tours try to reboot, it’s hard to imagine this deal moving beyond the brainstorming stage anytime soon.
Novak Djokovic: There really isn’t anything to say that hasn’t been said. Sometimes the willingness to zig where everyone else zags is the difference that makes a champion. Novak’s approach to diet, mental preparation, and fitness has not only transformed him from a very good player to an all time great, but has revolutionized the sport. His willingness to listen to unique voices has been an important part of his success. However, pandemics prioritize higher odds, group choices — like vaccines and social distancing — over higher risk individual ones. But his desire to bring tennis to the Balkans and to provide a venue for others to get to compete came from a good place. And the lessons learned from the Adria Tour will likely have a positive impact on other sporting events going forward.
Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem: From Zverev’s post-Adria Tour partying, to Thiem’s opposition to the player relief fund because he believes some lower ranked players don’t work hard enough to deserve help, it’s been a tough spring for the two players most frequently touted as the future of the sport. It’ll be interesting to see whether any of those lower ranked players find any special motivation from those remarks.
John Isner: One Word: Coronabros