Tennis players are independent contractors. They do not receive salaries, and they do not have a union. The sport includes some of the richest athletes in the world: Roger Federer topped the list of the highest-paid male athletes last year, and Naomi Osaka was the highest paid of all women, just above Serena Williams. The sport also includes many players who struggle to cover their own travel expenses.
Tennis is not particularly cohesive at the organizational level, either, as the coronavirus pandemic has awkwardly illuminated. There is no commissioner who can solicit feedback and put forth a comprehensive plan for returning to action. There is no league office. The International Tennis Federation, nominally tennis’s governing body, has limited power. The Association of Tennis Professionals oversees only the men’s tour—it is entirely separate from the Women’s Tennis Association. The two organizations have different schedules, budgets, rankings systems, broadcast rights, and sponsors. Within those two tours, each tournament is at least to some extent its own entity, and each Grand Slam is fully independent. There are also circuits for lower-ranked players: the Challenger Tour for men, the 125K series for women, an independent World Tennis Tour for both, Futures matches, and so on. Then there is a vast and somewhat murky ecosystem of exhibition events. Even the journalists reporting on the game are largely far-flung freelancers—one of the sport’s most well-connected chroniclers, Reem Abulleil, told me that she spends about half the year on the road, paying her own way. In many respects, professional tennis doesn’t resemble something like the N.B.A. so much as it resembles a federation of, say, fifty or so states with separate governments and a reigning ethos of individualism.
The week before Grigor Dimitrov tested positive for the coronavirus, the United States Tennis Association issued a press release: the U.S. Open would be played on its regularly scheduled dates, in August, in the usual place—Queens, New York—though without fans. The Western & Southern Open would be moved from Mason, Ohio, to Queens and would be played just beforehand. A huge proportion of the revenue from tennis tournaments comes from gate receipts and on-site sponsorship, which would not be recovered, but the U.S.T.A., which hosts the tournament, could at least hold onto the broadcast money. It had already laid off more than a hundred employees. There had been talk, early on, that the tours wouldn’t come back until every eligible player could come without restriction and feel safe. Then it became clear that normal life was not resuming any time soon, and that, if they waited, there might not be tours to come back to. “We have to try to provide income opportunities for our athletes, our tournaments, to keep them viable,” Steve Simon, the C.E.O. of the W.T.A., told Abulleil.
On June 23rd, the U.S.T.A. held a virtual press conference, with reporters beamed in via Zoom. It began with a video of Serena Williams in her kitchen. “I really cannot wait to return to New York and play the U.S. Open 2020,” she said, a blender visible over her shoulder. “I feel like the U.S.T.A. is going to do a really good job of insuring everything is amazing and everything is perfect and everyone is safe. It’s going to be exciting.”
Safe, hopefully; different, without question. After the video, the chief medical officer of the U.S.T.A. joined a handful of other officials on stage to explain the plan in an otherwise empty Arthur Ashe Stadium, which, two months before, had been being used as a field hospital. In an effort to keep the bubble smaller, there would be no media, other than skeletal television crews. There would be no qualifying tournament, through which lower-ranked players ordinarily earn spots in the main draw, and there would be no mixed doubles, no juniors tournaments, no wheelchair tennis. The doubles field was reduced. Each competitor in the Open would be allowed to bring three additional people to the site. (An earlier proposal limited them to one companion each, but several top players, used to travelling with entourages, objected.) There would be regular testing for the coronavirus, and they had protocols in place, the officials said, for dealing with positive tests.
Not everyone was happy. “For me, A SLAM ISN’T A SLAM WITHOUT QUALIFYING, DOUBLES, AND MIXED DOUBLES,” Gaby Dabrowski, a doubles champion from Canada, tweeted. “It leaves a bad taste in my mouth when so many players are against this event moving forward, and yet it is moving forward anyway. . . . Something just doesn’t feel right here.” Many wheelchair athletes, and their fans, were furious—and managed to get the wheelchair tournament reinstated. Some higher-ranked players remained displeased about the restrictions to the size of their support teams. During a conference call with U.S.T.A. officials, one player suggested that participants should receive higher prize money, as a kind of hazard pay. The suggestion was not warmly received.
There was also the question of enforcement. At the press conference, Ben Rothenberg, a freelancer who writes frequently for the Times, asked whether there would be consequences for breaking the rules. “I think as we all are returning to work, we all have a responsibility to ourselves, to our families, to our fellow co-workers,” Stacey Allaster, the tournament’s director, said. She added, “I have a lot of confidence in these professional athletes.” She seemed to be saying that no, there would not be consequences, other than possibly contracting the virus.
It was, at that point, unclear who besides Serena Williams was coming. Federer was out for the year, with knee surgery. Djokovic was expected to play, but the status of Nadal, the defending champion, was in doubt, in part because his signature event, the French Open, had already announced—apparently without consulting the rest of the tennis world—that it was jumping from its normal position on the calendar, in late May, to late September. (Wimbledon, which had insurance that extended to cancellation in the case of a pandemic, was simply called off.) This made it uncertain whether players who went deep in the U.S. Open would be able to compete in the French shortly afterward. After flying from New York to Paris, would they be required to quarantine? The status of the No. 1 woman, Ashleigh Barty, was also doubtful. Would she want to travel all the way from Australia, a place where the virus is largely under control, to a country where it is not?
The A.T.P. tour had been set to resume with the Citi Open, in Washington, D.C., in August. But, in July, it was cancelled, because no one was sure whether players would be able to come and go without quarantining. It began to seem like the most plausible future for tennis, at least in the short term, was a patchwork regional one. Patrick Mouratoglou, best known as Serena Williams’s coach, had launched a tournament called the Ultimate Tennis Showdown, at his academy in the south of France, with an experimental scoring format and a relaxed code of conduct. (Think racquet smashes.) Czech players have competed in Prague; Thiem hosted an event in the Austrian resort town of Kitzbühel. Tennis Australia has planned a number of events for local players. Sixteen women, including the most recent Grand Slam champion, Sofia Kenin, competed on teams dubbed Kindness and Peace in a tournament in Charleston, South Carolina, that was broadcast on the Tennis Channel. In the U.K., Jamie Murray, a top doubles specialist, organized a contest for national supremacy that included his brother, Andy, who had been out for most of the year with a hip injury. (Dan Evans, the current British No. 1, validated his ranking by taking the title.) Competitive exhibitions, many of them streamed on ESPN3, have been played in Florida, featuring top-one-hundred players. In Atlanta, the Americans John Isner, Sam Querrey, and Frances Tiafoe headlined an event with a limited number of fans and recommended-but-optional mask-wearing; Tiafoe withdrew after testing positive for COVID-19. (The event went on.) World Team Tennis tried a bubble of sorts in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, with a stocked field that included Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters. Partway through, Danielle Collins was dismissed for driving to Charlottesville to buy health supplements, but no one tested positive. The final was on national television, and tight to the last point. After the winning team clinched, the players swarmed into a group hug.
Though the coronavirus laid bare the stark divides in tennis, it also presented an opportunity to help bridge them. In April, Djokvoic revealed a plan he’d been working on with Federer and Nadal which called on the top hundred players in singles and the top twenty in doubles to make contributions on a sliding scale to a Player Relief Fund. Those inside the Top 5 would put in thirty thousand each, followed by twenty thousand for players ranked six to ten, and so on; the A.T.P. would add about a million, and the four slams would each donate five hundred thousand, to bring the fund to four million dollars. Players ranked between two-fifty and five hundred would each receive ten thousand dollars. Many people lauded the idea, but not everyone was happy. “None of the players are starving,” Thiem told an Austrian newspaper. The top hundred, Thiem said, “all had to fight our way up the rankings. I’ve seen players on the I.T.F. Tour who don’t a hundred-per-cent commit to the sport. Many are quite unprofessional. I don’t see why I should give them money.” Inès Ibbou, a young Algerian player who is ranked No. 620 in the world, filmed a response to Thiem, explaining what she has had to overcome in order to pursue her career, and posted it on Instagram; in the comments, Venus Williams called Ibbou “my hero.”