What survived? Who'll play? Five takeaways from tennis' reopening day

What survived? Who'll play? Five takeaways from tennis' reopening day

The 2020 tennis season is back on, and jam-packed. What went away? How real will the Slams feel?

In the space of 24 hours, we’ve gone from no tennis to…all the tennis. At the same time that the US Open was holding a press conference on Wednesday to declare that the tournament will go on as scheduled (or nearly as scheduled), the ATP and WTA laid out their revised 2020 calendars. It was typical tennis overkill. But after three months with no play at all, I’ll take too much of the sport over too little.

There’s a lot for a fan to be excited about, or at least hopeful for. Madrid, Rome, the Citi Open, the Western and Southern Open, the US Open, the French Open: All of these events that were postponed, or that once seemed destined to be cancelled, have been resurrected. September, which will have two Masters 1000 events bracketed by two Grand Slam events, promises to be a head-spinning month.

Is it an overreach? Players who are desperate to make money again will welcome the sport’s return. The big names, on the other hand, may feel like they’re being unnecessarily put in harm’s way. Only the virus knows what will happen next, and right now its signals are mixed. New York, which will host the Western and Southern Open and the US Open, has experienced a dramatic decline in cases. At the same time, the persistence of the virus elsewhere shows that the crisis is obviously not over. By August, when tennis returns, the situation will almost certainly look different than it does now. We can only hope it’s better, rather than worse.

Here are five takeaways from tennis’s reopening day.

1. The US Open loosens up

The Open has a new tournament director, former WTA chief Stacey Allaster, and she seems to have heard the top player’s complaints about the strict protocols that were floated last week. Today some of them were eased.

Players can now travel to New York on their own. Entourages will be allowed outside the grounds, and three people can accompany the players inside the grounds. Private houses, along with hotel rooms, will be available outside of Manhattan, complete with a realtor to help the players negotiate the New York real estate market (have fun). Prize money will only fall eight percent, despite a potential 80 percent drop in tournament revenue. And while the qualifying, juniors and mixed doubles tournaments have been cancelled, and the doubles draws have been reduced, the Open is setting aside $6.6 million for lower-ranked players to help make up for it.

Jen Pottheiser/USTA

We’ll see whether that’s enough to entice high-profile fence-sitters like Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Simona Halep to cross the Atlantic. Halep left the door open a little wider today than she had before, and it’s hard to envision a Grand Slam tournament right now without Djokovic. Fortunately, we don’t have to envision one without Serena Williams, who announced that she’ll be playing the Open. And practicing for it, too.

“I can confirm,” Allaster said today, “that the surface provided by Laykold for the US Open and Western & Southern Open was shipped to Serena’s house. She has a new court in her backyard, so she has been training.”

Now that’s player friendly.

2. Tennis won’t return to the heartland

The men’s schedule begins with the Citi Open on August 14. As Australia's John Millman has pointed out, this is an odd way to start, because only then do the players enter the so-called coronavirus bubble at Flushing Meadows. 

As for the rest of the U.S. summer circuit, Winston-Salem and the Rogers Cup events in Toronto and Montreal have been cancelled, and the Western & Southern Open, which is owned by the USTA, will be played at Flushing Meadows just before the Open, rather than in Mason, Ohio. Nothing about the new tennis schedule is ideal, but losing Canada and Cincy, and summer-vacation vibe they exude, may hurt the most. 

3. Roland Garros sits pretty

Is there a French equivalent to the phrase, “You snooze, you lose”? This could be Roland Garros’ official slogan at the moment. When the coronavirus hit, the tournament didn’t waste any time shifting its dates from the end of May to the end of September, and unilaterally claiming two weeks on the calendar as its own, tour events be damned. Since then, nothing has come along to uproot it; on the contrary, the tours have followed RG’s lead and moved their two big clay tune-up tournaments, in Madrid and Rome, to September. Now, unlike the US Open, Roland Garros can count on Nadal’s presence, and likely Djokovic’s; it will be able to stage a qualifying event; and there may be even be fans in its seats.

4. The WTA returns to Asia

While the ATP’s official schedule ends with Roland Garros, the WTA has detailed its plans through November. The fall Asian circuit, which seemed sure to be cancelled a few months ago, is on. In fact, it makes up a bigger percentage of the women’s calendar than ever. The WTA starts back up in Seoul even before Roland Garros is over, and continues through November 23. The season will be three weeks longer than originally planned, and the putative year-end finals in Shenzhen will be followed by two tournaments, in Zhuhai and Guangzhou.

Getty Images

5. So…can we call this is a real season?

With the return of the 2020 calendar, and in particular the presence of the US Open and Roland Garros on it, we confront a new set of questions. Namely, should those Slams count as Slams? Should they go on the winners’ records like any other major, or should they—officially or unofficially—come with asterisks?

We can start by admitting that neither of these events will be normal. Roland Garros won’t be played at its usual time. Arenas will be empty, or nearly empty. And several top players may skip the US Open.

How seriously we end up taking the Open may depend on how many big names enter. In 1973, 80 prominent men boycotted Wimbledon. Jan Kodes won the tournament, and while there’s no asterisk next to his name, we all recognize that it was “the boycott year.” But I’m guessing that won’t happen to the Open this time. Serena’s presence alone legitimates the women’s draw, and the presence of either Djokovic or Nadal would do the same for the men’s.

Whoever is there, you’ll be watching, won’t you? For now, the prospect of live Grand Slam tennis is enough for me.