As golf & tennis reckon with COVID, Charleston is a blueprint for hope

As golf & tennis reckon with COVID, Charleston is a blueprint for hope

With a sizable field at a large venue featuring singles and doubles, the Credit One Bank Invitational is an ambitious event in the new normal—and perhaps a peek into the sport's future.

On a week that the PGA Tour is dealing with positive coronavirus tests and big-name withdrawals, the same week that the Novak Djokovic-led Adria Tour exploded in the sport’s face, the same week that COVID-19 cases have reached their highest daily levels in the United States since April, tennis is being showcased as close to pre-pandemic levels as is reasonably possible.

Considering the wave of pessimism around the sports world, the timing of the Credit One Bank Invitational may not be ideal. But if the event goes without a hitch, it can be cause for much-needed celebration. A socially responsible way to conduct professional tennis—which, until the Adria Tour fiasco, seems possible—could also serve a blueprint for tour-level tournaments, including the US Open.

Like the outcome of the team competition itself, it will all come down to the players.

“It’s going to be on the players to stay safe,” says Bob Moran, tournament director of the Credit One Bank Invitational in Charleston, S.C.—a state whose coronavirus cases have spiked over the past two weeks. “We’re going to provide the vehicle to do it, but they’ve got to follow it on their own.

“If they want everything to be successful, it’s going to fall on the players and teams to be smart.”

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Webb Simpson, champion at last week's PGA Tour stop Hilton Head, S.C., withdrew from this week's tournament because of coronavirus precaution. (Getty Images)

When the PGA Tour restarted its season two weeks ago in Fort Worth, Texas, hundreds of COVID-19 tests were given to golfers and caddies, all of which came back negative. A week later, in Hilton Head, S.C., Nick Watney became the first golfer to test positive. Heading into this week’s tournament in Cromwell, Conn., five players withdrew due to coronavirus concerns, including world No. 4 Brooks Koepka, whose caddie tested positive. Webb Simpson, who won the Hilton Head tournament, also withdrew after a family member tested positive.

On Wednesday, Alan Shipnuck, the estimable journalist for GOLF.com, wrote a column titled, Why the PGA Tour should hit the brakes on its season again.

Earlier that day, PGA commissioner Jay Monahan responded to criticism that COVID-19 safety guidelines were not being enforced to a proper degree—a problem Moran wants to avoid at all costs in Charleston.

“You felt that it was a little bit more open than originally planned,” says Moran of the PGA’s de facto bubble. “More people than they expected. We’re going to still try and keep it as tight as possible. We’re really asking players to stay within this world.

The parallels between tennis’ recent positive tests from high-profile players—Djokovic, Grigor Dimitrov and Borna Coric—and what pro golf is currently experiencing are hard to ignore, even if the PGA’s tournaments should never be confused with the reckless Adria Tour. Fans were permitted in Belgrade, Serbia and Zadar, Croatia, without any respect for social distancing or any sight of face masks. While Moran considered the possibility of letting a few hundred fans into the 10,000-set Volvo Car Stadium, he didn’t feel it was the right time. (On Wednesday, the DraftKings All-American Team Cup announced that its event, held July 3-5 in Atlanta, will allow 450 fans per day, about 30 percent capacity.)

Rather, Moran left nothing to chance: no more than 100 people, all-in, would ever be at the tournament site at one time; all of the players would be staying in a hotel within walking distance of the grounds; player dining was eschewed for pre-packaged, sanitized meals; and everyone was tested on Saturday and Sunday, with thermal temperature procedures and health questionnaires given throughout the week.

It all boiled down to six words that Moran told me, from at least six feet away.

“We’ve got to get it right.”

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No fans; players handle their own towels; masked ballpersons pick up tennis balls with a special tube: a sampling of COVID-19 protocols in place this week in Charleston. (Credit One Bank Invitational)

The word positive has never been more negative in connotation than now. But if the Credit One Bank Invitational gets it right, there are a number of positives tennis can take away from this ambitious event.

The sport has been reopening since early May, when Dustin Brown spearheaded a localized event in Höhr-Grenzhausen, Germany. The small town in the southwest is best known for its ceramic industry; pottery is proudly displayed on its coat or arms. Held at an indoor tennis club about an hour’s drive from Cologne, where Brown and others stayed, its highest-ranked player was Yannick Hanfmann, ranked 143rd on tour.

Since then, a variety of events featuring professional players have popped up in obscure locations, often at private facilities and for only a couple of days in duration. To their credit—with the notable exception of the Adria Tour—there have not appeared to be any issues with holding play safely.

Charleston, by contrast, is one of the largest cities in the southern U.S. It’s also a hotbed for women’s tennis, with its annual WTA tournament a celebration of the sport’s past, present and future. The Credit One Bank Invitational brings 16 players to Volvo Car Stadium—where the WTA tournament is annually held—for a six-day long event featuring singles and doubles competition. Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, former US Open Sloane Stephens and a host of other highly ranked players line the prominent field. It is, without question, the height of tennis’ reopening in the U.S. to this point.

“Most of the stuff in the states has been one day or two days,” says Moran. “This is Tuesday through Sunday, with singles and doubles, with a strong cast of players. I do feel it’s significant.

“There’s going to be a different way to play the game and operate around the game. This should start to lay the groundwork of what you have to go through.”

Besides a healthy and enjoyable week of tennis, Moran hopes subsequent tournaments can take cues from the protocols that he and his team, including Ben Navarro, a local businessman who owns the Charleston tournament and its venue, have put in place.

“This event is about a few different things,” says Navarro, whose daughter, Emma, is competing this week. “It’s about hope, it’s about opportunity, and it’s about gratitude.

“I think there’s a need for us all to feel like there’s a normalcy that’s going to return to the world, and I think sports is a great way for us to demonstrate that. There’s an opportunity for the girls to come back and compete, which is exciting, and it’s a way for us to show gratitude as a community to many people to have stepped up in this crisis, in particular the health care workers.”

The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) is contending with the developing COVID-19 situation in the state, but it is also continuing to safeguard the Credit One Bank Invitational. It developed the event’s entire health and safety plan, which includes having players watch the action from socially distant lounges around the Volvo Car Stadium. Similar vantage points will be implemented at the US Open, with seeded players given suites around Arthur Ashe Stadium. It won’t be the only thing tournament directors will have to reimagine as part of the sport’s reopening.


Madison Keys watches her teammate from a designated player lounge around the Volvo Car Arena. (Credit One Bank Invitational)

“When this opportunity came to our attention, it was something we couldn’t ignore,” says John Coombe, SVP of Marketing at Credit One Bank. “The event is one thing, but when we learned that a significant amount of the funds were going to go to MUSC, and the front-line health-care workers, that’s another piece of what we do as an organization, to support our communities.”

There are many things outside Moran’s control, including players’ ability to travel to and from Charleston. Bianca Andreescu, last year’s US Open champion, originally committed to the event, but withdrew, not feeling ready to compete. The Canadian’s entry into the United States likely wouldn’t have been an issue, believes Moran, but that may not have been the case if she chose to return home afterward.

It’s likely that Andreescu will cross the border at some point over the next few months to defend her US Open title. It’s likely that we’ll learn more about the virus, and what sports’ role in preventing its spread, should be. And it’s likely that some of what we learn will be tested this week in Charleston.

“I’ve been learning from everyone else, and I’ve had quite a few calls with other tournament operators in the States asking if I wouldn’t mind sharing [my thoughts],” says Moran. “And I’m like, absolutely. We want to share; we want everyone to come back in a safe way.”