The Rally: Grigor Dimitrov's positive test and tennis' plans to return

The Rally: Grigor Dimitrov's positive test and tennis' plans to return

Is the chance to watch sports again worth the risk to those involved?

Hi Joel,

After the last five days, tennis fans must have whiplash. On Wednesday, we heard the hopeful news that the tours will start up again in August, and the US Open, after much debate and discussion, will go ahead as planned. Then, as if on cue, we found out on Sunday that Grigor Dimitrov had tested positive for coronavirus after participating in the Adria Tour in Belgrade and Zadar the last two weekends. Considering how many of his fellow pros he was in close contact with in both places, he may not be the last.

The Adria Tour, as anyone who watched it knows, took none of the precautions that the Open is planning to take at Flushing Meadows. Fans filled the bleachers; ball kids handled the players’ towels; there were handshakes and hugs at the ends of matches; and there were virtually no facemasks in sight. After Dimitrov’s positive test was announced, the Adria Tour defended itself by claiming that it had followed the advice of epidemiologists in Serbia and Croatia. But I think everyone who saw the Adria matches was shocked at the sight of so many mask-free faces in such close proximity to each other. Obviously, Novak Djokovic, who served as the event’s host and main attraction, has to come in for criticism. Equally obviously, tennis now knows that it can’t just go back to normal, the way Djokovic and Adria seemed to hope it could.

Fans, without masks or social distancing, at the Belgrade stop on the Adria Tour. (Getty Images)

The Open, of course, won’t try to go back to normal. It won’t have fans, or handshakes, or ball kids handling towels, and presumably the ATP and WTA events set to start in August won’t, either. But Dimitrov’s case points up how difficult it may be to contain the virus’ spread on a tour where players are moving from city to city each week. One of the players Dimitrov was with in Belgrade last week, Dominic Thiem, has already spent a weekend with a different group of pros in Nice, France. (He has tested negative.)

Which brings me to the obvious questions, Joel. Should the sport reconsider its August plans, or tighten its restrictions, in light of the Dimitrov news? And more broadly, how important are sports to our lives, and how much risk should we ask athletes to take so we can watch them again?

Right now in New York, COVID is under control, relatively speaking. There’s a sense of relief and cautious optimism around the city, and the positive-test rate has dropped from above 25 percent to below one percent. But that doesn’t mean the virus won’t break out again. Just ask people in states like Florida, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma and your state of California. It was an ominous sign that, 24 hours after the tours announced their plans to go ahead, baseball, golf, hockey and college football were hit by a wave of positive tests. Now we can add Dimitrov, and possibly others, to that list.

Grigor Dimitrov has tested positive for COVID-19 after playing two events over the past nine days. (Getty Images)

I’ve certainly missed tennis, and the chance to write about it, but I haven’t missed, say, baseball and basketball as much as I might have predicted. I haven’t had any trouble filling my time with books, music, and movies. I’m also sympathetic to the idea, put forth by a few NBA players, that sports can be a distraction from the important political developments of the moment. I’m guessing that one of the reasons we’ve seen mass demonstrations and tangible social progress this spring is that we haven’t had our usual distractions, like sports, to fall back on.

In short, while I want live tennis to return, I wouldn’t be happy watching it if there was any question about the safety of those involved.

How about you, Joel? How important are sports to you, and how do you feel about the Open’s plans?

Hi Steve,

Though I haven’t been bored during these shelter-in-place months, certainly life has been acutely narrow and therefore lacking what I’ll dub “peripheral engagement.” When pondering sports in this mix, I miss it as a form of ambient music—a visual and auditory soundtrack that this time of year typically includes highlights from baseball, basketball and golf, speculation about the upcoming football season, sprinkles from soccer. It’s also always fun to read about those various sports, be it newspaper updates and columns or those longer magazine pieces that invariably surface about a particular athlete or trend. And then, opportunistically, getting caught up in the late stages of a live game. A few summers ago, I stumbled into the closing moments of a spelling bee. Raise a toast to the unscripted allure of sports, that rare part of life where surprise isn’t perilous.

Tennis, of course, is exponentially more significant to my life, both as passion and livelihood. From Indian Wells to Wimbledon—that’s a lot of tennis; across hard, clay, grass, a lot of shots and plots that never happened. And yet, given what really matters in the world these days, so what?

For a while, I figured there would be no pro tennis this year and all would resume in full-fledged glory in 2021. But with so many businesses seeking to reopen in an incremental, improvised manner, why not the same for pro tennis? It was exciting to learn that the US Open will be happening, the announcement a bugle call of sorts that signals that there will indeed be vivid, high stakes competition. 

Inside an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium on Wednesday, the US Open was officially given the green light. (Jen Pottheiser/USTA)

The arrangements the USTA has made to pull off the tournament are impressive—staggering in scope, contingencies, logistics. I wrote earlier this week that the tournament’s team briefing document is likely as thick as a phone book. And of course, we’re all hoping everything goes smoothly on the health front. It was troubling to recently hear of the health woes that have affected a number of professional athletes. Alas, surprise in this instance is assuming its usual role as a showcase for concern, fear, dread.    

Oddly enough, as I ponder the US Open, my head can’t yet picture sunshine or nighttime. Instead, I picture a massive dome, the players and officials operating as if in some sort of biosphere. Of course, that’s not the case. But the austerity now in place at a tennis tournament—the raucous US Open most of all—is something I find rather jarring.

Amid all these circumstances, I’m not one of those people who believe that any outcomes will be tarnished by what could well be a diminished playing field. Yes, I seek to jettison that inglorious bastard of a punctuation mark known as the asterisk. When it comes to tennis in the year 2020: The entire world has faced an unprecedented crisis. Even professional athletes, so often sheltered from life’s sober truths, have had to deal with this pandemic, not just physically, but also emotionally. So whoever wins the 2020 US Open is to me an accomplished athlete and Grand Slam champion. End of story.

What images and concepts come to mind when you think of the 2020 US Open, Steve?


When you try to imagine this year’s US Open, you say that you “can’t yet picture sunshine or nighttime.” Now that you mention it, I can’t either. What is a night session in Ashe Stadium without fans going to look and sound like? With no one coming in and out of the arena, will there be any reason to hold separate day and night sessions in the first place?

If the tournament can be held safely, though, I’m sure I’ll watch the Open as avidly as ever. That will be true even if several top players are missing. We’ve heard that half of the Top 20 on the men’s side might not make the trip from Europe, but unless there’s another outbreak of the virus in New York this summer, I think the big names will be there in the end. Can Djokovic really pass up the chance to play a hard-court major? The presence of Serena Williams alone legitimates the women’s draw.

Whoever shows up, I would be more than happy to see a wild and woolly two weeks in Queens, with a completely new and surprising set of players vying for the titles. And no matter who wins, we won’t need to put an asterisk, real of implied, next to his or her name. To me, if you win seven matches at a Slam, you’re a Slam champion, no more questions asked. (I don’t know about you, Joel, but in my mind the only notable Open-era result worthy of a faintly implied asterisk is Alex Metreveli’s runner-up finish at Wimbledon in 1973. That year 80 of the top men boycotted the event, and Metreveli never made it past the quarters there any other time.)

You say you imagine the players inside a giant bubble in New York, which leads me to another question: Will the tour events be able to protect the players and tournament workers in the same way the Open will? As John Millman has pointed out, the week before the men enter the bubble in New York, they’ll be in Washington, D.C., for the Citi Open. How protected will they be there? Hopefully lessons will be learned from the Dimitrov situation.

Joel, you rightly say that the Open appears to have done everything it can to make the event safe. If someone, or several players, were to test positive during the tournament, how do you think that would affect your view of it? Do you think you would regret that it was played, or do you think that a risk of coronavirus infection is something we’re going to have to learn to live with as the price for staging public events? I want everything to be 100 percent safe, but I also want the US Open to happen. Will both of those things be possible again?


Your question reminds me that I’ve not only lacked the skills, but I’ve also lacked the stomach to work in such areas as public health. Fancy that, potential infection and possibly even death as the consequence of a sports event. That is quite an implication, for organizers and participants alike. Hearing about Dimitrov testing positive for COVID-19 was a scary sign and so we’ll be on alert in the days and weeks to come. Let’s cross our fingers.  

My many friends who work in fields like finance, law and medicine are fond of briskly using the phrase “assess the risk-reward ratio,” as if life could be boiled down to an actuarial table and an attendant Excel spreadsheet. But the possibilities raised by COVID-19 take so many choices to a new level of both uncertainty and anxiety (disclosure: I haven’t been to a grocery store in more than three months). Alas, as is the case with so much that has occurred this year and what’s ahead, the answer is this simple and scary: We don’t know.

And yet, for all that, I too can’t wait to watch US Open matches. What new contenders might emerge? I’ll be curious to see how sharp or stale certain players are. We’ve seen in some of these recent events how players have made technical changes to their strokes, particularly service motions.  Might there be more upgrades, not just with techniques, but also with tactics? Are there better tactics that prove more effective after a long layoff? For example, might groundstrokes be somewhat less precise, making it more advantageous to volley?  Or, given how the game is played these days, will consistency be even more important than velocity? And how fast will the courts be playing? 

Noah Rubin trains on Long Island while awaiting the return of tour tennis. (Getty Images)

I’m also intrigued to see how players fare without crowds—and also how they handle pressure. Liberated after so much confinement, there surely will be a massive spirit of gratitude in the air that would in theory reduce stress and the desire to blow off steam.  

Then again, when it comes to pressure, tennis matches are tennis matches. On a muggy 92-degree day, on a sun-drenched hard court, versus a gritty opponent taking every step possible to take that fourth set and level the match, all the crisis-induced perspective in the world can justifiably fly out the window.

It will also be fascinating to see how the US Open plays out with electronic line calls, smaller ball-person crews. Though there are those occasional rumblings about the men playing two-out-of-three sets in the early rounds, such talk now is negligible at best.   

When I think of the stories that will be told from this year’s US Open—and how tricky it will be for folks like us to tell them—I really hope to see frequent social-media postings by the likes of Stefanos Tsitsipas, Naomi Osaka and so many others. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok—perhaps the whole gamut should be gathered into some kind of massive scrapbook for the ages. Maybe some players will also keep detailed diaries of this remarkable tournament (pardon my generational bias). Either way, it will be a US Open like none other—certainly prior and hopefully after.