WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va.—As World TeamTennis gets rolling at The Greenbrier, safety is at the top of everyone’s mind. It’s more important than who wins the King Trophy this year, because without precautions in place, no one is going to get to lift it.
The public is watching closely as WTT becomes the biggest fan-attended live tennis event since March, and the first sports league to start on its originally scheduled opening day. As nine teams compete from July 12-Aug. 2, no one is more aware of the eyeballs than CEO Carlos Silva.
“We are very happy with what we have done, but also know every single day we need to be diligent, as we have been over the last couple of months,” says Silva. “So yes, it has been a long road, and we are never out of the woods until a team holds the King Trophy."
The protocols include daily temperature checks, facemasks, multiple COVID-19 tests, hand-sanitizing stations, social distancing, a ban on high fives or handshakes, and no linesmen or ball kids. Players are fielding their own balls (sometimes aided by teammates) and the on-court interview is replaced by a socially distanced off-court chat.
Reminders and sanitizing stations are all over The Greenbrier and stadium.
“There's a lot of safety protocols in places,” says Tennys Sandgren, who plays for the Orlando Storm. “I feel safer here than I do when I’m at the grocery store.”
“It seems to be that everyone is doing their part, wearing masks around,” says Rajeev Ram of the Chicago Smash. “I think the tennis is the least of the concerns, I hope everyone is staying safe when they’re off the court.”
On Sunday, Sandgren scored the first win of the 2020 season in singles over the Springfield Lasers' Mitchell Krueger. Orlando would top Springfield 21-18, followed by Ram's Chicago team ousting the Las Vegas Rollers, 24-18. The night match of Day 1 saw the San Diego Aviators beat the Orange County Breakers, 23-16.
Social distancing shouldn’t be an issue, given that The Greenbrier is set on 11,000 acres and has 710 guest rooms, including many private cottages. There are nine restaurants, with outdoor seating and room service available. Players are all staying in the resort, and their commute to work is a short walk across the historic grounds, which also features a fully equipped medical clinic.
Players and staff exit and enter from the back of the hotel and can walk to the stadium.
While spacing is important, nothing tops testing. Players, staff and media had to arrive on site with proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test. Frances Tiafoe, who would have played for the Washington Kastles, was deemed ineligible when he tested positive in Atlanta.
For international players like Great Britain’s Ken Skupski, there was an extra pre-step.
“I had to go into quarantine for two weeks before this,” he says, having arrived early to the United States. “I’ve had three tests. I had one very early on [in February]. I’ve been tested last week. I’ve been tested today."
Upon arrival at The Greenbrier, everyone reported to the Sports Performance Center for a second test. Anyone still awaiting the results of that test were not allowed on court. On Sunday, four were still waiting, including Skupski, Evan King and coaches John-Laffnie De Jager and John Lloyd. There will be another test next weekend, which should help ensure that everyone continues to follow the guidelines. The resort offers many socially distanced outdoor activities, but there’s also bars and even a casino—the latter of which is off-limits to players.
Opened in 1778, The Greenbrier is one of the nation's most historic hotels.
"I think we can do this in a safe manner and have the respect and trust in our fellow players and people that are putting on the event to have our best interest in mind," Orange County Breaker Steve Johnson says. “If we can all be smart, do the right things, not go out partying, it can be done.”
There’s a sense of camaraderie on site, and not just because it’s a team event.
“As a group of tennis players we need to have trust in our fellow competitors, trust in everybody to be doing the right things,” Johnson says. “It’s sometimes maybe the few people that you worry about that may ruin it for the rest. Just do the right things, be smart. We’re all in this together.”
Johnson with teammates Andreja Klepac, Luke Bambride and Jennifer Brady. (Orange County Breakers)
The Adria Tour and Atlanta put a black cloud over tennis after positive tests from multiple players, including Novak Djokovic. WTT is hopeful that they’ll be more compared to the likes of the Credit One Bank Invitational, in Charleston, S.C. and the Ultimate Tennis Showdown, which just wrapped up its first edition in Nice, France.
Since fan energy is so crucial to the WTT experience, the Creekside Stadium will be filled at 20 percent, or 500 fans. All fans must pass temperature checks, wear masks when not seated, and socially distance when not in their family groups.
Safety protocol reminders are plastered all over the venue.
“If someone doesn’t want to wear a mask, that’s OK, they don’t have to come into the stadium," Silva says. "If they want a refund on their ticket, we would be happy to give them a refund.”
Players will try to avoid physical contact on court. On Sunday, players tapped elbows, racquets and shoes instead of hands. In a team environment, it might take some getting used to.
“If your teammate does something well, you kind of want to go run up and give them a high five,” Johnson says. “I feel like there might be a lot of starting to get that team celebration and everyone pulling back.”
Racquet taps were the most common physical interaction on-court on Sunday. (Ryan Loco)
Even with a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases, West Virginia has had a low instance relative to other states, and Greenbrier County has reported under 100. The coronavirus is impossible to predict, so there’s absolutely no guarantee that everything will run smoothly even with every precaution in place and zero bad eggs. Expecting to see every fan in masks the entire time and every player remembering not to high five is unrealistic.
Still, the atmosphere around the grounds can best be described as cautiously optimistic.
"Masks, safety first," New York Empire's Jack Sock says. "I just hope for a smooth event for everyone putting it on. It's fortunate that we're even here and able to have the chance to play. I just hope everything goes well."
“As I've said to others along the way, it only takes 30 seconds to cancel the season,” Silva says. “We worked very hard every single day trying to figure out what is the right thing to do that would allow us to play, but also make sure that our players and our staff would also be safe. We are going to stick to those protocols.
"We are going to work very hard today and tomorrow and the next day–it doesn't end—to make that happen.”