Can tennis weather another socially distanced year? In this week's Rally, Steve Tignor and Joel Drucker are grateful for a 2020 season that turned out to be surprisingly meaningful, and hopeful that more of the same awaits in 2021.
Happy Thanksgiving. I hope your long weekend comes with a trip to your local courts or club. I’ve been squeezing in my last outdoor-hitting sessions as the weather gets colder where I play in New Jersey. But with COVID-19 back on the rise here (and everywhere), I may have to hunker down again, and go back to running up and down the stairs for exercise, for the foreseeable future. Let’s hope things look a little brighter by the new year.
As for the old year, now that the pro season is over, what are your thoughts on it? My first thought is that, even at a time when sports seemed like the last thing we should care about, tennis found a way of bringing us back in and making us forget, for a few hours, what was going on elsewhere—at least it did that for me. Look no further than what happened this past weekend in London. The ATP’s Top 4—Daniil Medvedev, Dominic Thiem, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal—gave us nine of the best, most suspenseful sets of the season. There was hardly a moment in any of the three matches that wasn’t tense and riveting, and it made me hopeful for a 2021 where the generations collide and compete on an equal basis.
This was a season that was drastically shortened, and didn’t include its most famous tournament, Wimbledon; its two biggest non-Slam U.S. events, Indian Wells and Miami; or any of its team competitions—the Davis Cup, Fed Cup, and Laver Cup. Yet it still felt as if a season’s worth of stories came out of 2020.
For example: Naomi Osaka’s embrace of Black Lives Matter, and her mask-per-match run at the US Open. Novak Djokovic’s rollercoaster ride from champion to pariah and back again. Dominic Thiem’s US Open breakthrough, which finally loosened the Big 3’s stranglehold on the Slams. Stunning major-title runs by Sofia Kenin and Iga Swiatek. The return of Victoria Azarenka and Garbine Muguruza to prominence. Rafael Nadal’s 20th major, and his emergence as a voice of sanity in this seemingly insane moment. It’s hard to remember now, but even Roger Federer made his contribution, with his Houdini run to the Australian Open semifinals.
There were also unwelcome stories, too, including the Adria Tour; quarantine-breaking by some male players; and, most seriously, the abuse allegations against Alexander Zverev and Nikoloz Basilashvili. Hopefully those two cases will spur the ATP to institute new policies in the new year.
Mostly, though, I was glad that tennis still mattered to me, and that it can matter in times like these. I credit the players and organizers for that.
Joel, what are your initial thoughts on the 2020 season as a whole, and does any event or match stand out above the rest for you?
We’re hopeful for a 2021 where the generations collide and compete on an equal basis. (Getty Images)
Happy Thanksgiving to you too. Certainly it’s getting colder where I live, here in Northern California. But I’m grateful to always be able to play outdoors.
You are so right that it seems a very long time ago I was inside Rod Laver Arena for one of the most incredible sequences I’ve ever seen in tennis: Sofia Kenin, in the Australian Open finals versus Muguruza, serving at 2-2, love-40—and then hitting five straight winners to go ahead and from there pretty much run out the match. That to me was a supreme and sublime 2020 highlight.
But it’s often been hard to find words to describe this year and all the ways it has affected the entire planet. As for tennis, the five-month lack of ATP and WTA events was jarring and scary, but of course necessary.
This summer, I really enjoyed watching World Team Tennis—particularly the finals, when it all came down to one point and Coco Vandeweghe clinched the championship for the New York Empire with one untouchable forehand.
That wonderfully dramatic moment was a nice appetizer for the US Open. In the spring, it was hard to imagine the US Open even happening. But amazingly, it came off—and yet, how bizarre to take it in without hundreds of thousands of fans. Having been to the tournament as far back as 1978, I missed being front and center for all that unsurpassed New York energy, from the late nights to those mornings and afternoons when our work lets us bounce around the courts. I wonder how much the lack of fans—and what I’ll call “bubble fatigue” —impacted the rollercoaster-like men’s final between Thiem and Zverev.
So while Kenin represents an early bookend, then my late bookend will be the incredible tennis Nadal played in the final of Roland Garros. I know I was curious about many things in this match, most of all how Nadal would be able to impose himself on Djokovic. Was that even going to be possible? Amazing to think that Nadal had won the title 12 prior times but was the underdog for this match. But swiftly and decisively, Nadal took charge of the real estate of the court and jolted Djokovic. It was startling. It will be interesting to see how the tennis shakes between these two as 2021 gets underway. And then there’s also the return of Roger Federer. So, much to look forward to.
Steve, what are you looking forward as ’21 nears?
Can Federer make a push for a 21st major to try to stay ahead of Nadal and Djokovic for a little longer? (Getty Images)
Looking ahead to next season, whenever it starts, I have to ask: Can tennis weather another socially distanced year—i.e., one without fans? I know there are vaccines on the way, but we can already see the struggles that the Australian Open, despite being played in a relatively low-risk area right now, is having with its scheduling. Things will likely get even dicier when the tours shift to the U.S. for the giant events in Indian Wells and Miami, both of which typically attract hundreds of thousands of people.
But I won’t linger on those distressing questions. Let’s think about a happier prospect for 2021: Roger Federer’s return. His absence didn’t loom over 2020, exactly, but it did feel as if we got a taste of what tennis will be like without him. At the same time, we also, unfortunately, entered a new era without him, the COVID era. To me, it almost feels as if Federer will be an addition to the new tennis reality, rather than a return to the past.
When the Australian Open is played, the questions will revolve around Federer. How will he play after so much time away, and another knee surgery? Will this be his last go-round? Can he make a push for a 21st major, most likely at Wimbledon, to try to stay ahead of Nadal and Djokovic for a little longer? Will he be able to make the Laver Cup happen in Boston? Talk of his decline has obviously been premature in the past, but he’s going to turn 40 in August. On the one hand, he was one point away from winning the last Wimbledon that was played, in 2019. On the other hand, how far into his 40s can he push? Either way, it will be good to see Federer on court again, even if the number of fans that are allowed to watch his match is limited.
After Federer, I think I’m most curious about Naomi Osaka and Iga Swiatek. At the US Open, we saw Osaka become a major star. Her play, her personality, and her activism all came together to make her someone who can go beyond the normal boundaries of tennis, and become someone who non-fans will want to tune in to watch. Swiatek is not at that level of recognition, of course, but I’m interested in how she follows up her lightning-strike run at Roland Garros. She’s only 19, but she’s well aware of the pitfalls of early success, the expectations and attention she’ll have to deal with, and she seems determined to shrug all of that off and be a consistent winner. Together, Osaka and Swiatek seem like model athletes—thoughtful and down-to-earth—for tennis’s future.
How about you, Joel? What are you looking forward to, and what do you think is the most likely scenario for tournaments with the virus still rampant in so many places?
Together, Osaka and Swiatek seem like model athletes for tennis’s future. (Getty Images)
Lest we think 2020 a strange year for tennis, 2021 could be even wackier. The 2020 story line was stark and clear: No tennis for months, followed by a select series of largely fan-free tournaments staged at the back end of the tennis season. In large part, everyone was merely grateful for the chance for these events to exist.
But now, all of 2021 is in play, with tons of potential logistical complications—scheduling, travel, quarantines, testing procedures, fans or no fans. If the Australian Open is forced to reschedule, how does that affect events in Rotterdam and Dubai? And down the road a bit, what about Indian Wells and Miami, as well as the European clay court season, Roland Garros and Wimbledon? Along with this, I wonder about the economics of a great many tournaments. It was one thing for these events, their sponsors and media partners to withstand a singular cancellation in 2020. But two years in a row? No question, no matter how soon the world is safe from COVID-19, the global tennis circuit is currently grappling with a significant economic reckoning.
Meanwhile, inside the lines, a lot of players continue to interest me. I hope that in time such players as Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka can pursue full schedules. It would be great to see Bianca Andreescu back in action (and I hope her injuries are only growing pains, not a long-term trend). I love watching Sofia Kenin play, but wonder if her intermittent patches of petulance will get under control as she continues to compete at the highest levels. As for the men, like so many millions (billions?), I eagerly await the return of Federer and the chance to continue swooning over his game. Federer’s playing style has so much variety that he is enjoyable to watch versus anyone. When it comes to such special events as the Laver Cup, I think Federer can compete in that kind of format well into his 40s. I’m also fascinated to see how such high-energy players as Denis Shapovalov and Jannik Sinner continue to evolve.
But back to the game overall. It will be intriguing to see how the business of tennis looks to shape itself in the wake of the pandemic. Perhaps because the crisis has been so unsettling, leaders from the ATP and WTA haven’t spoken much publicly about the implications of what’s happened this year. Surely, though, it has been very hard. I feel particularly concerned for the WTA, which in recent years has made a major commitment to Asia—and, sadly, saw tons of events cancelled this year, including the $14 million WTA Finals in Shenzhen. Hopefully, the WTA is figuring out effective ways to bring these many events back to life.
I’m also fascinated by the Professional Tennis Players Association – the organization a number of men, led by Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil, are forming to, as they have put it, give the players more of a voice in how the game is run, particularly at the majors. Fair enough to seek more prize money and other rewards and amenities.
And yet, for all the talk of tournaments and players, of sponsors and economics, what about the fans? Tennis has millions of followers. It also has millions of players; there’s even a mini-resurgence of sorts underway. My wish is that leaders from the ATP and WTA are also pondering how to continue looking for ways to connect with these many men and women who deeply love the sport.
Happy Thanksgiving to all.