The subject line of an email I received from the USTA this morning couldn’t have felt more appropriate for the first working day of 2021.
“Where American Tennis Players are Competing,” it read. It turns out there are a lot of them in action this week. Twelve U.S. men are in the main draw and qualifying in Delray Beach, which starts on Thursday. Seven U.S. women are in the main draw and qualifying in Abu Dhabi, which starts on Wednesday.
In any other year, of course, this type of information would have been highly redundant. Even without checking, tennis fans would have had a good idea where most players were kicking off their seasons. Roger Federer might have been at the Hopman Cup; Novak Djokovic would likely have been in Doha; Serena Williams might have been in Auckland and Rafael Nadal a little farther west in Brisbane. Fans would have spent the last few weeks jealously reading Instagram posts about the players’ pre-season journeys to Australia. Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere would have spent the last few days jealously watching them start their seasons in the summer sun Down Under.
Sofia Kenin leads the field in Abu Dhabi. (Getty Images)
This year won’t be as shocking or unprecedented as 2020, or hopefully as bleak, but it’s not going to be normal, either. Instead of following the sun from Australia to South America to the U.S. and onto Europe, as they have for the last three decades, the tours will go wherever the locals will have them. Because Florida welcomes visitors and allows gatherings, the ATP will start in Delray Beach. We can only hope that the event doesn’t add to the already high COVID totals in the state.
From there, if all goes according to plan, both tours will head for safer territory. Starting in mid-January, Melbourne Park will play host to a month’s worth of competition, including the Australian Open, the ATP Cup and two lower-level ATP and WTA events. That sounds like the ideal solution, but even the mostly COVID-free state of Victoria isn’t a sure thing. Since the Australian Open schedule was announced, three positive cases have turned up in Melbourne. This weekend there were reports that the full-time residents at one of the tournament’s designated hotels had threatened to sue, because they weren’t consulted on the plan to bring athletes from overseas into their building.
Since the early 1990s, when the Masters Series events were first instituted on the ATP and exhibitions were pushed to the fringes, the tours have run like clockwork. Even for those of us following from home, the sport functioned as a guide to the seasons. In winter, we got a jolt of needed warmth from Australia, and from the Sunshine Double in Indian Wells and Miami. The sight of the Mediterranean from the top of the Monte Carlo Country Club meant spring was finally here. Wimbledon happened at the peak of London’s summer, and the US Open signaled the end of the Slam season, and the start of a new work and school year.
Reilly Opelka will kick off his season in Delray Beach. (Getty Images)
Thinking about the scattershot prospects for 2021 reminds me of stories from the barnstorming days of old, before the tours were organized and (relatively) streamlined. “The pros’ war cry was, ‘Have court, will travel!’” Bud Collins wrote of the years when Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and company would show up in any high school gymnasium that would have them. In 2021, the tours will have to look for any place that deems it safe enough to accept visitors. California didn't allow Indian Wells to happen in March; will the British government be ready to give the OK to Wimbledon by June? We likely won’t know until the first ball is struck. And that goes for Melbourne, too.
“I’m taking it one match at a time,” is the tennis player’s most famous cliché. That phrase may be how fans have to approach the 2021 season as well. Enjoy whatever match you’re watching, from whatever location you’re watching it, and don’t worry about what’s going to happen next week, because it might not happen. Delray Beach is in January, Brisbane is in Melbourne, Cincy is in New York, Rome has no fans, you say? We have to take what we can get. As many of us discovered last year, it’s the matches themselves, rather than what goes on around them, that matter most.
At the same time that I was reading the USTA’s email this morning, I also saw a copy of the Abu Dhabi draw, and a video clip of Aryna Sabalenka and her doubles partner, Elise Mertens, practicing on the courts there. It didn’t feel like any other year, but it still felt like a new one.