Leave it to Nicholas Kyrgios, the bad boy of tennis, to suddenly become the voice of reason.
The hot-tempered Australian, known as much for smashing rackets, berating fans, and quitting on the court as he is for beating then-number one Rafa Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014, chimed in on Twitter the other day, expressing his discontent for the recent decision to play the U.S. Open in Flushing, Queens, beginning on Aug. 31. Sure, the plan includes no fans in attendance and other safety precautions, but how is it that a much-maligned tennis pro, without any epidemiological training, has a more reasonable and informed opinion than New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who greenlit two weeks of late-Summer tennis in Queens County?
With COVID numbers currently spiking around the country, likely due to relaxed opening measures in many states, New York is still the epicenter of the worldwide Coronavirus outbreak. And, within New York City, Queens County, home of the U.S. Open, has been hit the hardest, with a reported 64,000 cases and 5,000 deaths. Seems like the perfect time and place for the summer tennis classic.
Not everyone in the tennis world is as tone deaf as Cuomo and the folks at the USTA. The brass at Wimbledon canceled the 2020 tournament outright, although they also had the benefit of collecting on a $141-million pandemic insurance policy (what are the odds), while the French Open at Roland Garros was pushed back to late September, a decision made in mid March. Even New York mayor Bill Deblasio is unclear if the Big Apple is ready to begin Stage 2 of reopening, so how can New York suddenly welcome an influx of athletes from around the world, with entourages in tow, before Labor Day? The math just doesn’t add up.
Sports in the pandemic era are being met with mixed results, especially as many in the NBA are starting to question the league’s intention to finish the season in Orlando, while MLB and the MLBPA can’t seem to agree on anything. There’s no doubt that we’re in the middle of a public health crisis, but tennis is trying to skate by, sweeping current events under the service line, ignoring that we’re also in the middle of an era of hotbed social reform.
Unlike team sports, tennis benefits from its nature as a one-on-one competition. And, aside from NASCAR, which is back to racing, tennis is probably the most socially distant of any of the major professional sports. However, it’s also one of the most international sports, meaning that scores of players, coaches, friends, and family from around Europe (have you seen how deep tennis players roll?) will be flying into JFK and LaGuardia in August.
All players will then be put up at the TWA hotel near JFK, which is exactly what a city in the midst of a pandemic needs. Actually, it’s a terrible plan because all players will be quarantined together when what they need is more distance. Imagine, less than two months ago a plan to host the U.S. Open in the socially distant desert oasis of Indian Wells, CA was deemed unacceptable, but tossing the entire 128-person draw in an airport hotel is considered health conscious?
For his part, world number one Novak Djokovic has said that he may skip the tournament altogether to focus on the French Open, which will be played, on clay, from Sept. 20 – Oct. 4, in Paris, a city that has already relaxed social distancing restrictions after months of a well-orchestrated quarantine. Djokovic, while talking with RTS, Serbia’s state broadcaster, also mentioned that many top pros he’s spoken to are also unsure about the decision to fly to New York in August, stating that “most of the players I have talked to were quite negative on whether they would go there.”
So, let’s try and get this straight. The men and women whose job it is to shut up and serve and volley, are more reasonable than the politicians in New York? Talk about an all-time low.
And it really didn’t have to be this way.
Just within the tennis industry, there are examples of health-conscious measures to ensure safe play among athletes. Look no further than WTT (World Team Tennis), which will bring all of its athletes and teams from New York, Las Vegas, Orlando, Orange County, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. to the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia for three weeks in late July. It’s still not an ideal situation, but these are major differences between the U.S. Open and WTT’s plan, which will allow 500 fans to attend live matches.
For starters, WTT will host its matches in West Virginia, a state that has had fewer than 100 total reported deaths due to COVID-19. Additionally, the majority of WTT players are domestic to the U.S., meaning less international travel is required.
Alas, leave it to government bigwigs to make less informed decisions than a bunch of professional athletes. And, even worse, leave it to New Yorkers, superiority complexes and all, to go against the grain and open up prematurely, making lawmakers in West Virginia look way more reasonable and sound.
Game. Set. Match.