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Tennis • Where Is The Sport When We Need It Most? The Unexpected Twist In The Covid-19 Crisis

By Alix Ramsay

It was the last straw; the final kick in the teeth when we were down. Just over a week ago, the BBC announced that, as domestic football had been suspended for the foreseeable future in order to slow the spread of the corona virus, Match of the Day, the highlights show that has been a part of Britain’s Saturday night culture since 1964, was also to be suspended. A nation wept.

That same nation then rose in fury when it read on. Bad enough that Match of the Day had been removed from the schedule but oh, the horror, when we discovered that it was to be replaced by Mrs Brown’s Boys. For those unfamiliar with this “comedy” show (we use the term loosely), “Mrs Brown” is actually an Irish bloke in his 60s, dressed in a frock and playing the part of a meddling matriarch; her “boys” are the collection of misfits who make up her family. And the show is as funny as an ingrowing toenail.

In the general scheme of things, this scheduling abomination is but a minor irritation. But it still matters.

All around the world, sport has stopped. The governors of football in Europe (UEFA) postponed Euro 2020 until next summer. Only the World Cup is bigger than the Euros but UEFA still felt it had no option but to postpone its €2.5billion event. The only upside to this decision is that it leaves a window of opportunity during the summer for the various domestic leagues around Europe to finish their league programmes – but only if they are allowed to start playing again by then. That is now looking increasingly unlikely.

For those who do not follow football – let us call then Mrs Brown’s Boys fans – this may not sound particularly important but, then again, most of the world does follow football. It is important.

This is the time of year when the seasons are changing. In the northern hemisphere, the winter sports are coming to a close. League and cup titles in a host of sports should be coming to a climax. The summer sports, meanwhile, should be gearing up to start their seasons. But not this year. In Britain, everything from cricket to curling, from darts to diving and from triathlon to trampolining has been put on hold. In the US, everything has been put on ice. Now Canada has announced that it will not be sending any Olympic or Paralympic athletes to Tokyo in the summer. Other Olympic associations are begging for the Games to be postponed or cancelled. Sport is no more.

As we all sit at home either trying to work or trying to educate the kids – all schools in the UK have been closed – we are bombarded with 24-hour news. Turn on the TV or radio, pick up a newspaper and all there is to see and hear is repeated stories of Covid-19 and the spread of the corona virus. Yes, it is good to be informed but there comes a point when we all need a break. The broadcasters have not quite fathomed this yet but we at home are fast learning the lesson.

People are worried for the health and safety of their families and friends. They are worried about their jobs – if they still have one – and how they are going to pay the bills to keep a roof over their heads. As for putting food on the table: that is becoming increasingly difficult as the selfish and the greedy hoover up every item in every supermarket whether they need it or not. It makes you wonder where they put their 40,000 loo rolls, 18 tons of pasta and 500cwt of tinned goods. Some of them only live in a one bedroomed flat.

In the midst of this gloom, we all need something to distract us, even if only for a couple of hours. Reading a good book is a possibility. And, as an aside, I have just reread Julie Heldman’s “Driven; a Daughter’s Odyssey”. It is that rare thing in a sports book: a page turner, full of life and colour and, the rarest thing of all for a book of the genre, well written. And while it is a quick read, there is a lot of it which is very necessary as there seems no end to the self-isolation protocols.

But a book or a movie (not that the cinemas are open) is a finite thing. Sport is not. You will read a book and then put it down. You will not read it again for many a long month or year. But you will go and watch your football team (or basketball, baseball, rugby, hockey, cricket team) play their match on Saturday and then you will go back the following Saturday to watch them do it all over again. For those couple of hours, you are in a different world. You yell, you cheer, you howl, you groan and nothing but nothing else matters. It is pure escapism and by heck do we miss it now.

I have worked on highfalutin newspapers where the very serious editors regarded the sport desk as the “games department”. The “serious” journalists worked on news or features. The “proper” journalists wrote for the front end of the paper where they could report and pontificate on important matters of the day like fiscal and foreign policy and the workings of government.

At the water cooler, such topics occupy 0.001 per cent of anyone’s time, and then only if the taxes have just gone up in the budget. But the game last night? That was never a penalty. And their goal was offside. Robbed. We were robbed. Who have your lot got next week? Oh, Chelsea? That’ll be good. Where are you watching it….and so it goes on. Sport matters to most people on the planet.

In the middle of all of this, tennis is – as ever – in turmoil. The French Federation has hijacked the weeks after the US Open in order to reschedule its event. Apparently, it did this with no consultation which has caused fury and surprise. The other slams are making it a point to promote the fact that they are working with the tours and the ITF to look at all possibilities.

With the UK expecting its biggest spike in the virus around May or June, Wimbledon looks ever more threatened. The US Open has hinted that it could move to later in the year. That might allow Wimbledon to move into the later weeks of summer. But who knows? There are more important matters to deal with at the moment.

Europe is in lockdown; Britain has not gone that far. Yet. Then again, if all the idiots who saw the sun come out at the weekend and then rushed out to the parks and to the seaside keep up such behaviour, the government has said it will enforce home isolation. We are supposed to be keeping away from each other and yet as soon as there is a whisper of tinned tomatoes available in Tesco’s, the stampede is to be seen to be believed. So much for social distancing. (As another aside: why does a crisis always produce its own vocabulary? When did “social distance” become a verb? I social distance, you social distance, he/she/it social distances. Thou social distanceth. It’s agin Fowler’s and it’s agin nature. Harrumph.)

The BBC has now learned its lesson. Mrs Brown’s Boys is still on the Saturday schedule but no longer in the Match of the Day slot. Instead, the usual presenters of MOTD will give us a football show as they discuss past matches, their top 10 players and other such fillers until the live football returns. It’s not much but it is better than nothing.

Of all the things we have learned about life during this crisis, the most bizarre is that sport really, truly does matter. Even to those who never thought it did. It certainly matters a damned sight more than Mrs Brown’s Boys – BBC, you have been warned.

As of 8pm GMT, the BBC reported that Dick Pound, the former president of WADA and an IOC member, said that the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo would be postponed until next year. The BBC credited USA Today for this story.

As of 8:30pm GMT, the UK is now in lockdown. Everyone in Britain is now only allowed out for essential work, for food shopping and medical reasons or for caring for others (that would be the vulnerable and immediate family members in need). The police have powers to enforce this.


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