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Tennis Looks To Find A Way Out Of Lockdown

By Alix Ramsay

Tennis has been in lockdown for 37 days; not a ball has been struck, not a line call challenged. Nothing. The players cannot even practice due to the social distancing and travel bans in their home towns.

For some, it means an unexpected and, it turns out, a less-than-easy spell at home. For those in the lower rungs of the sport, it means no work and no income. Tennis players, like everyone around the world employed in “non-essential” roles, are finding life hard in the Covid-19 pandemic.

In an attempt to help those struggling financially, Novak Djokovic has come up with a plan: he has written to the ATP’s top 100 and suggested they all contribute to a central fund which would then be distributed among the players ranked from 250 to 700 in the world. The contributions would be on a sliding scale – $30,000 for the top five down to $5,000 for those ranked 50-100 and $5,000 each from the top 20 doubles players – and, together with contributions from the four grand slams and the ATP itself, the aim is to raise between $4million and $4.5million. From that fund, players ranked below No.250 would each receive a cheque for $10,000.

In addition, Djokovic, Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer (Djokovic’s colleagues in creating this scheme) all propose that 50 per cent of the prize money from the ATP Finals, if they go ahead this year, should be put toward the relief fund.

That is all good and laudable but, as president of the ATP player council, Djokovic knows only too well that getting 100 players to agree on anything is difficult. Sometimes it is all but impossible. Getting them to agree on opening their wallets for the common good may be asking too much. However, the Big Three have come up with the plan and must now wait to see whether it will get the necessary approval to put it into practice.

Meanwhile, there are stirrings on the tennis tour in Europe. As reported in the Sunday Telegraph in London, the first event since the lockdown began will soon be held in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate (it is to the West of Frankfurt and has borders with Belgium, France and Luxembourg).

Germany is cautiously tip-toeing its way out of lockdown which has allowed the Tennis Point Exhibition Series to go ahead. Starting on May 1, the event will be held behind closed doors and apart from the two players on each court, the only other person allowed in the vicinity will be the chair umpire. In all, 32 matches will be played over four days with the Tennis Channel broadcasting the action and the scores being streamed to bookmakers and betting websites.

The relaxing of the Germany’s Covid-19 restrictions has not spread to travel yet so only local players are allowed to compete but the biggest name among them is Dustin “Dreddy” Brown, the former world No.64 who is now ranked No.239.

Two weeks later, Patrick Mouratoglou will launch the Ultimate Tennis Showdown at his academy in the south of France. Featuring 10 matches each weekend over five weekends, the event will run until June and will be streamed live. The opening match on May 16 will be between David Goffin and Alexei Popyrin.

The Spanish have taken a different path and to replace the cancelled Mutua Madrid Open, they have come up with the Mutua Madrid Virtual Pro – an online tennis competition between some of the best players in the world all playing via their PlayStation consoles at home.

Running from April 27 over four days, both the ATP and the WTA will be on show competing in two 16-strong draws. Each draw will be split into four groups of four with the winners and runners up from each group going through to the knock-out stage beginning with the quarter-finals.

There is a prize fund of €150,000 for each draw with the winners deciding on how much of that will go to players struggling financially during the pandemic. A further €50,000 will be donated by the tournament to help with the social impact of Covid-19.

So far 20 players have signed up for the virtual extravaganza with Nadal, Andy Murray and Sascha Zverev leading the men’s contingent and Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens and Belinda Bencic heading the charge from the WTA.

But while the organisers are keen to point out that the virtual contest will be staged in a virtual Manolo Santana Stadium at a virtual Caja Magica – a stadium that they tell us has been recreated in “exquisite detail” by the game designers – there is no mention of how the players will be policed.

If the players are dotted all over the world, allegedly playing in their own homes, who is to say that they cannot bring in a ringer? Who is to say that the chap thrashing Rafa in group stages has not allowed his console to be taken over remotely by Marlon from Macclesfield, a pale youth in anorak and flip flops who has not been seen in daylight since 2008? Marlon may not be able to run for a bus – especially not in those flip flops – but he has the thumbs of an angel and has not been beaten online since the days of dial-up.

Not that we are casting aspersions on any of the players involved but it may just be that the Tennis Integrity Unit will have rather more work than it imagined in the coming weeks.

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