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The Brave New World Of Women’s Tennis – It’s All A Load Of Balls – And WTA Limits Entourage To ONE

Serena Williams’ entourage at the Australian Open.

By Alix Ramsay

The day of reckoning is coming for the WTA Tour. The culture of tennis as we know it is about to change. And it will not be easy.

As the sport cautiously peeps over the parapet to see the lie of the land, it is not exactly reassured but it is no longer absolutely terrified.

Sure, the world is still in chaos: Covid-19 is still out there, silently spreading its poison; trade and travel are still frozen, people are still scared, town centres are still deserted and buses and trains are still empty. But it was like this a couple of weeks ago, too. Nothing much has changed, then. Does that mean things are calming down? If so, is this the time to make plans for the future?

Gradually, some countries are easing their lockdown restrictions and some of us are allowed to tiptoe back into the sunlight. In the UK, we are allowed to play tennis and golf again, albeit with a host of new rules about hygiene and social distancing.

Tennis courts at The Barbican Estate in London are open as lockdown restrictions are eased.

At the same time, no one has thought to come up with a set of guidelines to allow kids who have been under virtual house arrest for the past nine weeks to get out and play football safely. So middle class and predominantly middle aged people can play posh sports but kids from poorer communities, those who live in apartments with no access to a garden, those who are chock full of energy and are desperate to get out to let off some steam and have some fun – they have to stay put. ‘Twas ever thus.

The rules in England allow tennis players to use outdoor courts for singles provided they bring all their own equipment (but not too much of it), they wipe everything from rackets to water bottles with sanitiser before and after use and they maintain a two metre distance between themselves and their opponents. Each player must bring their own set of tennis balls and these must be clearly marked so there can be no confusion or cross contamination. And no handshaking before or after the session. Doubles is only allowed with members of your own household (which is unlikely to do much for family harmony when everyone returns to their locked down home). It’s a bit of a faff but it’s a start.These rules seem to be pretty universal wherever tennis is being played again. And if you want a bit of a giggle, watch this clip and pity poor Laura Curran, the Nassau County Executive, trying to make her public service announcement with the script from hell. Her political career may never be the same again but at least she went viral before it all unravelled.

As all of this happens around them, the powers that be at the WTA are making plans for if/when/perhaps/maybe/sometime soon/who knows when the tour gets back on the road. The players know full well that life will not be the same, not in the immediate future at any rate, but the recent diktat issued about their support teams must have come as a surprise.

According to Donna Vekic’s coach, Torben Beltz, each player is now only allowed to have one – count them, one – person with them on site in order to limit the number of accredited people at each event. Explaining this over the course of an extended chat with Advantage-Podcast, the new world he described would clearly take some getting used to.

In the days just before the pandemic, the players’ lounge at any tournament was always packed. No self-respecting player would ever be seen without a coach, a fitness trainer, a physio, a psychologist, an agent, a media liaison person (they are easy to spot: they have at least four phones, a fierce look and can say “No!” in 37 different languages), several family members, a dog, a dog walker, a hitting partner and an assortment of friends. As for the players with children, they also brought nannies (or grannies, depending on their financial status) and a significant other. But not anymore.

WTA Tour players’ lounges are busy with activity.

Choosing who to bring and who to leave behind will be a nightmare; it will be like being forced to choose their favourite child. Does she bring her coach? That would be sensible. But then there is the agent who makes the money. Does the agent pull rank over the coach? Or does the player have ultimate control (she can hire and fire who she wants, after all) and might she say ‘to hell with the lot of them, I’m travelling with my other half’?

And what about the really complicated cases like Serena. She travels with a small army of people including her husband and daughter – which one will she travel with in future? Can she bring herself to leave little Olympia at home? If not, who will look after No.1 daughter while Serena is on court? And then there is her agent, Jill Smoller.

Jill Smoller (R) with Serena Williams at the Royal Wedding.

Serena and Jill are virtually joined at the hip – Serena even managed to blag an invitation for Jill to attend Harry and Meghan’s wedding (she was in every picture, just behind Serena and her husband). Not even Elton John and David Furnish managed to get an extra ticket for their bestie. Even Oprah came without a plus one. Surely Serena cannot travel without Jill.

Then there is the problem of Patrick Mouratoglou. Yes, he is her coach but he also works with Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexei Popyrin and Coco Gauff, to name but a few. Is he the travelling team member for all of them? If so, Serena could claim that he only counts as one quarter of a person in her allocation. That would allow her to bring Olympia who is not yet three so only counts as less than half a grown-up. If Patrick and Olympia add up to, say, threequarters of a team member, that would allow Jill to nip in and out every fourth game. Or, alternatively, she could stay for the whole day every second Thursday provided there is an ‘r’ in the month. Or, more likely, Serena will do whatever Serena wants to do. Methinks there will be blood…

Of course, all of this depends on the quarantine regulations in each country. The UK has just announced a 14-day compulsory quarantine period for anyone entering the country, even Brits coming home. The US is even stricter and does not allow anyone in from Europe, the UK, Ireland, China and Iran.

The Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, has recently made an amendment to this order which “exempts certain foreign professional athletes who compete in professional sporting events organised by certain leagues, including their essential staff and their dependents, from proclamations barring their entry into the US.” This amendment is designed to get sport in America up and running again. But it comes with a huge caveat.

The amendment to the order ends with: “The Acting Secretary may add or remove those exempted from the list based on assessments of national interest, including the plans of the relevant professional sporting groups to support sporting events in the United States that do not cause an unnecessary risk to the public health.”

And in a world where most of us have waited for two months just to be allowed to meet one other person in a public place, only outside in the open air, and only while maintaining a two metre distance between both parties, the time that a major tennis tournament with players, officials, administrators, broadcasters, media, security, fans and ancillary staff is deemed not to “cause an unnecessary risk to the public health” seems a million years away.

Right, then – it’s back to socially distanced singles and hand sanitisers. And remember, people, as the good lady from Nassau County said: you can kick your opponent’s balls as much as you like but just keep your hands off ‘em. You know it makes sense.

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