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U.S. Open Tennis Crosses Its Fingers, Madrid Is In Doubt And Palermo Ploughs On Regardless

Rafa Nadal had confirmed his entry in the Mutua Madrid Open.

By Alix Ramsay

Friday came and Friday went and nothing changed: the USTA is still working on the assumption that they will be ready to stage the Western and Southern Open and the US Open in New York at the end of this month and on into September. But their message to the world on Friday was far from definite.

“The USTA continues its plans to stage the US Open and host both the US Open and the Western Southern Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center,” the official statement read. “We remain confident that our top priority, the health and safety of all involved in both tournaments, remains on track.”

The USTA continues its plans to stage the US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

The use of the words “plans” and “confident” gave the overwhelming impression that anything and everything could change at any moment. They are not “sure” and the tournament is not “guaranteed” – but that is only to be expected.

As the USTA were making their announcement, the Mutua Madrid Open was preparing for the worst. Scheduled to start on finals weekend at the US Open, the Madrid event had hoped to launch the rearranged European Clay court season with fanfares and hurrahs. Rafa Nadal had confirmed his entry; the organisers were expecting to welcome fans (not many, but fans nonetheless) into the complex – it was all looking good.

And then the infection rates in Spain and its capital spiked and the local government contacted the tournament and asked them to cancel. As yet, no final decision has been made but the mood is glum.

On Saturday, the tournament issued its official statement (there have been an awful lot of these of late) which promised a decision in the near future but offered very little hope.

Due to the increase in cases of covid-19 the organisers of the Mutua Madrid Open stated their concerns about being able to stage the tournament.

It read: “The organisers of the Mutua Madrid Open have been in close communication with the competent health organisations in the Community of Madrid, represented by Antonio Zapatero, Deputy Secretary of Public Health, and with the National Sports Council (CSD). The aforementioned organisations have always shown the utmost cooperation, resolving all the issues put forward by the organisers and facilitating the process at all times in order to be able to hold the 2020 Mutua Madrid Open.

“In the last meeting, on 29 July, due to the increase in cases of covid-19 in Madrid in recent days, the organisers of the Mutua Madrid Open stated their concerns about being able to stage the tournament free from health complications that might affect the players, fans and staff. In view of this situation, the organisers of the Mutua Madrid Open requested the help of Antonio Zapatero, Deputy Secretary of Public Health, and were advised not to stage the tournament due to the current trend of covid-19 cases.

“As they have throughout the entire process, in that meeting, the organisers of the Mutua Madrid Open benefitted from the cooperation and help of the Community of Madrid in analysing the situation, which is unfortunately deteriorating day by day. As it is impossible to guarantee a positive change in this situation in the coming weeks, the organisers of the Mutua Madrid Open wanted to make a decision in good time.”

The tournament, at the moment, retains the right to make the final decision on whether to go ahead and it will be made by Ion Tiriac and Super Slam Ltd., the tournament’s licence holder.

Novak Djokovic celebrates after winning the 2019 Mutua Madrid Open. Djokovic contracted Covid-19 earlier this summer.

For now, they are still “analysing and closely evaluating all the possible options” but those options are diminishing by the hour. On June 29, Spain reported 200 cases of Covid-19 nationally; on Friday the infection rate had surged and 3,092 people had contracted the virus. That does not bode well for the Mutua Madrid Open.

Over in Italy, the WTA will reopen the 2020 tennis season as planned on Monday with the 31st Palermo Ladies Open. And this despite one player testing positive for the virus.

The WTA will reopen as planned on Monday with the 31st Palermo Ladies Open.

The player, who is asymptomatic, has not been named but has withdrawn from the event and will remain in isolation until tests prove that she is free of the virus. All those she has been in contact with are being tested. Convinced that their “covid-19 response plan” was enough to deal with the problem, the WTA said that the event would go ahead and, sure enough, the qualifying tournament began on Saturday.

But the tournament will go ahead without Simona Halep who pulled out last weekend. She made the news public on social media and said that her withdrawal was due to “the recent rise in Covid19 cases in Romania and my anxieties around international air travel at this time”.

Simona Halep pulled out of the Palermo Ladies Open last weekend due to the recent rise in Covid19 cases in Romania and her anxieties around international air travel.

What she did not mention was the fact that two days before her announcement, the Italian government decreed that travellers from Romania and Bulgaria must self-isolate for two weeks upon arrival in the country – she would not have been allowed to play even if she had wanted to. Clearly, Simona is not only a fine tennis player but also a budding diplomat.

The question now is who will want to play where? If the European tournaments are under threat due to a surge in covid-19 cases following the loosening of lockdown restrictions, will more players feel inclined to take the plunge and play in New York? After all, if there is not much to come home to after the Open is finished, why not go to the US even if they have to go into quarantine when they get home?

Once they are in New York, the tournament can only function if everyone obeys the rules to the letter – and Andy Murray wants severe penalties for those who flout them.

“I think the majority of players will stick to the rules but it would be silly to expect nobody would break the rules and the protocols,” he said during the Battle of the Brits exhibition event being held at the National Training Centre in London this week.

Murray wants to get back to work and pit himself against the world’s best at the biggest tournaments.

“You’ve seen that in the NBA and I think it has happened in the golf. In the NBA for example, which I think will be a similarish set-up for us, players have broken it so we should be preparing for that and that is where it is really important, I think, that the repercussions should be quite serious because you end up putting the whole tour and event at risk.

“The USTA is going through a huge effort to try to get this on and make it as safe as possible so if players aren’t abiding by the rules, the repercussions should be severe.”

Given a second lease of life thanks to his hip resurfacing surgery, Murray wants to get back to work and pit himself against the world’s best at the biggest tournaments. But at the age of 33 and as the father of three small children, the Scot is not daft. Even if the USTA can protect the players once they arrive in New York – and that is anything but certain given the nature of this virus – there are still risks involved in getting there.

“It’s everyone’s personal decision. If they don’t feel safe, and don’t feel comfortable, travelling and going there and putting themselves and their team at an increased risk, then it’s completely understandable [that they would pull out].

“All of the players will have some reservations and it’s whether or not you feel comfortable taking that risk. Like I said the other day, my feeling is once we are inside that bubble they created, we will be OK. It’s more the international travel, and getting there which I will be a bit concerned about it. I will probably book flights in the next couple of days.”

So, tennis wants to start up again, a lot of the players are willing to take the risk to get tennis on the road again but it all comes down to whether the virus will let them. In short, not much has changed in the last five months.