TENNIS

Tennis is over with COVID-19, but the virus is not over tennis

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With the final match looming, this year’s edition of Wimbledon has already proven many points.

Rafael Nadal can play high-level tennis with a zombie foot and a tear in an abdominal muscle, but only for a while. Iga Swiatek is beatable, at least on grass. Elena Rybakina, born in Moscow and representing Kazakhstan, qualifies for the women’s singles final.

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But perhaps most surprisingly, after 27 months of tournament cancellations, events without spectators, constant testing and bubble-like environments, tennis may have finally outgrown COVID-19.

For nearly two years, longer than almost any other major sport, tennis has struggled to coexist with the pandemic.

In November, when the NFL, NBA, Premier League and most other sports organizations had resumed a life that largely resembled 2019 – no masks, no tests, no bubbles – tennis players were still living with restrictions on their movements, videotaping online press conferences and having cotton swabs stuck in their noses at tournaments.

A month later Novak Djokovic, then No. 1 in men’s singles, contracted a second case of COVID-19 just in time to secure, he thought, special entry to Australia to play the Australian Open. , even though he was not vaccinated against COVID. -19 and the country was still largely reserved for vaccinated people. Australian officials ended up kicking him out because they said he might inspire others not to get vaccinated, a drama that dominated the run-up to the tournament and its early days.

The episode crystallized how tennis, with its kinetic international calendar, had been subject to the will and whims of local governments, with rules and restrictions sometimes changing weekly. Frequent travel and communal locker rooms have made players something like sitting ducks, always a nasal swab away from being locked in a hotel room for 10 days, sometimes away from home, no matter how careful they are.

Tennis, unlike other sports that have overstepped health and medical guidelines to keep their coffers full, has had to reflect where society as a whole is at at each stage of the pandemic. Its main organizers canceled or postponed everything to the spring and early summer of 2020, although Djokovic hosted an exhibition tournament that ended up being something of a superspreader event.

The 2020 US Open went as planned at the end of the summer without spectators. Being at the usually bustling Billie Jean King National Tennis Center those weeks in New York was like being on the surface of the moon.

A rescheduled French Open followed in the cold of a Parisian drop with only a few hundred fans allowed. Australia has largely subjected players to a 14-day quarantine before they can compete at the 2021 Australian Open.

As vaccinations proliferated later in the year, the crowds returned, but players generally had to live in bubbles, unable to move around the cities they inhabited until the events of the summer in the United States. But as the delta variant spread, the bubbles returned. Then came the showdown between Australia and Djokovic’s vaccine, just as disputes over mandates were heating up elsewhere.

However, in recent months, as public attitudes towards the pandemic have changed, mask mandates have been lifted and travel restrictions eased, even tennis has seemingly moved on, even though the virus did not do the same.

There were no compulsory tests for Wimbledon or Roland-Garros. People don’t know what to do if they get sniffles or a sore throat, and tennis players are no different. Many players said they weren’t sure what the rules were for those who started feeling unwell. While two high-profile players, Matteo Berrettini and Marin Cilic, withdrew from Wimbledon after testing positive, with no obligation to take a test, they and any other player could have chosen not to take a test and play through. the symptoms they were experiencing. .

“So many rules,” Nadal said. “For some people, some rules are good; for others, the rules are not good. If there are rules, we have to follow the rules. Otherwise, the world is a mess.

After nearly two years of the bubble’s life, however, the harshest complaints about a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach and security mandates were virtually non-existent.

Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia, whose country has some of the strictest pandemic policies, said she remains cautious, especially during the biggest events, but has reached the point where she has to find a balance between safety and sanity.

“I just try to take care of myself as much as possible where I still don’t completely isolate myself, where it’s not fun to live,” said Tomljanovic, who lost to Rybakina in the quarter-finals.

Paula Badosa, a Spanish star, said she stopped worrying about the virus.

“I’ve had every type of COVID possible,” said Badosa, who first tested positive in Australia in January 2021 and has had it twice more. “I was also vaccinated. So in my case, if I have it again, it will be very unlucky.

Both men’s and women’s tour officials said that regardless of infection levels, their organizations have no plans to resume regular testing or restrict player movement. They said they would follow the lead of local officials.

With testing, quarantine and isolation requirements having all but disappeared, or merely existing only as recommendations, tennis finally appears to have entered a phase of pandemic apathy, as has much of society, omicron and its subvariants be damned.

There is, of course, one major exception to all of this, and that is Djokovic, whose refusal to get vaccinated – unique among the top 100 players on the men’s tour – will apparently rule him out of the US Open.

US rules require all foreigners entering the country to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Djokovic said he believes individuals should be allowed to choose to do so without pressure from governments.

Also, because he was kicked out of Australia, Djokovic would need a special exemption to return to the country to compete in the Australian Open in January. He won the men’s singles title nine times.

Unless the rules change he won’t be able to play in another Grand Slam tournament until the French Open next May, which he said he was well aware of but which wouldn’t change his thinking about playing. opportunity to get vaccinated.

In other words, COVID-19 really isn’t done playing games with tennis.

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