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Threads of uncertainty on full display as tennis returns to Wimbledon

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With the return of tennis at Wimbledon on Monday, the only thing perfectly clear about the sport’s reentry from the pandemic will be the crisp whites that players don at the All England Club over the next two weeks. The sport is in the middle of its own edgy transition. Like restaurants, schools, supermarkets and the culture at large, tennis in a pandemic world remains uncertain — even as having Wimbledon back is a welcomed event.

Wimbledon was canceled last year amid the pandemic, the last memories of the tournament being Roger Federer serving with two match points against Novak Djokovic in the 2019 final only to see Djokovic survive and win the championship. The United Kingdom is now one of the major hotspots for the COVID-19 Delta variant, identified so far as the latest, most transmissible strain of the coronavirus — arriving concurrently with relaxed restrictions on public gatherings.

If proclaiming the pandemic over based on declining death rates feels like it isn’t quite the measure to deem the coast clear, people nevertheless seem ready to get on with it. There was no debate about canceling the tournament this year, though several players have expressed unease at a second year of playing in front of empty seats. The Wimbledon footprint is compact, the number of fans has outgrown the legendary quaintness of the grounds, but the tournament requires proof of full vaccination or of a negative test within 48 hours. Despite erratic vaccination rates and surges in the U.K., India and South America, capacity for the Wimbledon fortnight will be limited to 50% until the finals, when it will be increased to 100% for both the men’s and women’s title matches.

Europe’s soccer championships are being played at varying capacities around the continent — a strategy that feels premature for tennis, a sport unlike soccer, that is often played indoors and in tight quarters. The decision to play or participate as a spectator is every bit an emotional one as much as it is scientific, and at some point the mental toll of what the world has endured in the shadow of 4 million deaths worldwide must be examined instead of politicized.

At the beginning of 2020, the French wizard Gael Monfils was enjoying his finest start to a season in years — 16-3 with two titles, and losses only to top-5 players Dominic Thiem and Djokovic — but Monfils has barely won a match since the pandemic began. Monfils was 0-4 in 2020 after the restart, and he is 2-11 since overall. There is a difference between effect and damage. The effects of the pandemic have been relatively obvious for the past 16 months. The damage will take years to calculate. The spiraling post-restart career of Monfils, one of the best reasons to buy a ticket to any event, should be instructive. Monfils, Thiem and Benoit Paire have all expressed unease in navigating pandemic tennis — and the play of each has suffered. The mental health of the players is not confined to the interview room.

It’s been four weeks since Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open following her refusal to attend postmatch news conferences. After the Grand Slam Board’s bludgeoning response to her decision — it threatened her with daily fines and suspension not just from Roland-Garros but all four tennis majors — Wimbledon officials announced they had reached out to Osaka to engage her in a dialogue for her participation. The next correspondence they received from Osaka was her withdrawal from the tournament.

Osaka’s withdrawal from Roland-Garros sparked a conversation about the mental health of athletes and was directed toward the historical and nonstop battle between the press and the athletes instead of where the true fight lies: the harsh and unnecessary response of the Grand Slam Board. But a month later, Osaka’s battle has largely become her own. If a larger movement exists supporting her concerns, it is at present a silent one. Virtually no players have suggested the necessity for the type of reforms she seemed to be advocating, and now she has missed the past two major tournaments — a blow to the events, to her as a championship player, to the marquee draw and to the fans who come to see her play. A tournament with Osaka playing is a better one.

She is the reigning champion of the upcoming US Open, the event at which she became part of the athlete movement against police brutality. Like Djokovic, Osaka is the world’s best hard-court player, and while the tournaments have taken a hard, unified stance to both maintain control and to seemingly remind her that she is just a player — and the show resumes without her — the game isn’t as good without its best players.

The public, at least its rabid social media component, viewed the Osaka affair as a media vs. player courtroom struggle when in actuality the battle remains a labor struggle. The players are the game.

And what will the players do with the game? Osaka’s emergence as a figure in the social justice movement and the 2020 pandemic shutdown were the dominant events of the tennis calendar; but the Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil-led Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) continues to shape itself as an upstart rival challenge to both the ATP and WTA as an alternate (and potentially unisex) players’ union. In a potentially important development, Djokovic said he has been speaking with Serena Williams about the PTPA. A tennis union for men and women — a combined advocacy body — would be unprecedented.

The PTPA at present, however, is more attractive as an idea than a reality. Competition is always good; it forces institutions to be better. But for an opening act, the PTPA is acting more like an additional problem than part of the solution. He is the undisputed best tennis player in the world, but, as of yet, Djokovic has not gained the requisite trust in numbers to be seen as a true leader — even as he publicly advocates for the lower-ranked players for whom playing tennis is often financially prohibitive. A week ago, the PTPA announced an executive director and an advisory board. One of those members, Katarina Pijetlovic, already has apologized for past derogatory tweets about “some high profile players.” Pijetlovic referred to “several tweets from a long time ago,” but it was just nine months ago, in a now-deleted tweet in September 2020, when she called Osaka “all fake” — hardly ancient history, and hardly the opening act of a body trying to convince players it can be trusted.

The ATP fired back at the PTPA announcement, reiterating that it is the sole voice of the players and player partner with the business of tennis, especially as the game moves toward a crucial vote on a 30-year strategic plan that would define the future of the sport. Djokovic, eager to delay the vote, fired back on social media. The ATP returned fire. The other two giants of the sport, Rafael Nadal and Federer, appear to be firmly supportive of the ATP. Reentry to grass tennis will share the attention with the players tearing themselves apart.

The upper leadership of the ATP has been fraying for years, and its history would not make women particularly comfortable with any collaboration with the men. It was at Wimbledon in 2013, when the men did their very best to tell women they were not worthy of sharing a tournament with them because men settle their differences in best-of-five matches at majors while the women play best of three. The insinuation was women did not deserve equal pay because they spend demonstrably less time on court. Gilles Simon, the French player who at the time headed the ATP Player Council, took the weight as the bad guy chauvinist; but Simon in his position was not speaking for himself but all male players, and during that Wimbledon — won by equal-rights champion Andy Murray — men’s players did not criticize Simon’s position.

The ATP is treating the PTPA as a threat, not a collaborator, but a new union that included women under one umbrella would certainly command the attention of the sport and undermine, at least in theory, the muted but constant misogyny the men have displayed toward the women’s game for years.

The power of the biggest tournaments is the opportunity to see the best tennis, the most tennis, Williams on one court, Djokovic on another, and Nadal, Federer and Osaka on others. Several years ago, talk had increased of the men further separating themselves from joint events, but if the PTPA wants to be truly revolutionary, there has to be some steak behind its sizzle. The top women players have not expressed much support for it or even acknowledged the PTPA to be seriously canvassing them for support — which is essential. Even much of the words of intrigue and support from Serena Williams’ camp haven’t come directly from her, but from her husband, Alexis Ohanian. While it is unlikely Ohanian would advocate for the PTPA without some buy-in from Serena, the best way to show women are empowered in this new venture is to hear from them directly. As a concept, a unisex union of tennis players would be a powerful step. If it wants to be seen as legitimate and not simply disrupting for the sake of disruption, the PTPA has a lot to prove.

The reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers faded meekly from the NBA playoffs but not before LeBron James blamed his unsuccessful title defense on leaguewide injuries during a compressed season, a season that was negotiated by the players beforehand. As Wimbledon begins, Simona Halep (the reigning champion from 2019), two-time champion Petra Kvitova and world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty are all battling injuries — opening the sport up to the criticism that, NBA-style, pushing the French Open back a week has compressed recovery time and not given players enough transition time to the quick and slippery grass surface. Two of the top five men, Nadal and Thiem, have already withdrawn from the tournament. Halep did so Friday.

What Wimbledon will be able to count on — and what will save it from whatever fragments COVID-19, labor or injury present — is what always saves sports in the end, and that is the competition.

There is the Serena quest for 24. Wimbledon is her best surface. She reached the final in 2019, losing badly to Halep, but if there is a great pathway for her to win a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title, it is on the grass. Williams already owns the record for most Grand Slam titles in the Open era, and 24 would tie her with Margaret Court, and that, more importantly, would leave no one above her. Kvitova, Garbine Muguruza, Venus Williams and Angelique Kerber are all former Wimbledon champions in the draw. But Serena, who will be 40 in September, is still at her most dangerous on grass, evidenced by her eight titles and oversize banners of her holding trophies on what feels like every bare wall and stairwell on the grounds. Perhaps the road to 24 ends here at Church Road SW19 5AE in London. Wimbledon’s address literally has her initials.

Nadal looked weary in his Roland-Garros semifinal earlier this month with Djokovic, and those tired legs in the fourth set turned the theory that time was finally beginning to break his hold in Paris into reality; and although he hasn’t won Wimbledon since 2010 nor made a final since 2011, Nadal’s withdrawal further creates a pathway for the Age of Djokovic. Federer withdrew from Paris after winning a third-round match to push all of his chips into this tournament on his best surface. A sturdy, clock-reversing run from Federer, who will be 40 in August, would be a delight, no matter who hoists the trophy. Thiem has never reached the final, but his withdrawal makes the road even more clear for Djokovic.

Once the standard of tennis, grass is now the game’s most unique surface, with its shortest season and quickest play. It is a big-server paradise, but even all of the big guys won’t be exactly present. Milos Raonic, the 2016 finalist, withdrew with a calf injury. Stefanos Tsitsipas, who held a two-set lead over Djokovic at this year’s French Open but lost the championship, has never reached the second week on the grass nor has his fellow rising star Alexander Zverev. In their major final debuts, both Zverev and Tsitsipas held leads of two sets to love — Zverev on Thiem at the 2020 US Open, Tsitsipas in Paris earlier this month — and both lost the tournament. No major, even when Nadal with his 13 Roland-Garros titles is playing in the 16th arrondissement, is completely suspenseless, but Wimbledon is Novak’s to lose. Djokovic can tie Federer and Nadal at 20 majors with a victory. Three players, sixty majors. Incredible.


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