Photo by Kevin Mueller

The Safest Sport is not COVID Proof

With old favorites like Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams and new stars like Naomi Osaka and Dominic Thiem competing for titles, tennis was in an exciting place in 2020. In mid-March, everything stopped as the world of tennis was reckoning with the pandemic.

While the CDC classified tennis as a “lower risk” sport that is apt for social distancing, they also recommend playing with people in the same region. During the summer months some players participated in smaller exhibition tournaments with people from their country.  Without fans or without ball kids, things were obviously different. Tapping racquets instead of shaking hands became the new normal. Even in these smaller events, several players tested positive for coronavirus and had to quarantine.

Not everyone was happy with the new safety measures. There was a group of players who thought that coronavirus was not a big deal—including Novak Djokovic—the top men’s tennis player in the world. In June, he hosted the Adria Tour in four European countries with no social distancing measures in place. Stands were full of people not wearing masks. There was even a player party with a full open bar. After Djokovic and three other participants tested positive, the event was canceled. He faced condemnation from the tennis community and did issue an apology.

In August and September, the US Open and the French Open were successfully completed. Six people had to withdraw in the qualifying rounds of the French Open because of the illness. Some players like Nicholas Kyrios and Sam Stosur decided not to play either tournament. Several top players withdrew from the US Open citing concerns about traveling outside of Europe during a pandemic. A lot of the safety measures seen in the smaller exhibitions remained including regular testing.

In October, Sam Querrey, his wife, and his 8-month old son contracted coronavirus in Russia and fled the country. He was scheduled to play a first-round tennis match. Once his family tested positive, he thought they would have to isolate in their hotel for 14 days. Soon they were informed that they might have to go to the hospital if they were experiencing symptoms. Querrey and his family left to a nearby country on a private jet, exposing those on the jet to the virus. He could face disciplinary action for violating the ATP’s code of conduct. This can mean potentially being banned from the sport for three years.

Individual responsibility matters a lot in a sport like tennis. Players hire their own coaches and determine their travel schedules. Heck, players can host their own exhibition tournaments. In areas like doping and match fixing, tennis is notoriously known for harsh punishment. Breaking quarantine rules should be held to a higher standard since other people’s lives are affected. Just because tennis is a low risk sport, does not mean there is no risk.

Grigor Dimitrov was one of the players affected at Djokovic’s tournament. He talked about how fatigued he still felt weeks after testing positive for COVID-19. Without knowing the long-term effects, both the tours should make sure that players are following the health and safety distancing protocols. When someone like Querrey violates the rules, consequences should follow and be swift.

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