Tennis

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Facing COVID-19 Across the Net, Tennis Has a New Game Plan

27 Apr, 2020

By: Michael Popke

Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon men’s singles champion, called the cancellation of this year’s Grand Slam event — the first time since 1945, during World War II — a “kick in the gut.”

No doubt the whole tennis world is feeling that way. The coronavirus pandemic has put the sport’s entire 2020 season in jeopardy for the pros, as well as shut down play at all levels.

The United States Tennis Association initially posted the following statement on its website April 3:

Based on the recommendations of the USTA COVID-19 Advisory Group, the USTA believes that it is in the best interest of society to take a collective pause from playing the sport we love.

Although there are no specific studies on tennis and COVID-19, medical advisors believe there is the possibility that the virus responsible for COVID-19 could be transmitted through common sharing and handling of tennis balls, gate handles, benches, net posts and even court surfaces.

As a result of this, the USTA asks that as tennis players we need to be patient in our return to the courts and consider how our decisions will not only affect ourselves, but how our decisions can impact our broader communities. In the meantime, we encourage everyone to stay active and healthy with at-home exercise and creative “tennis-at-home” variations. 

Last week, the organization announced some recommendations on how to play tennis safely, with documents for players as well as documents and guidelines for facilities and programming.

Meanwhile, the Association of Tennis Professionals and Women’s Tennis Association jointly announcedthe continued suspension of the ATP and WTA Tours until July 13. Meanwhile, the French Open has been postponedfrom May to September and October, but as of April 1 the US Openwas still on for late summer.

That said, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, N.Y. — site of the US Open — has been converted to a temporary hospital to care for COVID-19 patients. According to the US Open’s website, a dozen courts in the NTC’s Indoor Training Center will house 475 beds.

When pro tennis returns, what will it look like?

“A forced four-month break will mean huge losses for the majority of players, all of whom are independent contractors, and for their support staffs,” writes Christopher Clarey of The New York Times. “Some tournaments, particularly lower-tier events, are in danger of disappearing, without insurance or, for now, any guarantee of a financial bailout.”

“We are still discussing all of this,” John Isner, a high-ranking American player and a member of the player council for the ATP, the men’s tour, told Clarey. “The top players in the world, most of those guys are going to be OK. I personally will be OK, but some people literally rely on a paycheck week after week. So the struggling professional tennis players are no different from anyone who has been furloughed or laid off through all of this in any profession.”

The Lawn Tennis Association, the sport’s national governing body in Great Britain,  already has taken steps to assist tennis venues, coaches, officials and players by announcing a financial support package valued at up to approximately 20 million pounds. The goal, LTA officials say, is to ensure “tennis in Britain emerges from this period in as strong and healthy a position as possible, and that the sport is able to resume its unique role in keeping the nation active as soon as conditions allow.”

Meanwhile, the crisis served up by the coronavirus comes at a time when the sport’s national governing body in the United States is facing additional pressure for allegedly failing to take action against a Normandie Burgos, a youth coach who was convicted in May 2019of 60 counts of child molestation. The 56-year-old is now serving a 255-year-prison sentence.

Burgos was arrested in 2014 for a second time on charges of abusing one of his teenage players. He would coach for another three years until another victim recorded Burgos in 2017 admitting to having sex with a minor.

According to The New York Times, “the tennis player who recorded Burgos, Stevie Gould, said he was repeatedly abused for two years, including at hotels during USTA tournaments in other states. ‘The light bulb went off’ to report what was happening, he said, when the coach started to groom another, younger player for sex. That player was the child of working-class immigrants and, like Gould, was given free rackets, clothes and lessons.”

The coach’s “ability to have direct access to children for so many years” is the focus of a new lawsuit against the USTA filed by one of Burgos’ alleged victims.

The USTA has not publicly spoken about the case beyond what spokesperson Chris Widmaier told The Times. “We’re not going to comment on specific litigation, but we are quite confident that we acted in the appropriate manner.”

According to the paper, “[Widmaier] said the association had taken the position in 2014 that other sports could not match what he described as the organization’s years-long and well-financed effort to make athlete safety a top priority.”

In the meantime, the USTA has started a new effort, entitled Tennis United. The landing page lists webinars, podcasts, resources and other forms of support the USTA has compiled to help its sections, as well as players as a whole, to weather the storm.

“This is where we need to look to our strengths, and to each other,” wrote leading tennis advocate Peter Francesconi, who also serves as the editor of Racquet Sports Industry Magazine. “For years, this industry has been challenged to work together for the good of this sport as a whole. Now, we must work together—for the survival of this sport and for all those in this industry.”

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