If any normalcy remained in the sporting world this year, this week would have marked the first days of the 2021 tennis season. Until just a few weeks ago, this was to be the period in which players bade goodbyes to their families before flying to Melbourne to begin their fortnight of quarantine before the start of the Australian Open. Instead, most players still do not know where they will be in three weeks’ time, when the season begins.
As things stand in these ever-shifting pandemic conditions, there will be an Australian Open. The tournament is scheduled to be moved from 18 January to 8 February and the players will likely spend two weeks in a modified quarantine at a hotel from the middle of January.
Players will likely be able to practise for limited hours during quarantine. These efforts will come at significant cost to Tennis Australia which, according to the Australian newspaper, will be taking out a loan in order to fund the event.
In the process, Covid-19 has underlined the power the grand slams have over the rest of the sport. Although the prize money and interest levels at the major events compared with all other tournaments has been clear for decades, the priorities of the grand slams do not normally clash so harshly with other tournaments. With all events determined to find a spot on the calendar to ensure their tournament is held at the right time, so far the slams have taken their pick, thrown their weight around and left the rest to scavenge for themselves.
In the middle of March 2020, it was Roland Garros that flexed its muscles by unilaterally moving its tournament from May to October, blindsiding the other governing bodies in the process. By snatching a spot on the calendar, Roland Garros forced the tournaments to adjust around it. In hindsight, the move by the French Tennis Federation was unsurprising, an organisation that sees itself as the rebellious anomaly in a conservative sport. Still, the FFT chairman, Bernard Giudicelli, has reason to argue that it was a success, allowing the event to be held while avoiding the tedious objections from the other governing bodies.
Although the Australian Open has not been as provocative, it has shown its influence in different ways. The ATP and WTA were imminently preparing to release updated versions of their 2021 tournament calendars until the sport was thrown into limbo as Tennis Australia and the Victoria government embarked on an intense, belated series of negotiations to establish the requirements necessary to safely bring 1,000 people into a state with no new community Covid cases.
As it became clear that the tournament would be moved back by three weeks, the first seven weeks of the calendar were torn up and tournaments affected have scrambled to find a new spot in the year.
In such a fluid situation, short-term planning and adaptability are essential. Tennis Australia and the Victoria government are certainly correct to methodically conduct their negotiations and to ensure that a simple tennis event does not affect the health of a country that so effectively and patiently kept Covid-19 under control. Ultimately, the tournament will provide important job opportunities for around 500 male and female players.
However, what works for the Australian Open is not necessarily helpful for the lesser tournaments charged with simply staying afloat. Almost every lower tournament has been running at a loss since tennis returned in July, a reflection of a shattered sponsor market and a sport still too reliant on crowd revenue, of which there is currently very little. Changing weeks on the calendar will further present an obstacle for tournaments that book out arenas and contracts months in advance only for their specific week in the calendar.
Before the Australian Open shifted its dates, tournament directors across the ATP and WTA tours spoke to the Guardian and a common concern was the potential that 2021 may prove an existential threat for some events. Stephen Farrow, tournament director of Queen’s, pointed out the risks should any tournament miss a second year: “Some of us were able to cancel far enough in advance that we were able to mitigate some of our losses,” he said. “We were able to do that but we all incurred losses this year. It stands to reason, therefore, that when you look ahead to next year, there must be some tournaments that are seriously considering whether they are viable or not.”
For Barbara Rittner, director of two new ATP tournaments in Cologne during 2020, her events enjoyed “successful” debuts. However, the definition of success is considerably different today than in normal times: without 30% of its total revenue from ticket sales, she said, they incurred steep losses. “I think everybody has got it that it has to be that way,” she said. “It’s just a new standard of living, a new time during this corona period. We will see a lot of tournaments dying because of sponsors that cannot do it any more.”
It is not difficult to find an example of a tournament at the cliff edge. While noting the flexibility of the ATP and his sponsors, the Orleans ATP Challenger director, Didier Gerard, was clear about what could lie ahead. “For this event to survive, we must organise at least one tournament in 2021,” he said. “It would be too sad to disappear after 15 years of success.”