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Courting controversy on a rocky road to resumption

China Daily | Updated: 2020-06-02 09:16
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Spain's Rafael Nadal in action during the exhibition match against Switzerland's Roger Federer (not pictured) in Cape Town, South Africa, Feb 7, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

PARIS-Professional tennis has been in cold storage since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, with tournaments unlikely to resume before August.

AFP Sport looks at three talking points as the sport heads into June:

Closed-door conundrum

In 2019, the US Open attracted a record crowd of almost 740,000 to its sprawling Billie Jean King Tennis Center in New York.

Last year's French Open at Roland Garros in Paris brought in 520,000 paying customers.

However, the 2020 editions of the two remaining Grand Slam events on the calendar will look very different, with the chance of them being played behind closed doors a very real possibility to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.

Roger Federer, whose 20-Grand Slam haul includes five titles at the US Open and one in Paris, is not keen on seeing rows and rows of empty seats.

"I can't bear to see an empty stadium. I hope that won't happen," the Swiss star was quoted as saying by Brazilian media recently.

Two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova said she too has no desire to play a major without spectators.

"I would like to play another Grand Slam, but if it's like this, I'd rather cancel them," Kvitova said.

"Playing without fans who are our engine doesn't look nice to me and the Grand Slam doesn't deserve it."

As far as the rescheduled Roland Garros in September and October is concerned, Jean-Francois Vilotte, the director-general of the French Tennis Federation (FFT), told AFP: "The aim is that there will be spectators.

"But we will have the capacity to organize Roland Garros whatever the option decided, including behind closed doors."

Money matters

There has been no prize money to play for over the best part of three months but that hasn't stopped it being discussed.

The ATP and WTA tours, the International Tennis Federation and the four Grand Slams-Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and US Open-backed a fund worth more than $6 million to support lower-ranked players hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

World No 1 Novak Djokovic had already said that he, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal-the sport's biggest earners with each having banked over $100 million in prize money alone-were also willing to help.

However, world No 3 Dominic Thiem was not keen on giving money to lower-ranked players.

"Quite honestly I have to say that no tennis player will be fighting to survive, even those who are much lower-ranked," said the Austrian.

Marion Bartoli, the 2013 Wimbledon champion, chimed in last week by suggesting a reduction in doubles events with prize money diverted to struggling players.

"You just don't make the same effort (in doubles) as a singles player. You don't practice so much, your routine is different.

"I don't know if we have to stop doubles completely, but to get less money and give that money to qualification and others, that could be the solution."

Exhibition exceptions

Despite the shutdown of the professional tours, there is some tennis going on in the world at a series of tightly controlled exhibition events.

Germany kicked it off on May 1 with an eight-man exhibition in the tiny town of Hoehr-Grenzhausen, near Koblenz which featured Dustin Brown, who famously defeated Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2015.

Strict rules over health and safety meant there were no fans, no ball boys or girls and no line judges. There was just a chair umpire.

Handshakes were banned, players handled their own towels and brought their own water and fruit to the clay courts.

Similar events followed in the US before Petra Kvitova won an all-Czech event in Prague last week.

"The gloves, face masks, the fact nobody handed us the towels, no handshakes, that was definitely bizarre," said Kvitova.

Other exhibitions are scheduled including a World Team Tennis tournament in West Virginia in July featuring Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin and 2017 US Open winner Sloane Stephens.

Andy Murray will return from his latest injury problem on June 23 in a charity tournament in London.

After criticizing Thiem's stance on helping out the lower-ranked players, Australian Nick Kyrgios is due to join the Austrian at a grass-court event-likely the only one this summer-at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport from July 17-19.

Agence France-Presse

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