Pro tennis restart: It’s love-all ladies in Palermo, once a Covid-19 hotspot
For a sport that naturally allows for social distancing of players for most parts on the field of play, it was ironic that tennis made the most negative headlines in the lead up to its resumption in the Covid-19 pandemic era.
As professional tennis takes its first step in the restart process after a four-month hiatus with the 31st WTA Palermo Ladies Open starting on Monday (the qualifiers begin Saturday), it will seek to inject some much-needed positivity with a smooth and safe conduct of the week-long event.
The onus falls on Oliviero Palma, the tournament director, to ensure that.
Getting tennis back on its feet in Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is no mean task especially considering Italy was a Covid-19 hotspot in March and April. The total active cases in the country have since dropped to around 12,000 from lakhs in April-May. Palma had anticipated this, never once being in doubt about his tournament going ahead this year.
“When the lockdown started in March, I made some calculations looking at Beijing and Palermo, which can be considered similar in certain aspects. What I imagined was that if the curve in Beijing was flattening after a three-month quarantine, something similar could happen in Palermo. Then, our people’s diligence did the rest, and thus far we can consider Sicily to be Covid-free. I almost guessed it right!” Palma said in an e-mail interview.
The optimism can’t be mistaken for carelessness, for Palma is well aware of the cost of dropping one’s guard. Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour showed that with a host of top players including Djokovic testing Covid-19 positive last month after the Balkans exhibition tournament showed scant regard for safety regulations and physical distancing. The misadventure threatened to disrupt professional tennis’ comeback bid, and its after-effects still has players publicly debating about restarting the Tour so soon.
“I see the Adria Tour as a failure,” Palma said. “It showed a lack of respect to all the sacrifices many people had done to safeguard everybody’s health. However, it helped understand that right now nothing can be done if we don’t adhere to the rules. We’re restarting safely and that’s all that matters.”
Safe to say one isn’t going to see players partying in Palermo. But one also won’t witness the other extreme—the ‘bio-secure bubble’ of cricket, Formula One, MLS and NBA. The Palermo Open, while applying the WTA protocols and Italy’s safety regulations, will follow a middle path.
No strict ‘bubble’
A WTA International tournament—a rung below WTA’s top Premier level—the clay court meet will see 32 singles players and 16 doubles pairs from all around the globe. There will also be 32 qualifiers battling for four spots in the main draw.
According to Palma, each player, and everyone coming in contact with them, will be tested on arrival, before the tournament and every four days. The first batch of players arrived in Palermo on Sunday.
To oversee this process, the tournament has formed an anti-Covid team led by Antonio Cascio, a professor of Infectious Diseases at the University of Palermo. “He will be helped by professor Francesco Vitale, who will analyse the tests in the university’s laboratory. The tests will be carried out on site in the Sicilian government’s Health Service camper. Basically, we will have the best expert that Sicily, a place that managed the pandemic with great success, can provide,” Palma said.
All players will be put up in a nearby hotel, but unlike cricketers in the England-West Indies Test series, they can venture out. “They will all stay at the same hotel, where the strictest safety measures are respected. If they use all the due precautions, they might also have a tour of the city if they wish to, since the virus is barely circulating here. But it’s up to them,” Palma said.
In the Country Time Club which hosts the tournament, four courts will be used for matches and 10 for training. All the courts, areas and surfaces that players can come in contact with will frequently be sanitised, said Palma.
There will be no more than five line umpires (standard number is seven to nine) and three ball kids (standard number is six) at the same time on the court for a match. Not kids, technically, as all ball kids will have to be aged above 18. Moving away from the norm in modern tennis where ball kids provide the players with towels between points, here players will have to manage their own towels as well as drinks and food. “Every single contact must be avoided,” Palma said. “The goal is avoiding any risk.”
Welcome back, fans
So far, most events have been played behind closed doors. The Palermo Open will open the gates of its 1,500-capacity Centre Court to spectators, although the number will be restricted to 350. That includes the players, staff, fans and a reduced number of photographers and journalists.
“Our mission is to show that we not only can go back to normal, but that we must do it. However, in order to do it, it is mandatory to use all the precautions that we know well at this point: social distancing (1m distance both on the side and with other rows), face masks, cleaning hands often, etc. The enemy is still there and we can’t be caught by surprise,” Palma said.
This year’s Palermo Open has an unusually rich draw with four of the world’s top-20 singles players eager to end their wait to compete. Britain’s 2019 French Open semi-finalist Johanna Konta (world No. 14), 15th-ranked Croatian Petra Martic, 2019 Roland Garros finalist Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic (No. 18) and Greece’s Maria Sakkari (No. 20) will be in the fray.
The tournament suffered a setback when its biggest draw, world No. 2 Romanian Simona Halep, pulled out over the weekend after Italy’s decision to impose quarantine on people travelling from Romania and Bulgaria. Last-ditch efforts to convince Halep regarding exemption of the rule to professional athletes went in vain, leaving Palma “embittered and profoundly disappointed”.
That bitterness though won’t sour the tournament’s sense of honour and excitement of leading professional tennis’ resumption charge amid a pandemic. “I feel a great sense of happiness for being able to host the first tournament after the Covid-19 (break). I’m working a lot and frankly there is no time to be nervous,” Palma said.