Does the Rafael Nadal Academy (or a venue like it) hold the key to professional tennis returning amidst the global coronavirus pandemic? It’s a legitimate possibility for the sport as the crisis continues to roll on, hurting the financial bottom line for players and tennis executives/organizations the world over, and depriving the game’s global fanbase of new content and a distraction from the depressing, isolating, pandemic that has shut the world down.
Global sporting codes continue to evaluate when, and how to return to action, mostly for financial reasons, and also to be culturally tactful and relevant during an unprecedented time in recent history. Some, like Formula 1 and NASCAR are pushing e-sports, others like the Premier League are considering a return behind closed doors, while the vast majority have simply opted for suspension until conditions improve, which is the path organized professional tennis is currently taking, suspending at least through the grass court season in July.
The stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic to tennis are well documented, and the sport may have the hardest time coming back due to its global nature and travel heavy schedule that puts players and support staff who reside worldwide at a higher risk for illness, and requires more cooperation and getting past red tape with the global community (county by country, city by city, tournament by tournament negotiations will have to take place).
Powerful independent actors such as tv broadcasters and players, who have their finances at stake, may decide sooner, rather than later that it’s time to return to the court in a limited fashion that seemed unthinkable prior to COVID-19, and the sports fans are seeking distraction that only so many classic match replays and virtual games of AO Tennis 2 can provide.
The clearest path for tennis to return prior to the official resumption of the professional ATP and WTA tours would be in an exhibition format, and the much hyped but ill-fated IPTL (International Premier Tennis League) would be the best format for an exhibition style return for the sport to follow. The IPTL was an invitation only franchise tennis tour played during off the season for the sport from 2014-2016. Before it’s cancellation in 2016, and especially in its inaugural year the IPTL attracted international broadcast tv coverage, and major sponsors including title sponsor Coca-Cola one of the world’s most powerful and wealthy brands. Played across Asia from Dubai to the Philippines, the IPTL used that corporate cash to pay top dollar for the biggest names in tennis to take part, including Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. A repeat of an IPTL style exhibition series seems plausible in the current crisis, with broadcasters seeking content.
They were joined by other players with significant followings below the elite tier like Nick Kyrgios, Kei Nishikori, Ana Ivanovic, and Martina Hingis over the three year span. The tour financially collapsed, despite the growing interest in tennis across Asia, but the concept of a team based exhibition tour remains intriguing, especially given the success of the Laver Cup’s Team World vs Team Europe concept.
A franchise team based exhibition series with invited players (including some headlining names) would work, especially if it was slated for a limited run such as four weeks.
The Venue Problem
Presuming sponsors could be found and a broadcast deal could be secured to allow players to be financially enticed, the biggest problem is where and how could such a series be held. Unlike the IPTL, travel is impossible under the current conditions, and almost every corner of the globe is facing a risk from coronavirus as we speak. The answer lies in tennis elite training academies/resorts that are dotted around the globe. These resorts are currently closed, and already well suited to accommodate an isolated lifestyle within them for hundreds of people, an IPTL style event would likely require far less.
Presuming a location like the IMG Academy or Saddlebrook in the United States, the Rafael Nadal Academy in Spain (or Kuwait, Greece, Mexico..), or the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in France could be sanitized, secured, and locked down for the essential players, support staff, and broadcast staff needed to support an exhibition series, it would be possible to test and then once deemed healthy, isolate everyone in place for a few weeks to play out televised matches without spectators. The support staff could be kept limited including reducing line judges and relying on technology, and as long as players had access to the expected amenities, isolating at a tennis academy wouldn’t be that much worse from isolating at home. Travel would be a challenge as international air travel is limited and many countries have placed bans or required isolation periods on travelers, but surely using charter flights exemptions could be made.
Lastly, being tactful would be a concern, while players who want to need to make a living, fans want to watch tennis, and broadcasters want to generate revenue and prevent losses, there would remain a question of “should tennis be played at all during a pandemic”. This issue could be addressed by having some of the profit from the exhibition series diverted to charities related to the coronavirus including support for medical workers. vulnerable communities, and those who have fallen ill globally. An Aces for charity type approach would be positive PR for the sport, and the franchise tour should find a way to make nice with associations, and lower ranked players on tour so they derive some financial benefit, (including insuring that at least some non elite players get the opportunity to take part in the event if they wish).
It may never happen, but this is an idea at least worth considering the longer tennis corona crisis drags on.