It’s fair to say that the coronavirus had an immense impact on the sporting world in 2020, with leagues and events across every sport being cancelled, postponed or altered to some degree. And whilst we may have left 2020 behind, the virus continues to affect sports in numerous ways. For the fans, it has meant being far removed from the teams and players we love to watch for the foreseeable future. For the players, whose livelihoods depend on being able to play, it means far more. Andy Murray’s positive test earlier this week is a stark reminder of just how fragile the thread is by which sport is currently dangling, for athletes and fans alike.
Andy Murray Tests Positive for COVID-19
Murray declined to participate in the Delray Beach Open in America over concerns he might catch COVID. He is now isolating at home in Scotland when he should be on his way to Australia. Murray’s decision to miss the Delray Beach tournament isn’t the first we’ve seen of tennis players putting their health first. Rafael Nadal decided against defending his US Open title for the same reason and Ash Barty didn’t play at all last year once the pandemic began. The fact that Murray contracted the virus anyway is a cruel irony. However, it is also a strong reminder to the rest of the tennis world that the return of sport, even a sport that lends itself to social distancing as strongly as tennis does, is not guaranteed.
Murray’s camp remains hopeful that he will be able to fly out to Australia in time for the Grand Slam. Whether there is much point in doing so for a man who, by his own admission, is desperately in need of matches under his belt to regain his previous form remains to be seen. This looks like it may be the latest hurdle in what has been a prolonged attempt to return to the game Murray loves so dearly.
Since his triumph in Antwerp in 2019, Murray hasn’t been able to string together matches consistently. A bone spur shortly after his unlikely win in Belgium put him back on the physio’s table for the start of 2020. That lack of opportunities to play culminated in a disappointing first round loss at the US Open last September. The question is: will Murray be alone in having his plans to return to tennis derailed by COVID-19?
Madison Keys to Miss Australian Open After Positive Test
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to confirm that he won’t be. Madison Keys tested positive this week as well and confirmed she would be missing the first Grand Slam of the year as a result. Murray is currently in talks with tournament organizer Craig Tiley over the possibility of his participation. Howevre, he could be the second name added to what may become a growing list of players unable to partake in the tournament. It is imperative, then, that the Australian Open organizers don’t slip up, with other sports and leagues around the world demonstrating just how easy it is for things to go wrong.
Clubs such as Aston Villa in England’s Premier League have suffered outbreaks of the virus and been forced to isolate players and postpone fixtures as a result. The same can be said of the NBA in America, Serie A in Italy, and numerous other leagues across a variety of sports around the world. However, these are team sports, with players available to fill in should a teammate be forced to miss a match. The same cannot be said of tennis. A similar outbreak in Australia would be far more damaging, both for the tournament and the WTA and ATP tours set to continue once it has finished.
Both the WTA and ATP tours have tournaments almost weekly, with the players participating in those tournaments a massive part of what attracts audiences too them. As it’s likely most of these tournaments won’t attract actual crowds, the pulling power of players will be more important than ever in getting fans to tune in and watch. It goes without saying, then, that neither tour can afford players missing tournaments on a regular basis as a result of COVID.
COVID-19 protocols and issues in tennis
The players can’t afford it either, with any money they may have made at a given tournament going instead to the person who takes their place. Australia, then, must get it right and set the tone for the year ahead. It can be done, as the USTA showed in New York in September of last year. It now rests with the organizers in Melbourne to take a feather from their cap and do the same.
The 2020 US open wasn’t without issues. Benoit Paire contracted the virus while in the “bubble” and, owing to his social nature, nearly ended the tournaments of four or five other French players such as Kristina Mladenovich as a result. However, they tested efficiently, enforced rules strictly, and were quick to act when the Paire issue came to light. It is vital that the Australian Open is run in a similar manner.
Whether Murray and Keys make an appearance in Melbourne remains to be seen. The tennis world surely hopes so. They hope with equal ferocity that no more players are added to the list of doubtful participants in the days and weeks leading up to the first Grand Slam of the year.
It is more likely than not that players will miss tournaments this year as a result of picking up the virus. However, the organizers of the Australian Open must show that is possible to host a tournament that protects the players participating in it. If they can do that, then there is hope that by and large the tours can continue as planned, and that the numerous story lines tennis fans were looking forward to watching unfold in 2021 are not hampered in the same manner as Murray’s and Keys’ might have just been. Only time will tell if that’s possible. The eyes of the tennis world will surely be fixed on Melbourne, no matter who’s playing, as the sport takes the first stab at running a COVID-safe Grand Slam in 2021.