It’s unlikely your average pro tennis player spends much time pondering the lyrics of Dame Vera Lynn — unless they get particularly bored during two weeks of hotel quarantine — but she did inadvertently sum up life on the tennis circuit during the pandemic.
We’ll meet again. Don’t know where, don’t know when.
For most of the past two weeks, the world’s best tennis players have enjoyed the luxury of playing in stadiums at least half full of people at the Australian Open in Melbourne, but come Monday they’ll return to empty stadiums, reduced prize money and another year of uncertainty and insecurity.
Most of the players have already moved on to different tournaments in different countries, with different COVID-19 protocols, but with no better idea as to how the season will unfold than they did when they arrived in Australia almost six weeks ago.
One of the few things that is certain, is that few players have any great desire to go through two weeks of hotel quarantine again, even though that process gave them the opportunity to experience as normal a tournament as they’ve had in a year.
Novak Djokovic this week put it most bluntly when he said “the majority of the players just don’t want to go ahead with the season if we are going to have to quarantine most of the tournaments”.
“So this is something that should be discussed, like as of now,” he said.
“I want to understand how our continuation of the season post-Australia is going to look like, because this definitely is not good for players in terms of their well-being.”
Djokovic raised the prospect of playing multiple tournaments in the one location, as was done in Melbourne in the lead up to the Australian Open, and even during it, with a separate WTA event, the Phillip Island Trophy, staged at Melbourne Park during the second week of the grand slam.
Tournaments that start directly after the Australian Open, in Singapore, Montpellier in France, and Cordoba in Argentina have not required players to undergo hotel quarantine, but nobody can say it won’t become a requirement at later events.
The tournament calendar for both the ATP and WTA tours can best be described as aspirational — tournaments have been set down for certain dates, but nobody knows for sure they will go ahead or under what conditions.
Already, ATP tournaments in New Zealand, India, the United States, Morocco and Brazil have been cancelled or rescheduled, and it’s only February.
Tennis Australia is yet to tally up the full cost of staging this year’s Australian Open, but it’s set to exhaust the organisation’s $80 million cash reserve.
Losing money staging tournaments has become the new norm for tennis organisations around the world, as COVID restrictions continue to see events staged in empty stadiums.
The British LTA is yet to finalise arrangements for Wimbledon — the jewel in the sport’s crown — which was cancelled last year, for the first time since World War II.
The LTA said this week it was “cautiously optimistic” about the tournament, and its other Summer grass court events going ahead with crowds, but that the cost of staging tournaments would be double what it costs in a normal year.
Other tournaments that are going ahead are having to slash the amount of prize money they’re offering.
The Singapore Open, which starts on Monday, was added to the calendar with a one-year licence — there’s no guarantee it will be back next year, but that’s life during the pandemic. There are no guarantees.
All of this, plus the ongoing risk of contracting coronavirus while travelling from tournament to tournament, makes trying to plan a schedule for more than a few weeks ahead an almost impossible task for a tennis player.
After his loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas in Melbourne, Rafael Nadal spoke of the difficulties faced by players who want to commit to a full schedule of events.
“My personal feeling is it’s tough for the players, of course, have to do bubbles in every single event, flying just plus two, a lot of players have family and they cannot have the family with them, so that makes our tour probably tougher than ever, no?”
Nadal believes stopping the tour is an option, but one that could do serious damage to the sport as a business.
“If we stop the tour, why and how and when we will be able to come back, and a lot of jobs going to suffer a lot.
“I mean, not only players, a lot of people are living from our sport, no? If we stop our sport again, a lot of people gonna suffer, no?”
Nadal also wants more ranking protection for players, who will come under more pressure in 2021 to play more events or face a rankings freefall.
When the men’s and women’s tours were suspended in March 2020, both the ATP and WTA moved to a two-year rather than 12-month ranking system, so that players who chose not to or were unable to play were not disadvantaged.
It’s why Australia’s Ash Barty is still ranked number one, despite playing just a handful of tournaments in the past year, and why Roger Federer is still ranked fifth when his last professional match was in January 2020.
The issue for Barty is that the points from the big events she won in 2019 that brought her to number one, such as the French Open and Miami Open, will expire in the first half of this year.
If she wants to stay number one, she’ll have to venture overseas to play, or be content to slip down the rankings.
Barty took a wildcard to compete in the WTA tournament in Adelaide next week, but it’s unclear when she’ll next play an event outside of Australia.
“Yeah, it’s a tricky one because I think the health of my team and myself will always be the priority, no matter what,” Barty said after her quarter-final loss in Melbourne.
“We’ll make the right decisions for the right reasons. That kind of takes away any of the nerves or concerns knowing that we can put full trust in, if we travel, when we travel, but the right health guidelines we put in place.”
Another Australian star, Nick Kyrgios, made it clear that he would not venture overseas to play simply to maintain a healthy ranking.
“I’m not going to force myself to go to these places and quarantine for a week and then play with no crowd. That’s just not me. I just don’t think it’s right. I’m not gonna force myself to play.”
Barty and Kyrgios are lucky to have made enough money in the sport already to have the luxury to pick and choose where and when they play, but there are plenty of other Australian players who will have to travel abroad to play, or find another job.
After the WTA tournament in Adelaide next week, there is not a single professional event scheduled in Australia, at any level, for the foreseeable future.
The requirements of hotel quarantine, and the restrictions on international travel into Australia make holding such events impossible — governments were willing to make exceptions to bring the world’s best to Melbourne for a grand slam, but not for a Challenger tournament in Bendigo.
Tennis Australia is funding a series of UTR Pro events, which carry up to $25,000 prizemoney, but these events do not carry the all-important ranking points that propel an aspiring pro towards their ultimate goal of competing in the big leagues.
A lowly ranked Australian, hoping to earn points, has no choice in 2021 but to travel overseas, and then foot the bill themselves for two weeks of hotel quarantine each time they return home.
That’s going to put pursuing a tennis career out of the reach of many players, for the near future at least.