Tennis is done with Covid-19, but the virus is not done with tennis

WIMBLEDON, England – With the final looming, this year’s edition of Wimbledon has already proved many points.

Rafael Nadal can play top tennis with a zombie foot and a torn ab, but only for so long. Iga Swiatek is beatable, at least on grass. With Moscow-born Elena Rybakina, representing Kazakhstan, reaching the women’s singles final, the exclusion of Russian players does not necessarily mean that a competition is free of Russian players.

But perhaps most surprisingly, tennis may have finally gotten past Covid-19 after 27 months of tournament cancellations, spectator-free events, constant testing and bubble-like environments.

For almost two years, longer than almost any other major sport, tennis struggled to coexist with the pandemic.

Last November, when the NFL, NBA, Premier League and most other esports organizations resumed lives broadly similar to 2019, tennis players were still living with restricted mobility, conducting online video press conferences and had cotton swabs in their hands noses at tournaments.

A month later, Novak Djokovic, then the men’s singles No. 1, fell ill with a second case of Covid just in time to secure what he thought was special entry to Australia to play the Australian Open, despite not fighting Covid -19 was vaccinated and the country was still largely vaccinated. Australian officials eventually expelled him for saying he might encourage other people not to get vaccinated, drama that dominated the run-up to the tournament and its opening days.

The episode crystallized how tennis, with its kinetic international schedule, has been at the mercy of the will and whims of local governments, with rules and restrictions sometimes changing weekly. The frequent travel and communal dressing rooms made the players something of sitting ducks, swabbed from being locked in a hotel room for 10 days, sometimes far from home, no matter how careful they may have been.

Tennis, unlike other sports that have rushed ahead of health and medical guidelines to fill their coffers, had to reflect where society at large was at each stage of the pandemic. Its main organizers canceled or postponed everything during the spring and early summer of 2020, although Djokovic hosted an exhibition tournament that ended up becoming something of a superspreader event.

The US Open 2020 took place as planned in late summer without spectators. Being in New York these weeks at the normally busy Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was like being on the surface of the moon. In the cold of a Paris autumn, a rescheduled French Open followed with only a few hundred fans admitted. Australia largely put players under a 14-day quarantine before they could play the 2021 Australian Open.

As vaccinations proliferated later in the year, the crowds returned, but players usually had to live in bubbles and couldn’t move around the cities they lived in until the summer events in the US. But as the Delta variant spread, the bubbles returned. Then came the vaccination confrontation between Australia and Djokovic, just as disputes over mandates were escalating elsewhere.

In recent months, as public attitudes toward the pandemic have shifted, mask requirements have been lifted and travel restrictions eased, even tennis has seemingly evolved, even if the virus hasn’t done the same.

There were no mandatory tests for Wimbledon or the French Open. People get confused about what to do when they get a cold or a sore throat, and tennis players are no different. Many players said they weren’t sure what rules applied from tournament to tournament for those who didn’t feel comfortable. While two widely known players, Matteo Berrettini and Marin Cilic, retired after testing positive without having to take a test, they and any other player could have chosen not to take a test and play through all the symptoms they were experiencing.

“So many rules,” said Rafael Nadal. “Some rules are okay for some people; for the other rules are out of order. If there are rules, we have to obey the rules. If not, the world is a mess.”

However, after nearly two years of bubble life, there have been virtually no strident complaints about a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach and safety regulations.

Ajla Tomljanovic, from Australia, whose country has had some of the strictest guidelines related to pandemics, said she has remained cautious, particularly at larger events, but has reached the point where she needs to strike a balance between safety and sanity.

“I’m just trying to take care of myself as much as possible, where I’m not fully isolating yet, where it’s not fun to live,” said Tomljanovic, who lost to Rybakina in the quarterfinals.

Paula Badosa, the Spanish star, has said she’s stopped worrying about the virus.

“I’ve had all kinds of Covids,” said Badosa, who first tested positive in Australia in January 2021 and has had it twice more. “I also had a vaccination. So in my case, if I have it again, it will be very unfortunate.”

Officials from the men’s and women’s tours said whatever the level of infection, their organizations have no intention of resuming regular testing or restricting player movements. They said they would follow the lead of local officials.

With testing, quarantine and isolation requirements all but gone or existing only as recommendations, tennis appears to have finally entered a stage of pandemic apathy, much like much of society be damned about Omicron and its subvariants.

There is, of course, one major exception to all of this and that is Djokovic, whose refusal to get vaccinated – unique among the top 100 players on the men’s tour – will seemingly prevent him from playing at the US Open.

US regulations require all foreigners entering the country to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Djokovic said he believes it should be up to individuals, without pressure from governments, to decide whether they want to do this.

As he was deported from Australia, Djokovic would need special permission to return to the country to compete in the Australian Open in January. He has won the men’s singles title nine times there, a record.

Unless the rules change, he will not be allowed to compete in another Grand Slam tournament until next May’s French Open, something he said he is aware of but his reflections on whether he will vaccine would not change.

In other words, Covid really isn’t done playing tennis.