A major tennis tournament began its main draw in the Miami area this week. It’s one of the sport’s premier annual events, attracting hundreds of players from around the world, including several Grand Slam winners vying for one of the biggest purses of the year.
Why doesn’t it feel that way?
Perhaps it’s because some of the sport’s biggest names – including the Grand Troika of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the men’s game, and Serena Williams – are skipping the event. Or because the number of visitors will be limited to a maximum of 1,000 viewers per day, compared to nearly 400,000 in two weeks in 2019, despite state regulations in Florida that would allow far more.
Perhaps it’s because the Miami Open takes place without the opening act for the winter hard-court swing in March, the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, of which state officials didn’t participate in the winter when coronavirus infection rates rose wanted southern California.
Or maybe it’s because the 2021 Miami Open is a microcosm of tennis – an unpredictable puzzle of player planning, travel advice, and health precautions in a season that forced players to prioritize in ways they have never been before have done. Many, especially the biggest stars, today view tournaments not only as a means of competition or a chance to win a paycheck, but also as a question of whether an event fits into their broader life.
“There are so many different reasons,” said James Blake, tournament director of the Miami Open, when asked what influenced the players’ decision to play or skip the event. “As a former Tour player, I can tell you that you are programmed to play against the best players in the world. That is always your main motivation. “
Except when it isn’t. Williams retired on Sunday, announcing that she had not fully recovered from the last oral surgery. Djokovic, who is the top ranked player among the men and is recovering from a torn abdominal muscle, retired on Friday afternoon. Djokovic’s management agency IMG owns the Miami Open, but that wasn’t enough for him to make the trip. He announced on Twitter that he “decided to use this precious time at home to stay with my family. With all the constraints, I have to find a balance in my time on tour and at home. “
Daniil Medvedev, the number 2 in the world and finalist of the Australian Open 2021, plays as well as the rising stars Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev. But the women’s draw, which includes Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep, could provide much of the heat.
Nadal announced earlier this month that he would skip Miami to continue healing his back pain and prepare for the clay courts spring season, where he usually excels.
Federer, the defending champion in Miami who returned to professional tennis this month after two knee surgeries and a 14-month hiatus, said his goal was to be healthy for Wimbledon by the end of June. A two week trip to the US for a single hard court event didn’t make sense. He also made no commitments to play on clay a lot this season.
Austrian Dominic Thiem, the 2020 United States Open champion, drops and takes a pass. Stan Wawrinka from Switzerland, three-time Grand Slam winner, said he was too tired. Nick Kyrgios lives in Australia, which has strict quarantine rules for travelers, and has yet to figure out how much tennis he wants to play this year.
It’s the new normal in tennis. To play or not to play is a complicated question, and an unexpected outcome from it is an indication of what tennis will ultimately be like. No big three. Not Serena Williams.
“It’s always nice to have two of the biggest names in the sport up in the air, but there is so much talent and that gives an opportunity to tell different stories,” said Ken Solomon, executive director of Tennis Channel, broadcasting 125 hours of live Coverage of the event in the United States. “We have 128 phenomenal athletes taking part in this thing. You don’t think about who’s not there.”
In the United States, many sports have been more or less advanced for many months, although most people have faced significant restrictions on travel and contact with people outside their homes. The NFL hosted a Super Bowl with 22,000 fans, the NCAA launched two Division I basketball tournaments with 132 teams from around the country relegated to the Indianapolis and San Antonio regions, and hockey players scratch the ice every night.
However, with Florida essentially getting rid of most of the restrictions associated with pandemics, the roles have turned. The players have arrived in Florida in the past few days, along with revelers filling Florida’s beaches, bars, and nightclubs. The players, who are used to enjoying Miami’s culture, restaurants, and nightlife when not playing tennis, live under strict guidelines that the tennis tours for men and women have created to make them as safe as possible.
During the tournament you must stay in one of two hotels for players and officials. Had she played, Williams would not have been able to commute from her house, which was about 75 minutes away. Movement of players is restricted to the tournament and the hotel. No things to do in Joe’s Stone Crab, South Beach, or Coconut Grove until you lose.
“It makes it harder when you’re part of the bubble,” said Lauren Davis, the veteran US player. “The experience is more exhausting. There is no exit for the stress. “
The organizers of the Miami Open have not built a temporary 14,000 seat space in the Miami Dolphins’ stadium this year. The most important games take place on three smaller courts.
Prize money has been reduced to $ 6.7 million from $ 16.7 million in 2019, despite being among the largest purses outside of the Grand Slam events and the Tour Finals. Almost everyone on the tournament site must wear a mask at all times, except for the players who are on the field.
Tennis is likely to look like this for some time. The All England Club, the host of Wimbledon, announced last week that despite the UK’s successful vaccination program, players will have to stay in certain hotels for the tournament, which is due to start in late June. The crowd will be reduced and viewers will not be able to queue up to look for a ticket during the day.
Tsitsipas, ranked 5th on the men’s tour, said during the tournament in Acapulco, Mexico that the tour sorely missed Indian Wells this year because it gathered so many top players in front of rabid and occasional tennis fans in the US during the first Half year. The ability to play in front of a crowd of any size – Acapulco allowed approximately 3,000 viewers for each session – had greatly improved the experience.
“I feel really connected,” he said of the experience playing in front of fans. “I feel like I can enjoy the game.”
But the challenges of the pandemic have forced Tsitsipas and other players to focus almost entirely on larger tournaments for the time being, and the biggest stars have focused almost exclusively on the Grand Slam tournaments. Events like the Miami Open offer lots of cash and ranking points, but things are a little different this year.