Long time, no write. It’s an unusual tennis year — no one needs an explanation on that front — but we certainly can use a discussion of what tennis tournaments mean in a pandemic. Tennis fans and pundits have been wrestling with that question a lot, and with the year’s final major — Roland Garros — concluding this weekend, this discussion will carry into 2021 at the Australian Open. What the tennis industry and the main professional tours will look like in the late spring of 2021 is a complete mystery right now. The big tournaments are going to be played, but who plays them — and whether full crowds can attend them — remains unsettled.
As tennis moves through this strange pandemic period, let’s try to start a discussion about the meaning of tournaments and championships, balancing the undeniable feats of the individual athletes against the broken rhythms and altered circumstances of the tours.
When I say that the U.S. Open and French Open — in 2020 — were #NotANormalTennisTournament, I am not saying they don’t mean anything. On Twitter, I have been consistent in saying that the meaning of a tournament is up to each person to determine. These aren’t meaning-free events; they do, however, occur in contexts removed from normalcy or regularity.
We don’t have regular tours — not yet. The past two months have been marked by compressed tournaments stuffed into a narrow time frame, with cross-continental travel and surface adjustments thrown into the mix.
We don’t have the slow build of a full surface season (hardcourts or clay). We don’t have the full range of tournaments and the normal rhythms which accompany them. We don’t have full stadiums, or even half-full stadiums. We have a small smattering of tournaments in front of a small smattering of fans.
The 2020 tennis year is not a season in any true sense of what a season means.
A season, properly understood, is a regular progression of games or events. In 2020, tennis has not had a regular progression; this is a small, random assortment of events, but not within the context of a typical hardcourt or clay season.
No Canada. No Madrid. No Monte Carlo.
When the French Open is normally followed by Wimbledon, there is a three-week break, but that three-week break occurs on the same continent, Europe. This two-week break between the U.S. and French Opens involved a transition to a different continent, with pandemic complications added into the mix.
As we saw with Dominic Thiem (men) and Victoria Azarenka (women), the French Open featured high-profile examples of players whose tanks ran on empty in Paris after doing heavy lifting in New York. Too much tennis was asked of them in too short a period of time. Novak Djokovic is playing in the Roland Garros final, in part, because he didn’t play a full two weeks at the U.S. Open. If he had played the fifth set against Stefanos Tsitsipas with two weeks under his belt in New York (three if you include “Cincinnewyork”), one wonders if the outcome might have been different.
This simply isn’t normal, but that doesn’t mean the winning of championship is meaningless or that it somehow counts less.
Yes, I do think Djokovic’s disqualification casts a pall over Dominic Thiem’s title, but that’s not a pandemic complication; that complication was brought about by Djokovic himself. Nevertheless, a player didn’t lose three sets, and he didn’t get injured; a freak occurrence emerged.
Even then, however, Thiem has nothing to apologize for, and HE shouldn’t view his title as somehow “less” than a title won under more normal circumstances. Thiem wasn’t going to play Djokovic until the final, anyway. He had to beat Daniil Medvedev to reach that final; he was rewarded by outside circumstances, and then he pushed himself across the finish line. No one else could do it; Thiem had to do it himself, and he did. He earned that title.
We are all free to assign various levels of meaning to that title, but he won it, and he won it by enduring a full range of emotions and physical diminishments which are part of the grueling, challenging sport of tennis, in all its vivid chaos.
Iga Swiatek won Roland Garros — or is it POLAND GARROS? — far more cleanly and authoritatively than Thiem won the U.S. Open, so from that standpoint, we might be tempted to say Swiatek was “more” deserving of her own major title, but rather than comparing players’ achievements in a “more than or less than” sense, I think it makes a lot more sense to put these achievements in a layered context.
This is what ultimately matters in an assessment of championships won at these anything-but-normal tennis tournaments:
- They mean a lot to the individual, regardless of circumstances. Players had to play and win seven matches. To the winners go the praise and admiration. They earned it. They, like every other tennis player, had to walk this journey alone. They succeeded whereas others failed. They used these months of pandemic downtime to retool their game, their mind, and their approach. Naomi Osaka, the aforementioned Azarenka and Thiem, Swiatek in Paris, and the Djokovic-Nadal winner — they all used months of rest and reflection to put themselves in the best position to win. They deserve to be recognized for what they did, which was better than their compatriots on tour. These wins have inherent meaning for the individuals who forged them. Honor that.
- The victories, while powerfully meaningful, plainly did occur under unusual circumstances, which means questions about their achievements (in most cases) still linger. Would full stadiums have changed the mental energy of a match? Would a normal progression of tour events — and the absence of a roughly six-month offseason — have led to the same result? What will happen at the first major tournament which has full stadiums and a more recognizably “normal” feel? Asking these questions doesn’t remove meaning or value from the athlete’s achievement. These are obvious details of competition which — when tennis (and other sports) return to a normal identity — we will all ask questions about. It is natural to explore these questions. That should not be seen as an implied criticism. It is more an unavoidable act of comparing today’s abnormalities with the normalcy tennis hopes to attain in the near future.
- Abnormalities might proliferate in a world of pandemic tennis, but even with all these irregularities and oddities, an athlete can still derive confidence and transformation from achieving in these weird and unprecedented match and tournament environments. Sure, Dominic Thiem didn’t face Djokovic in the U.S. Open final, but the fact that he won a major title might still make him a more formidable player in 2021. Sure, Iga Swiatek won in front of a very small number of fans at Roland Garros, but her dominance at this event could still be a catapult for her career. We can wonder about the significance of these various achievements during the year of the pandemic, but how the athletes respond to these moments matters far more than what we personally think about them, and that is the best way to close this discussion-starter on a complicated subject.