On Thursday afternoon in Minsk, elite international athletes returned to competition at last. Two Belarusians kicked tennis off as world No 11 Aryna Sabalenka and No 50 Aliaksandra Sasnovich took to the court. Even in Belarus, where the country has relentlessly carried on as much of the world around it has come to a halt, the scene underlined the new normal.
The pair humbled themselves to picking up their own balls and their stage was a small indoor hard court lined with one solitary linesman per side and a handful of spectators. After Sabalenka sealed the victory, the two friends were not allowed to embrace. They tapped the other’s racquet and Sabalenka blew a kiss. They laughed.
Tennis has returned, but with a catch. As an inherently socially distant sport, it is one of the first ones back in some form. As a sprawling globalised professional circuit in the time of travel bans and mandatory quarantines, it is also one of the professional sports at risk of not returning at all in 2020.
As if to underline the disconnect on Friday, as more tennis matches resumed, the Canadian government announced the cancellation of most sporting events until 31 August, which will likely lead to the scuppering of this year’s Roger’s Cup in Toronto. The tour is set to return on 13 July ahead of the US hard court swing, but the future is still in doubt.
In the absence of the professional tour, tennis has been carved up by borders as new national exhibitions spring up with every passing day. Earlier this month the Tennis Point Exhibition Series in Germany claimed victory over coronavirus restrictions. This weekend, US network Tennis Channel broadcasted the UTR Pro Match Series, an exhibition between four players held with no linespeople, set on a desolate patch of private land in West Palm Beach, Florida. The only spectator: a cow munching grass nearby.
Some of these events have been erected out of necessity, allowing players to compete and maintain their level while earning a few small dollars – Dominic Thiem will imminently return to action in Austria and national competitions are also being formulated in Australia, Germany, Great Britain and Spain.
Other private initiatives, like the Ultimate Tennis Showdown masterminded by Patrick Mouratoglou, appear to have money primarily in mind. There is one clear issue: some national federations do not have the finances or talent pool to match the initiatives of richer European nations and their players are at another disadvantage.
Although necessary, it is still jarring to see tennis partitioned by borders because of how antithetical it is to aspects of the sport. The location of the coronavirus outbreak alone underlines how tennis touches so many parts of the globe. As many of the eyes of the world focused on Wuhan for the first time, the most notable export is the twice slam champion Li Na and its most significant annual international event is the Premier 5 WTA event held since 2014.
Tennis was born as a localised sport with tournaments such as the French and the Australian Opens created as national events, but over the past few decades it has expanded its reach. While fans often identify their favourites based on the game styles and personalities they like rather than solely who they live closest to, players compete wherever around the world is most advantageous for them and they play for themselves.
Likewise, part of the professional tennis experience is interacting with different cultures. Today, most top 100 players can fluently express their thoughts and emotions in English and interact freely with different nationalities. In 1968, the first Wimbledon of the open era, 48 of 64 doubles pairings were of the same nationality. Only 25 countrymen paired together at the Australian Open this year.
The nature of the sport also means that so many players are multi-national at heart; they were raised in one country, born in another and build their games elsewhere. British No 1 Johanna Konta was born an Australian in Sydney to Hungarian parents, trained in Barcelona at 14 before moving to Eastbourne and becoming a British citizen. The face of the coming Olympics is Haitian-Japanese Naomi Osaka, who was born in Osaka, grew up in New York and is sick of people asking about her ethnicity. Even those who simply move abroad at a young age still recognise how their identity is affected: “The thing is what I found out really that I cannot work with people who speak Russian, because I speak Spanish tennis in my head,” said Russia’s Svetlana Kuznetsova, who moved to Barcelona at 13. “I won’t understand the language of Russian coaches, it’s different.”
As tennis looks inward and nations take care of their own, those aspects of the sport will be present for a while. At a time when international cooperation has stuttered since the coronavirus outbreak, it feels necessary to note them and to ensure that tennis reaches even more people when it resumes.