The only thing on Yannick Maden’s agenda at the beginning of last week was tennis, yet instead he found himself caught up in the rapidly shifting foreign policy of a world changed by coronavirus.
Ranked 149th on the ATP, Maden planned his travel to Nur-Sultan, the capital city of Kazakhstan, to compete in a €48k ATP Challenger event. Doubts were already swirling around the tournament as he considered whether to take his flight – a German ATP tournament supervisor had already recused himself from the event – but Kazakhstan had yet to record a significant number of cases so the decision seemed to be simple.
“I waited and waited, and then on Monday there was no news, everything the same,” Maden told me during a phone interview. “So I took the decision to fly. Everything there was calm, and there were two German guys there already that told me this, which was normal.”
Normality eventually dissolved through the screen of Maden’s phone as he viewed a screenshot sent by a friend. The rumours that Kazakhstan’s authorities would put Germans, Italians and the French into a mandatory quarantine appeared to be true. Maden was scheduled to compete on Wednesday, yet by Tuesday night he and two other pros from France and Germany were calling around consulates and embassies, trying to figure out if they were to be stuck in a foreign country for 14 days.
It wasn’t until lunchtime on Wednesday that they received an answer. As the warm-up for his impending match approached, Maden learnt he likely had just half a day to leave the country before he was locked down in his hotel room. Within hours he was at the airport and tearing out of the country on a flight to Moscow and then home in Stuttgart. His was one of an unprecedented nine non-medical withdrawals throughout the week in Kazakhstan.
“At the end, we were at the airport for our 4.30pm flight when I heard from some Austrian guy that, for sure, we would have been put in quarantine from midnight. In the end, it was the right decision,” he said. He paused and then laughed. “Or the wrong decision for me to even fly there. We were not extremely stressed in the way that we were fearful, but we did not want to be put in quarantine. That was the main goal.”
The essence of tennis is that it never stops. The full professional calendar spans 51 weeks of the year. Even when the likes of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are far from the courts for their own paltry four-week off‑season, there is normally always somebody, somewhere competing in a live streamed tournament and being awarded points under the same ranking system.
As a result, the domino effect of tennis coming to a halt has been a worldwide phenomenon. In Indian Wells, 200 of the best male and female players were blindsided by the news that it had been called off. After days of debates between the players stranded in the Californian desert, both across the grounds and in mammoth Whatsapp groups, the ATP, WTA and ITF suspended the tour for 5-6 weeks.
Jack Draper, Britain’s best young player, did not even have the opportunity to contemplate his future. The 19 year old was 1hr 44min into his quarter-final match against Tobias Simon at the Potchefstroom $35k challenger in South Africa when rain began to pour and they were hauled off the court with Draper leading 5-4 in the third set. The ATP announced the immediate suspension of the tour during the delay and they never made it back to the court. The match was cancelled and promptly erased from the record books. “Was just about to get the break as well,” Draper tweeted afterwards.
The political manoeuverings borne out of coronavirus affected countless players. Dayana Yastremska, a highly rated 19-year-old, panicked after Donald Trump announced his European travel ban. In the fear that she would be trapped in the US, she immediately flitted to the airport and back to Ukraine.
Zhu Lin, a Chinese player who lives in Beijing, did not buy a plane ticket out of California until Friday. The uncertainty of Chinese athletes abroad was reflected in her asking her fans on Weibo where on earth she would go if she couldn’t make it back home: “I bought my plane ticket but flight might be blocked,” she wrote. “If I change flight to other countries, I would get sent to quarantine. Feels too risky to stay in the US. Please give me some suggestions.”
Maden says his current ranking, which peaked at 96 last year, has earnt him enough money for a worry-free six weeks. He will be fine. But tennis players are self-employed and earn money when they play. Like so many workers in affected areas around the world, some lower-ranked players face an extremely difficult time ahead. “It’s unfortunate because there is no income coming in and no chance of income. That would be the uncertainty, that would be the most frustrating or unsure aspect,” says Maden.
Although tennis set the tone early on with its cancellations, the other sports slowly followed last week. The discourse and decision making seem to reflect the widespread consideration of sports as an escape from the real world, rather than part of it. Almost all of the discussed coronavirus contingency plans in the NBA, Premier League and elsewhere focused on how to manage fans without ever taking into account the fact that the athletes themselves might contract the virus anyway.
At the very least, the historic past week should be a reminder that sports and the athletes within them cannot be separated from the world around them and that is how people should always write, think and talk about them.