When the National Hockey League lost an entire year to a labour shutdown 15 years ago, there was a silver lining to the entire mess.
It gave players, coaches, executives and owners lots and lots of time to examine the game, look at changes that could be made and test them out. By the time the NHL got back on the ice, decisions that changed the sport forever had been made.
Could tennis do some of that while competition is interrupted or halted altogether as the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic? Interesting question.
For starters, we all hope this new reality we’re all being forced to face in our day-to-day lives doesn’t knock out professional tennis for too long. The ATP has decided to shut down for six weeks. On top of Indian Wells, that means the men’s top players won’t be competing in Miami, Houston, Marrakech, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Budapest. Basically, nothing will happen before April 20. Then we’ll see.
The WTA, meanwhile, has taken more of a step-by-step approach. Miami is cancelled, and so is the Volvo Car Open in Charleston. WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon said there will be “a decision in the week ahead regarding the European Clay Court season.” For both men and women, the Rogers Cup in Toronto (men) and Montreal (women) is too far away to contemplate at the moment.
The French Open, scheduled to begin May 25, is the next Grand Slam event on the tennis calendar. We already know Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova won’t be there, now we just have to wait and see if any of the world’s tennis elite will be there.
Here’s hoping they will. The hope is that the drastic actions being taken by many countries will slow the spread of the coronavirus and avoid having national health organizations overrun by very sick patients. In six weeks to a month, we may be looking at some very different facts on the ground.
That said, it could also be three to six months before tennis gets going again. We just don’t know. When the NHL had its shutdown in 2004-05, all kinds of stakeholders were able to give their input into how the game needed to change without being in the middle of a competitive season, which was important. No team or player likes to advocate changes that might not be to their advantage during a particular season.
For tennis, the pause might produce an opportunity to examine all sorts of things in a similar environment. The tennis calendar barely stops from one season to the next, and the absence of a long “off-season” makes it doubly difficult to look at the sport as a whole. Last year, that meant changes to the Davis Cup format were happening at the same time the new ATP Cup team competition was being introduced just weeks later. That didn’t make a lot of sense to many in the industry.
The demands on the modern player, most agree, range from heavy to the near impossible, making it difficult for the best in the world to stay healthy. Changing the schedule comes up all the time at major tennis meetings, but nothing is usually done because there’s no time to stop the sport and institute a new calendar in consultation with players, tournament organizers, broadcast executives and sponsors.
Professional golf was able to change the order of its major tournaments in 2019 after years of planning. This could theoretically be a similar time for the biggest tennis minds on the planet to organize a meeting – we can do it virtually, folks – and try to see if 2020 is offering an opportunity for tennis to re-organize itself.
There are always rules being debated. The use of Hawkeye technology on clay courts. The “let” rule on serving. Foot fault regulations. Rules about injury timeouts and suspension of play during severe weather.
The role of doubles on both the men’s and women’s tours always sparks a lively debate. Many believe finding ways to get more of the top singles players involved in doubles is a necessary ingredient to creating more interest in doubles.
These are the kinds of things that could be debated, and possibly produce new ideas and solutions while the world of tennis is on hold. How such a forum might be organized is an interesting question. This is an area in which true leaders could jump to the forefront. During the ’04-05 NHL lockout, veteran Detroit Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan took it upon himself to organize a “summit” to discuss potential changes to the game. Some of the ideas generated there actually were instituted when hockey came back.
Could Federer, or Rafael Nadal, or Novak Djokovic, or Serena Williams, do the same? These are certainly unprecedented times, which usually creates both unprecedented challenges and unprecedented opportunities.
We’d all like to see them playing in Miami later this month. But that’s not going to happen. So let’s see if the tennis world uses this time to solve problems and create an even greater sport when it returns.