Amid the picturesque backdrop of Mount Pellegrino, professional tennis returns for the first time after a five-month coronavirus-induced hiatus at the Palermo Open tomorrow.
Like other sporting resumptions, there have been hiccups in the lead up to the WTA Tour International event in the Sicilian capital.
Six days ago, organisers publicly rebuked world No 2 Simona Halep for withdrawing from the tournament. The two-times grand slam champion’s decision to pull out citing reservations over international travel during the pandemic incensed tournament director Oliviero Palma. Such was the frustration they released a strongly worded statement saying they were “embittered and profoundly disappointed.”
Halep’s decision leaves the tournament without a top 10 player, but when the first ball of the main draw is struck on the clay tomorrow morning, the importance of the event will not be overlooked.
WTA CEO Steve Simon hopes the protocols and guidelines in place in Palermo will prove a blueprint for future tournament operations and those plans were quickly put into place when an unnamed qualifier tested positive for coronavirus on Saturday.
There will be changes on the court too, with players handling their own towels, a smaller team of ball kids and line officials, no handshakes at the end of matches and no showers for players at the venue. A small number of fans, around 350 each day, will be allowed in the stands, but players will not be allowed to sign autographs or pose for selfies.
“It’s always nice to have some people watch your matches,” top seed and world No 15 Petra Martic told the Telegraph. “When I first heard that the tour was going to resume without spectators it sounded kind of weird.
“Of course sometimes you play on small courts and you don’t have too many people watching but it’s still different when you see people walking around and being excited to be a part of the tournament.”
Martic, who spent lockdown alone in Miami and mixed time on the tennis court with improving her cooking skills, says the new guidelines in place are quite an adjustment but it’s a small price to pay.
“I probably will start waiting for the ball boy to bring me my towel, but that’s now changed. We have to look at the big picture and realise how lucky we are to be here to begin with. Those tiny details are not important.”
Joining Martic in Italy, are fellow top-20 players Marketa Vondrousova, who was runner up at last year’s French Open, and Maria Sakkari of Greece. The prize pot has been reduced from $250,000 in 2019 to $222,500 (£170k), and organisers admit they will be running at a loss but are keen to get the show on the road again.
While the Palermo Open becomes the first women’s tennis event to return, the new-look ATP Tour calendar will not resume until Friday, August 14 with the Citi Open in Washington.
The US Open, the first major since coronavirus wiped out swathes of the 2020 season, is scheduled to go ahead behind closed doors in 29 days’ time. With coronavirus cases dropping in New York by 13 per cent over the past two weeks – on average there have been 651 cases per day – Martic is keeping over-minded about the upcoming calendar.
“We all have to take it day-by-day,” she said. “My schedule is to go to Prague from here, and then go to New York to play the US Open only. We are all hoping it will happen and we can all meet up in New York.”