The summer is usually the peak of the tennis calendar. Three Grand Slams in three months, the tour switching between three different surfaces, matches drifting into the late evening sun, Henman Hill, the raucous New York crowd, and even a bit of breathing space after Wimbledon to prepare for the final third of the season.
This year things are a bit more complicated. Not just because of the Olympics, which has been rescheduled from last year and starts on July 24, but because of everything that has gone before; life inside bubbles, strict Covid-19 protocols, quarantine restrictions.
Life on tour in Covid-19 times is taking its toll.
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Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka, Dominic Thiem, Denis Shapovalov and David Goffin have all announced this week that they will be missing Wimbledon and/or the Olympics. All have different reasons, but they are coming from similar places. And more are expected to follow.
World No 3 Nadal says he has to “listen” to his body and cited the reduced grass season – cut from three weeks to two weeks – as part of his decision to miss Wimbledon. Women’s world No 2 Osaka has not played since withdrawing from the French Open to protect her mental health. Osaka is set to take “some personal time with friends and family” before returning in her home country for the Olympics. Thiem has had a difficult year and has opted to not travel to Tokyo and instead play Wimbledon and then try to defend his US Open title. World No 13 Goffin will miss Wimbledon after suffering an ankle injury while world No 14 Denis Shapovalov and world No 15 Casper Ruud will not be playing in the Olympics.
Roger Federer said recently that he “feels two ways” about participating at the Games and it seems likely that more players will opt not to compete for medals given the logistical issues. Not only will they have to travel from Europe to Japan and then to the USA within a month, but they will face strict Covid-19 rules in Tokyo, with limited socialising among athletes and perhaps even a six-day hard quarantine depending where they arrive from.
“It was definitely a difficult choice,” Canadian No 1 Shapovalov told Open Court about his decision. “Obviously, I have always dreamt of representing Canada, representing my country at the Olympics. It’s something I think every athlete dreams about growing up – and especially me. I’ve always I’ve always wanted to go. With the Covid restrictions and everything going on right now, we just decided with the team that it’s just best for us to skip this one. But for sure, it’s definitely a big pity.”
The strict protocols in Tokyo, and the fact the tennis is played over just one week, mean that it will be a demanding event. And after a demanding year that may not appeal to some players.
There has been plenty of talk of burnout this season, with Shapovalov warning in March that players will withdraw from more and more events if they are forced to stay in bubbles. “It is extremely difficult mentally to be locked up like this. Of course it's amazing to play but as the weeks go on you kind of lose that passion for tennis and a lot of players are struggling with that so we are trying to take the approach of just kind of minimising that as much as possible and just enjoying every match that I do go out and play this year."
Simona Halep said in Miami that players’ performances are being impacted by the situation – “I don’t believe that all the players can perform at the highest level that they can offer” – and Stefanos Tsitsipas spoke at last year’s ATP Finals about his struggles with loneliness and isolation.
The situation has definitely improved as the year has gone on and players have been allowed more freedom at events as fans have returned. However, it’s still not back to normal, and those on the fence about going to Tokyo might be swayed by the fact the next Olympics is now only three years away instead of four.
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Novak Djokovic seems like he will be the highest-ranked player going to Tokyo as he looks to complete the Golden Slam. Djokovic’s coach Marian Vajda said after the French Open that the goal “is to win the Olympics and then win the Grand Slam” as the world No 1 aims to become the first male to win all four majors and a gold medal in the same year. With just 11 days between the Wimbledon final and the start of the Olympics, and then a month between the end of the Olympics and the start of the US Open, Djokovic is set for a busy summer.
But he has the motivation of a Golden Slam in his sights, others may prefer to rest and recharge before tackling the rest of the year.
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