The outbreak of the coronavirus created the first major disruption of the tennis tours since World War II. With luck, the interruption will be a lot shorter, but even the projected break lasting until the beginning of May amounts to a unique challenge for the players.
The WTA Tour currently plans to resume on May 2 with the Madrid Open, while the ATP hopes to reboot a week earlier with ATP 250 clay events in Estoril and Munich. The International Tennis Federation also announced that it had suspended play until April 20 at the earliest. Nobody knows what the landscape of the game will look like when play begins again or what COVID-19-related issues or restrictions might be in place.
The questions that loomed when Indian Wells became one of the very first major sporting events to be canceled due to coronoavirus will still be with us, albeit in slightly altered forms, along with a few fresh ones. Here are some of them:
How is this break different from, say, the game’s brief offseason?
Any interruption of familiar habit tends to have a subversive influence on the status quo, a phenomenon that’s been proven over and over again by Davis and Fed Cup events as well as at the Olympic Games. The added pressures as well as the inspirational power of competing on a team for your nation, render rankings and seedings less reliable.
In this case, players will have a little time to train, think and hit the reset button or worry about how they’ll fare when play resumes. The break will be welcomed by struggling or physically compromised competitors, less so by players who were chugging along on the upswing.
Will Novak Djokovic be able to pick up right where he left off?
The 21-match winning streak Djokovic built is on hold. It appeared that he was ready to add many more wins to the tally when the ATP Tour went dark just before the two big North American winter hard-court events. He’s still the only man who has completed the “Sunshine Double” (successive wins at Indian Wells and Miami Open) four times.
Now, if things go as planned, he will be returning midway through the segment traditionally dominated by his rival, Rafael Nadal. Daunting as that challenge will be, Djokovic will still have time to tidy up his game on clay before the French Open. This interruption is unlikely to trouble the Serbian star.
“Since 2011, Djokovic has been the best player in the world,” ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said near the end of last year. “It’s an eight-year run, and now the guy is playing for history.”
That means sub-Grand Slam tournaments and second-tier records are of little interest to Djokovic. He’s banked 17 Grand Slam singles titles, and his main ambition is to retire with more major titles than either of his Big Three rivals (Roger Federer and Nadal). His triumph at the Australian Open in February again showed that he can elevate his game to that vaunted “next level” at the most critical times, with little match play to tune his game. He’s accustomed to taking fairly long breaks between appearances.
Djokovic is the defending champion in Madrid, and he lost to Nadal in the Rome final. But those are tournaments where Djokovic is mainly interested in building momentum for the upcoming major at Roland Garros. Since the start of 2018, Djokovic has won five of the last nine major titles, while banking just six titles in 20 outings in ATP Tour events (including the ATP Cup).
It’s hard to imagine Djokovic adding substantially to his current streak after a long layoff and change of surface, but he’s likely to be as big a threat as ever at the events he most cares about.
Serena Williams is spending the next six weeks in “solitude” as the tennis world goes on hiatus. Abbie Parr/Getty Images
Will the break help or hurt Serena Williams?
It’s unlikely that Williams, 38, will play in Madrid even if the WTA goes back in business in early May. She has shown that she doesn’t need more than one tune-up event before the French Open, and she’s shown a preference for the Italian Open. Bear in mind that Italy has been hard-hit by COVID-19, which may influence her decision to play in Rome — especially with a husband and toddler daughter in tow.
Williams said Friday she will be spending the next six weeks in “solitude” as the tennis world goes on hiatus due to the pandemic.
The refrain from many frustrated Serena watchers has been that if she wants to succeed in her quest to match Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slam singles title record of 24 she needs to play more frequently. Theoretically, that would boost her fitness and mental toughness. Williams played just eight events in 2019 and went into both the Australian Open and Wimbledon without any competitive prep work. She was denied the title both times.
Williams seemed to embrace the advice this year with auspicious preliminary success: She won her first singles title in three years at Auckland, adding to her seasoning by a deep run with Caroline Wozniacki in doubles. But despite the prep work, Williams flamed out in the third round of the Australian Open, a loser to Qiang Wang, a player she had beaten 6-1, 6-0 in 44 minutes in their 2019 US Open encounter.
The emerging challenge for Williams is twofold: First, she needs to find the consistency that has eluded her in recent majors. As many older pros can attest, age makes it more difficult to bring your “A-game,” day-in, day-out. Second, Williams must come to grips with, and figure out, a way to manage the pressure she admittedly feels chasing Court’s record.
While everyone hopes that the WTA Tour will be in full swing again as planned in early May, a longer break that keeps her rivals from building confidence before the French Open or Wimbledon could work in Williams’s favor.
Will Rafael Nadal be hurt by the loss of two big European clay events?
Going into Indian Wells, Nadal was in a position to reclaim the No. 1 ranking from Djokovic in the event he won in the desert and Djokovic lost before the semis. The odds on that happening were not great, but it does show how closely Nadal is hounding his rival.
As the points from the canceled events at Indian Wells and Miami drop off each man’s ranking, Djokovic’s slim lead over Nadal will increase by 45 points (the equivalent of a fourth-round finish at a Masters 1000 event). Nadal will also miss the opportunity to gain ground on Djokovic in two suspended events that he has dominated, the ATP 500 event in Barcelona and the Monte Carlo Masters 1000. But Nadal will also find himself in the driver’s seat.
The tour is currently scheduled to resume with two of the three major clay-court Masters 1000 events (Madrid Open and Italian Open), followed by the French Open. Nadal has won twice as many titles at those two events (14-7) as Djokovic. It’s hard to imagine anyone, including Djokovic, better suited to plunging into an abbreviated clay season than Nadal. He’s the 12-time French Open winner, the universally proclaimed “King of Clay.”
However, Dominic Thiem is likely to be a major threat to Nadal. The 26-year-old Austrian has lost two consecutive French Open finals to Nadal, but he’s considerably younger than his 33-year-old nemesis. Thiem was denied the chance back up his appearance in the Australian Open final with a successful defense of his Indian Wells title, but his surface of choice still is clay.
Ironically, Thiem was the victim of a stunning upset by qualifier Gianluca Mager in the quarterfinals of Rio de Janeiro in the only clay event he’s played this year. The ultra-fit power baseliner will be chomping at the bit to get his red dirt game in order if the planned restart date is accurate. He may be an even bigger threat to Nadal on clay than is Djokovic.
Tennis’ suspension of play allows Naomi Osaka, who has slipped to No. 10 in the rankings, time to work on any wrinkles in her game. Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
Can Naomi Osaka turn her season around?
The loaded WTA Tour calendar and the commitments it demands have kept Osaka from taking a sabbatical as long as the one she is now experiencing. By early May, when the tour resumes, she will have played just one official match in three months. That could be a good thing. That she is returning on clay, where her success has been limited, not so much.
Osaka’s best clay-court result is a semifinal at Stuttgart, and she’s been eliminated in the third round of the French Open two years running.
Osaka has punched the career reset button a number of times since her struggles began last spring, triggering only fleeting relief. The Japanese 22-year-old lost her No. 1 ranking to Ashleigh Barty after the US Open but appeared to be in ascent again last fall. She put together an 11-match winning streak, during which ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said, “It seems like she’s found her confidence. She’s back to being healthy and her power, ‘A-game’ is working again.”
During her fall run, Osaka logged wins over US Open champ Bianca Andreescu and Barty — both potential career rivals. A right shoulder injury forced Osaka to pull the plug on 2019 after she won her first-round robin match at the WTA Tour Finals. Osaka seemed to be back in the mix at the top until she lost in the third round of the Australian Open. She played a desultory match against No. 67-ranked wunderkind Coco Gauff. “It’s just tough,” Osaka said afterwards. “You don’t want to lose to a 15-year-old.”
Osaka has slipped to No. 10 in the rankings. It seems the introspective, two-time Grand Slam champion at times struggles to managing the pressure every top player must learn to handle. This break will allow her to not only work on any wrinkles in her game, it will give her time and space to work out the mental challenges of stardom.
Whose momentum will likely be most adversely affected by the hiatus?
Pity Elena Rybakina. The 20-year-old Kazak has been on fire all year, compiling a 21-4 record (1-2 in finals) when the WTA Tour was suspended. Now she has to do something to which the young aren’t accustomed: She has to cool her jets.
Some other players who have built up a great head of steam through the first few months of the year will be especially disappointed. On the ATP side, that includes a few unlikely suspects like veteran Gael Monfils (he’s 16-3 on the year, the winner at Montpellier and Rotterdam) and Next Gen graduates like Andrey Rublev (15-3 with two titles, Doha and Adelaide) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (13-5).
Among the women, Sofia Kenin, Garbine Muguruza and Barty had great stars interrupted by the halt of play. Kenin is 15-5 with titles at the Australian Open and Lyon. Two-time Grand Slam champ Muguruza was in the midst of a comeback that has lifted her from No. 34 to No. 16 and has gone 16-4 with an Australian Open final. Barty, still ranked No. 1, has one title and an 11-3 record.
Seventeen-year-old Canadian Leylah Annie Fernandez, the latest in a robust stream of prodigies, started the year ranked No. 205. A 12-5 record has lifted her to No. 126.
What can we expect from the comeback of four-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters?
The mother of three was in the very early stages of her second major comeback when the WTA Tour went dark. Clijsters, 36, is unranked. But as a former No. 1 and proven champion, she will be showered with wild cards galore. She received her first two at Dubai and Monterrey and took straight-set losses respectively to tough opponents: a resurgent Muguruza and former Wimbledon semifinalist Johanna Konta.
The events of the Sunshine Double would have been the perfect venues for kicking her comeback into a higher gear. She won Indian Wells in 2003. In 2005, Clijsters became just the second woman after Steffi Graf to complete a Sunshine Double. Clijsters has looked competent in her two losses, but her ability to recover and recoup energy at tightly scheduled tournaments remains untested.
Clijsters’ first comeback yielded a US Open title in 2009 in just her third tournament after a two-year layoff. She added another US Open title the following year and won the Australian Open in 2011. She left the tour for the second time after the 2012 US Open. “It’s a process,” Clijsters told reporters after her loss in Monterrey. “I’d like to take big steps, but I have to focus on small steps and improving day by day.”
Clijsters was always better on hard courts than clay. The red dirt won’t be as punishing on her joints and muscles, but it will test her fitness and stamina, especially if she goes a round or two and has to mix it up with players capable of long rallies filled with aggressive shot-making.