Top-10 play­ers miss­ing but spec­ta­tors re­turn for restart of WTA Tour

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By Vicki Hodges

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 to­day.

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 No2 Si­mona Halep for with­draw­ing from the tour­na­ment. The two-time 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 this morn­ing, the im­por­tance of the event will not be over­looked.

Steve Si­mon, the WTA chief ex­ec­u­tive, 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 No15 Pe­tra Mar­tic said. “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 court with im­prov­ing her cook­ing skills, says the new guide­lines in place are quite an ad­just­ment, but it is 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 (£170,000), 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 Aug 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.

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 open-minded about the forth­com­ing 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.”

Big pic­ture: Pe­tra Mar­tic says new pro­to­cols on and off the court are a small price to pay to get ten­nis up and run­ning again

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