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Tennis: It May Not Be Essential, but It Is Influential

The announcement came and for now, the US Open will be played on the original dates planned for 2020. Perhaps, this is the “shake up” tennis has been waiting for. For the sake of stating what feels obvious but may not be understood as obvious, these are abnormal days and many people across many divides are making sacrifices. It is easy to pass judgement on the powers that be for decisions being made but it is dangerous to do so when judgement is being passed without knowledge of what it takes to do a job and without compassion to be willing to see the various pieces that make a puzzle what it is and function as it should effectively. Professional sport may not seem like it is needed and by no means is it being equated with the level of necessity of frontline workers and first responders. Its significance is a type of soft power that has the ability to bring comfort and hope to a weary world that needs a bit of escapism and enjoyment as we all still have a way to travel down this road of understanding the world we find ourselves living in. It may not be essential, but it is influential.

During the 1936 Olympics there was a plan to ban all undesirables from the games. No Jews, no blacks, no Romani, and no non-Aryans. When pressured, blacks were allowed to compete, and Jesse Owens went on to win several gold medals. Although he went back to a country where the status quo did not allow him to be valued because of the color of his skin, he became an eternal symbol of excellence in spite of the odds and his achievements continued to echo long after he was gone. I don’t think it is responsible to use the unrest that America is facing due to police brutality and the fear some blacks and other minorities live in as a fair excuse to not want to participate in the US Open. Sport allows a platform to encourage and inspire, whatever race and whatever gender. Time and time again it has brought people together and given a glimpse to marginalized individuals of what could be with hard work and determination.

While it is understandable that the stringent conditions in place to participate in the U.S. Open are difficult to stomach, they are not there just for fun and to make life unnecessarily challenging. They are there to allow an event to take place that will provide jobs for those who need them along with the entertainment factor. It is important to point out that the 2019 prize money a third-round winner of singles qualifiers is the amount of some people’s yearly salary. This year, although likely reduced, there will still be a team of individuals working to make sure players have what they need to play and to be looked after. These people will be working for a lot less than a singles first round loser. Many do it because they love the sport and they will be taking risks to show up for work also. It could be argued that if it’s their job, then they know what to expect and should get on with it. The same argument could be returned to the players. It is, without a doubt, a privilege to play professional sport and to be a top player in tennis. As an individual sport, there is little to no riding on the coattails. Every penny is fought for and even when you are really good, as this era has shown, you very well can end your career without a Grand Slam title. Still, it is a privilege. Without players there are no tournaments but without the fans, even from home, the prize money and endorsements will start to dwindle.

There is a question that has been circulating in my mind for several days, “will the world wait for tennis?” Step outside the bubble of tennis and the answer may be an uncomfortable one. I do not think it is a given that it will. Even if it does, tennis may not wait for tennis. There is no collective fund to bail one tournament out or inject much needed funds like in other areas of sport. There is no guaranteed salary because of a signed contract. In many ways, tennis is an entrepreneur’s game. It is high risk. When a player sets out to become a pro in this game, it is hard to imagine that it is not clear that it will be beyond difficult to achieve any type of success let alone a Grand Slam. Reform has been called for in the areas of prize money and player support and hopefully these things will occur sooner rather than later. It is admirable that donations to player and coaching funds have been encouraged and acted upon by some to help their fellow professionals. As work continues on these efforts, the attention to the here and now cannot be neglected. It is nice when people act with charity and empathy. I do wonder how providing an opportunity to take part in an event is not understood to be doing the same thing on a greater level. To give people the opportunity to earn an honest living is one of the most admirable things. There seems to be a disconnect.

If the murmurings are true and a call has been made to encourage players not to play, perhaps 2020 is the changing of the guard the sport has been predicting for years now. Maybe this is the opportunity for lower ranked players and those who have been working away in the shadows to step forward and show what they are capable of. It is also important that fans allow for this to happen if it is the case. It is understandable if players over a certain age and with pre-existing conditions feel their health may be compromised by playing. It is also understandable to acknowledge that the precautions set in place are hard to process and if it makes the event undesirable. Does this mean that all players have to not play or that seeds of doubt and confusion have to be planted? As the sport moves forward, I hope that it becomes very clear that it is not a sure thing that the world will wait for tennis and that there are more lives affected by events than just the players. The sport may not be essential, but it is influential.

Sincerely, A Tennis Observer