Opinion | The Coronavirus Has Put Tennis on Hold. Will Its Spirit Play On?


Of all the reasons to grieve right now, the cancellation of a tennis tournament couldn’t be farther down the list. Still, for those of us who find pleasure and succor in tennis, the recent announcement that Wimbledon will not be played this year hit hard.

It is the sport’s most prestigious championship and a cherished rite of summer. The tennis calendar through early June had already been wiped out by the Covid-19 pandemic, but losing Wimbledon was a dagger. The entire 2020 season is now in jeopardy, and given that international travel may be restricted for a while and that even the most devoted fans are unlikely to want to cluster in large numbers anytime soon, it is possible that tennis could be sidelined into next year, a potentially sad coda to what has been the greatest era the sport has ever known.

As someone who writes about tennis, plays tennis and generally obsesses about tennis, I feel its absence acutely. The men’s tour was supposed to be in Monte Carlo this week, one of the jewels of the European clay-court season. It always has an outstanding field, and the picturesque setting, with rugged cliffs to one side and the Mediterranean to the other, is as enthralling as the matches. But the courts in Monte Carlo are empty now, and Tennis Channel is showing Wimbledon reruns instead.

With the sport on hiatus and more events being canceled or postponed — the Laver Cup, scheduled for September in Boston, is the latest casualty — players are keeping fans entertained (and trying to fight boredom) via Instagram and TikTok. Alas, social media is no substitute for a swinging volley winner.

Covid-19 has dealt tennis a tough blow, but I also worry about its effect on the ideals that tennis has come to embody. In my admittedly biased view, no sport is more global in spirit. Sure, it helps that tennis is an individual pursuit, with rivalries that tend to be strictly personal rather than geopolitical. Still, I can’t think of another sport that has transcended borders to the degree that tennis has. Numerous countries are represented at tournaments, but national identity has little bearing on friendships formed in the locker room or allegiances forged in the stands.

Is this quality unique to tennis? No. But it is integral to the game’s culture in a way that isn’t necessarily the case with other sports.

In December, ESPN aired a documentary about a series of exhibition matches that Roger Federer had recently played in Mexico and South America. It was called “Roger Federer: Everywhere Is Home.” The film was fun to watch, but it was the title that really stuck, because it was so true: Federer is at home everywhere. He travels on a Swiss passport, but his citizenship is global. Something similar can be said of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams. “Everywhere Is Home” could easily serve as the tagline for the entire sport.

This isn’t to suggest that tennis is a utopia. It has long been hobbled by a fragmented political structure (lots of fiefs, no central governing body), and the income gap between the game’s stars and everyone else is now a glaring problem with the pro tour on lockdown and many players struggling financially. It is a sport in need of significant reform. However, its winning attributes far outnumber its flaws, and arguably its greatest virtue is the cosmopolitanism that has made it a beacon among sports.

A few years ago, I interviewed a player named Damir Dzumhur. He is a Bosnian who was born in Sarajevo in May 1992, just weeks after Serbian forces laid siege to the city. Improbably, he grew up to be a tennis pro, and a seriously good one — he has been ranked in the top 25. The fact that Dzumhur is just 5-foot-9, in a sport increasingly populated by Goliaths, is a metaphor for his life. He told me that he did much of his training in Belgrade, Serbia. The war, he said, was a nonissue; the Serbian players he practiced with treated him as one of their own. The game has a way of erasing borders.

Viruses are also adept at erasing borders. About four months after doctors in Wuhan began treating a mysterious respiratory infection, the whole world is battling Covid-19, and the global economy is in free-fall. It would seem that the obvious lesson is that we live in a highly integrated world whether we like it or not and that embracing this reality instead of fighting it is our best hope of avoiding future calamities.

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about my favorite spot in the tennis world, the practice courts at Wimbledon. I love going there in the morning, when the courts are full and echo with the sound of tennis balls being smacked and players greeting one another in broken English. Overhead, there is a steady flow of planes descending across London on approach to Heathrow, carrying passengers from Asia, Africa, North America and points elsewhere. Something about that scene always grabs me. It is a picture of a planet made smaller, less divided.

Tennis will be back, hopefully soon. But I fear that it will return to a world increasingly disinclined to follow its example.

Michael Steinberger (@WineDiarist) is a regular contributor to The Times Magazine.

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