In the round of 16 at the Argentina Open in Buenos Aires this month, hell broke loose in the form of an explosion from Benoît Paire. The world No.31 was leading by a set against young Argentina qualifier Francisco Cerundolo when he challenged a line call. After raising his voice as he raged against referee, Nacho Forcadell, Paire ended the argument by spat bitterly at the contested ball mark. It was the start of a protracted and excruciating meltdown that ended with Paire shamelessly tanking the last few matches. He ended the match with a deliberate double fault.
None of this is new. Pair, 31, is well known for his volatility, aversion to effort and his greater interest in the social and traveling benefits of his profession than the competition itself. But after the game, the Frenchman posted a lengthy statement on Instagram explaining his frustrations: “The ATP Tour has become sad, boring and ridiculous,” he wrote. “I know you’re going to say you don’t realize how lucky you are, blah-blah-blah, but playing in closed stadiums with no atmosphere is not why I play. Having to stay in a hotel or a club and being banned from going out without risking a fine, where is the pleasure of traveling? For me, tennis has become a bad taste job.
Paire’s comments reflected the worst in tennis over the past 12 months – the failure of some players to understand that there is minimal sympathy at a time when so many around the world have also found their lives limited. one way or another, especially since he just means not to play. Yet what is clear, as these abnormal times continue, is that Covid fatigue has taken hold throughout sport.
Last month, veteran and former top 10 player Gilles Simon cited a drop in motivation when he decided to take a break from the tour: “My heart is no longer there to travel and play in these conditions, unfortunately. I have to take a break in order to preserve myself mentally, ”wrote the Frenchman. “Hoping that morale returns as soon as possible.” When Simon left, his good friend and compatriot Jo-Wilfried Tsonga returned after being absent for a year due to injury. Even the joy of competing for the first time in so long was not enough for him. “We are not motivated, there is no fun,” he concluded.
During his run to the semi-finals of the Dubai Open, which he emerged from on Friday, Denis Shapovalov explained that he felt exhausted after the Australian Open quarantine experience and that he had deliberately chosen to lighten his schedule and participate in new tournaments in order to maintain novelty. He also noted the various reasons most players choose to play. “We have other obligations from the sponsors, contracts which oblige us to play as well,” he said. “So that’s definitely the reason why a lot of players are still playing, because otherwise I feel like a lot of players just wouldn’t play at all.”
Such prospects were expected. In the midst of his run at the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic and other players had called for an NBA-style bubble in tennis. But that bubble cost the NBA around $ 180 million, while Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said the event cost A $ 100 million (£ 56 million ) to organize. It is unrealistic. ATP and WTA tours, made up of independent tournaments that rely primarily on ticket sales, do not have the finances or the fans to make such a business work.
Apathy has also recently led to greater questioning of rule changes since the start of the pandemic. The drop in prices throughout the tour became a point of contention, and Alexander Zverev called the current rating system “absurd”. While the rankings typically only take into account the previous 52 weeks of results, they currently allow players to hold onto the points accumulated from March 2019, protecting them from falling rankings in these uncertain times. This means Roger Federer is still ranked sixth despite his break.
As is often the case, the problems of the best players are the least pressing. The real complications lie further down the pecking order, as the rules make it extremely difficult for lower-ranked players to move up the leaderboard. The ITF women’s circuit has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Over the past week there have been three ATP Challenger events with a cash prize of around $ 52,000 (£ 37,500). The biggest women’s tournaments below the main WTA tour this week were a handful of $ 15,000 events.
The last few months for the Briton Francesca Jones underline the challenge. Jones was the lowest ranked player to qualify for the Australian Open and then won her first WTA match in an Australian event. Although it was a life-changing month in terms of recognition, she gained less than 40 places in the standings.
Yet Jones’ positive outlook is also an example of the varied outlook among players. “The rankings are probably, in terms of numbers, a little more difficult to come up with,” she said. “But at the same time, it balances out that you have nothing to lose.”
The effects of widespread angst will be evident over the next two weeks at the Miami Open: 21 players have pulled out of the main draw, including four of the top six in the world. For the first time since 2004, a Masters 1000 event will take place without Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. Regardless of their reason for pulling out, from Federer’s continued recovery to the unwelcome prospect of traveling to the United States for a tournament with reduced cash prizes and few spectators, the tour continues.