Serena Williams returns for US Open warm-up amid tennis chaos
Serena Williams 

Serena Williams returns to competition this week in Lexington as she ramps up her bid for a record-equalling 24th grand slam singles title in New York next month, but otherwise, tennis has little else to shout about.

The decision to go ahead with tournaments in the United States despite the coronavirus pandemic still being in full flow there has caused consternation among many players, with pull-outs happening almost daily.

The hard-court tournaments will be played without fans but that has done little to sway the doubters.

Flushing Meadows reigning champion Rafael Nadal and women’s number one Ash Barty are the most high-profile names to say they will not head to New York for the Cincinnati tournament rearranged for “the Big Apple” from August 21 followed by the US Open from August 31.

Williams, 38, is willing to take a risk, saying she is travelling around with 50 masks.

“I see myself doing it all if it happens,” she said of upcoming tournaments, including heading to Europe for the rearranged French Open from September 27.

Her use of the word if raised eyebrows, but with the Covid-19 situation changing daily and so many players deciding they will not compete, the US Open is already threatening to become a farce in the view of many pundits.

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Players are concerned about the restrictive environment proposed to make the tournament safe and the potential need to quarantine for two weeks on their return to Europe.

With the US being hit so hard by coronavirus, most of Europe requires quarantine for those arriving from there and promises that professional athletes would receive exemptions do not seem guaranteed.

With the US Open due to finish on September 13, that leaves exactly two weeks before Roland Garros. Preparing for the clay surface while quarantined, albeit with tennis courts possibly at their bases, appears unrealistic to many. It would also devastate the field for Rome the week before the French Open.

Dutch world number seven Kiki Bertens has withdrawn from New York, saying on Instagram: “Our prime minister also indicated … that we should be quarantined for two weeks after coming back from the States.”

For others it is a pure health matter. Elina Svitolina said she did not feel comfortable she could travel to the US “without putting my team and myself at high risk.”

The Lexington, Kentucky, event is joined by another WTA tournament in Prague this week, after the women’s tour resumed in Palermo last week after four months with no play due to the pandemic.

The Prague event is on clay, making it an obvious destination for players shunning the US and looking ahead to the French Open, which at the moment still hopes to have around 60 per cent of the fans the Paris venue would normally welcome.

World number two Simona Halep is in the Czech capital having missing the Palermo event over Covid-19 worries, with Italian quarantine rules being imposed on Romanians even though authorities said she was exempt.

Regular coronavirus tests, compulsory masks except when playing and restrictions on movement will all be part of tennis players’ lives for the time being. There was a positive test for an unnamed player before the Palermo event, which the WTA said showed its protocols are working.

After the party videos and positive tests which followed Novak Djokovic’s ill-fated Adria Tour exhibition in June, the two major professional tennis tours are doing what they can to reassure players.

But so far it has not been enough to convince a host of top names and the weeks ahead could be some of the most challenging the sport has ever faced.


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