Author’s Note: This article is pure fiction. An imaginary glimpse into the future, for distraction and entertainment during the current crisis.
Tuesday, February 16, 2021:
Some old things are new again; others are just new. After fits and starts around the world, a major international sporting event ended successfully. “Back to the Fun in ‘21” became the cautious and unofficial ethos for the first major world event of the coronavirus era. After scoring changes, adoption of tennis gloves, use of orange balls, and myriad other precautions, tennis welcomed a worldwide audience and crowned a new men’s champion. Same as the old champion. Novak Djokovic defeated Dominic Thiem 6-4 6-3 to win the 2021 Australian Open.
Players and Leaders Attended the Final
“After months of sadness and frustration, Australia helped the world begin again. I am honored Australia welcomed me at this time of awakening” said United States Vice President Stacey Abrams. The newly inaugurated Abrams joined ESPN’s Chris Fowler and Darren Cahill in their broadcast booth after attending the intimate pre-final match ceremony hosted by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Vice President Abrams watched the final with a collection of world leaders and nearly 5,000 fans in Rod Laver Arena. The presence of two dozen world leaders showed growing confidence in the global move toward normalcy.
Using the new orange tennis balls on his serve, Djokovic slammed his 13th ace of the match to close out the final. With that last ace, Djokovic claimed his ninth Australian Open championship and his 18th overall Grand Slam title. Djokovic now stands one title behind Spain’s Rafael Nadal and two behind all time leader Roger Federer.
So Many Firsts
Media, fans and players marveled at how many “firsts” appeared during the 2021 Australian Open. The changes were apparent even before the first ball played on January 30.
Organizers allowed only 15,000 fans to enter the grounds each day. Fans and tournament staff alike waited in “precaution lines” for temperature taking at the entrance to Melbourne Park.
Tennis Australia appropriately considered workers 30 minute “clearance quarantines” part of their shifts. Timing rules limited all workers to 6 total hours per day. The rumored “bring your own beer mug policy” never emerged, but precautions across the grounds good spirited cooperation from spectators and personnel alike.
In the arenas, seeing the world’s best tennis players donning their new gloves on court, fans sitting every other seat with a maximum of 5,000 attending any match and players carrying their own towels 100% of the time all took a few days for eyes to adjust. In order to keep balls in the hands of only one person, the opening game server always used the new orange balls on his turn to serve while the second server used traditional yellow.
Support from the Players
“While I miss the help from the ball kids, I completely understand the precautions” said Thiem. With players required to pick up their own balls, or flick the balls to their opponent when not serving, officials did not use 25 second serve clocks.
Tournament referees adopted best 2 of 3 set scoring to limit the length of matches. Additionally, officials required the use of No Ad scoring in the first two sets in all matches. In his post match remarks, Daniil Medvedev said “It felt different, but officials made the right move. We need to be cautious.” A gracious response after losing six consecutive 40-40 points in his falling 6-4 6-3 to Gael Monfils.
“We hope these precautions are temporary, but they will all remain for the women’s event” said Tennis Australia President Jayne Hrdlicka. With guidance from health officials working with the ATP and WTA, ball kids are expected to return for events starting March 15. Players will likely be carrying their own towels for quite some time.
“No problem with the towels. Even before the virus, it was kind of gross for the kids to carry them” said German Alexander Zverev after defeating David Goffin in the quarter-finals. Most players agreed, “it’s like the juniors, we carried towels all the time as kids” said Canadian Denis Shapovalov who advanced to the round of 16.
With matches spread all over the grounds, including on some practice courts, many were attended by fewer than 400 people. “It reminded me of the qualies, but with television cameras and Hawkeye available” said Steve Johnson. By the end of the event, many of the firsts seemed almost commonplace.
More than any change, the player’s gloves ignited the most conversation on the first day of play. All players wore the new Adidas “dynamic shearing gloves” during match play. While the orange balls were the most talked about change in the lead up to play, the gloves stole the attention of fans from the first ball played.
The Adidas website states they are sold out and allows back orders on the incredibly in demand gloves. Even the always Nike wearing Rafael Nadal wore Adidas gloves. When asked about using the Adidas equipment, Nadal said “it is most important to be safe, no?” Even Nike’s website supported the use of rival Adidas equipment in this new safety first era. Don’t be surprised if Nadal finds newly improved Nike gloves soon.
The gloves appear to be a cross between batting gloves and mesh running gloves. Several players announced they will wear them regularly. “I am surprised, but I like them, even in the heat they give me a better grip on my racket,” said American John Isner after his first round victory over Canada’s Vasek Pospisil.
Two in a Row
For the first time, the same Grand Slam tournament was contested twice in a row. Since the 2020 French Open, Wimbledon and US Open tournaments were all canceled, the 2020 Australian was the last slam before the world crisis and the 2021 edition was the first slam as the world emerges.
Added to the irony was the fact that the competitors were the same. When Djokovic said to Thiem that “I expect to see you back here at Rod Laver Stadium” during the 2019 trophy ceremony, little did he know that each man would play only one more event before returning to find each other in Melbourne again.
Progress with Precaution
The rapid improvements in global coronavirus testing in the last 8 weeks, along with some new therapeutic treatments make many believe arenas may soon be 75% full at some events. For now, the caution of 5,000 attendees in one arena is expected in upcoming basketball, soccer, and golf competitions around the world.
One change as the women’s event starts later in the week, lines officials will no longer have to wear face masks. Hrdlicka announced the change after all employees and players again tested negative for the virus yesterday. Like the men, all female competitors must test negative for the virus upon arrival in Melbourne. As of now, all 128 female players are healthy and cleared to play.
Stars Without Winning
Playing in his home country, Aussie Nick Kyrigos became the star of retrieving the tennis balls. Kyrigos frequently kicked and juggled balls before he sent them back to his opponent. Before his 4th round exit, Kyrigos made many new fans by humorously taking all playing precautions in stride. “I want orange!” he virtually screamed at every match coin flip, resulting in laughter from crowds and opponents.
For more serious reasons, superstars Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic led a cadre of players who donated all of their prize money to relief for healthcare employees of Australia. Though they will not discuss it, many believe Djokovic, Nadal, and Roger Federer silently donated over 2 million dollars each.
ESPN recently reported that players in other professional sports are considering similar measures as their organizations plan their openings in coming weeks. “Back to the Fun in ‘21” continues to spread across the sports globe, not as a rallying cry, but a patient return to normal.
After 20 days in Australia, the sports world has a cautious start. We hope it continues.
Or now, on April 18, 2020 – we can only dream. Stay Safe.