With the final match looming, this year’s edition of Wimbledon has already proved many points.
Rafael Nadal can play top-level tennis with a zombie foot and a tear in an abdominal muscle, but only for so long. Iga Swiatek is beatable, at least on grass. With Moscow-born, Kazakhstan-representing Elena Rybakina making the women’s singles final, barring Russian players does not necessarily make a competition free of Russian players.
But perhaps most surprisingly, after 27 months of tournament cancellations, spectator-free events, constant testing and bubblelike environments, tennis may have finally moved past COVID-19.
For nearly two years, longer than just about every other major sport, tennis struggled to coexist with the pandemic.
In November, when the NFL, the NBA, the Premier League and most other sports organizations had resumed a life that largely resembled 2019 — no masks, no testing, no bubbles — tennis players were still living with restrictions on their movements, conducting online video news conferences and having cotton swabs stuck up their noses at tournaments.
A month later, Novak Djokovic, then the No. 1 men’s singles player, contracted a second case of COVID-19 just in time to secure, he thought, special entry into Australia to play the Australian Open, even though he was unvaccinated against COVID-19 and the country was still largely restricted to people who had been vaccinated. Australian officials ended up deporting him because they said he might encourage other people not to get vaccinated, a drama that dominated the run-up to the tournament and its first days.
The episode crystallized how tennis, with its kinetic international schedule, had been subjected to the will and whims of local governments, with rules and restrictions shifting sometimes weekly. The frequent travel and communal locker rooms made the players something like sitting ducks, always one nasal swab away from being locked in a hotel room for 10 days, sometimes far from home, regardless of how careful they might have been.
Tennis, unlike other sports that surged ahead of health and medical guidelines to keep their coffers filled, has had to reflect where society at large has been at every stage of the pandemic. Its major organizers canceled or postponed everything in the spring and early summer of 2020, although Djokovic held an exhibition tournament that ended up being something of a superspreader event.
The 2020 U.S. Open took place on schedule in late summer without spectators. To be at the usually bustling Billie Jean King National Tennis Center those weeks in New York was something like being on the surface of the moon.
A rescheduled French Open followed in the chill of a Paris fall with just a few hundred fans allowed. Australia largely subjected players to a 14-day quarantine before they could take part in the 2021 Australian Open.
As vaccinations proliferated later in the year, crowds returned, but players usually had to live in bubbles, unable to move about the cities they inhabited until the summer events in the U.S. But as the delta variant spread, the bubbles returned. Then came Australia and Djokovic’s vaccine confrontation, just as disputes over mandates were heating up elsewhere.
In recent months though, as public attitudes toward the pandemic shifted, mask mandates were lifted and travel restrictions were eased, even tennis has seemingly moved on, even if the virus has not done the same.
There was no mandatory testing for Wimbledon or the French Open. People are confused about what they must do if they get the sniffles or a sore throat, and tennis players are no different. Many players said they were not sure exactly what the rules were for those who started not to feel well. While two widely known players, Matteo Berrettini and Marin Cilic, withdrew from Wimbledon after testing positive, without a requirement to take a test, they, and any other player, could have opted not to take a test and played through whatever symptoms they were experiencing.
“So many rules,” Nadal said. “For some people, some rules are fine; for the others, rules are not fine. If there are some rules, we need to follow the rules. If not, the world is a mess.”
After nearly two years of bubble life, though, hard-edge complaints about a don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach and safety mandates were virtually nonexistent.
Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia, whose country had some of the strictest pandemic-related policies, said she remained cautious, especially at the bigger events, but she had reached the point where she needed to find a balance between safety and sanity.
“I just try to take care of myself as much as I can where I’m still not completely isolating myself, where it’s not fun to live,” said Tomljanovic, who lost to Rybakina in the quarterfinals.
Paula Badosa, a Spanish star, said she had stopped worrying about the virus.
“I had all type of COVIDs possible,” said Badosa, who first tested positive in Australia in January 2021 and has had it twice more. “I had vaccination, as well. So in my case, if I have it again, it will be very bad luck.”
Officials with the men’s and women’s tours said that regardless of infection levels, their organizations had no intention of resuming regular testing or restricting player movements. They said they will follow the lead of local officials.
With testing, quarantine and isolation requirements having all but disappeared, or merely existing as recommendations, tennis finally seems to have entered a stage of pandemic apathy, much like a lot of society, omicron and its subvariants be damned.
There is, of course, one major exception to all of this, and that is Djokovic, whose refusal to be vaccinated — unique among the top 100 players on the men’s tour — will seemingly prevent him from playing in the U.S. Open.
U.S. rules require all foreigners entering the country to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Djokovic has said he believes that individuals should be allowed to choose whether to do so without pressure from governments.
Also, because he was deported from Australia, Djokovic would need a special exemption to return to the country to compete in the Australian Open in January. He has won the men’s singles title there a record nine times.
Unless the rules change, he may not play in another Grand Slam tournament until the French Open next May, something he said that he was well aware of but that would not shift his thinking about whether to take the vaccine.
In other words, COVID-19 really isn’t done playing games with tennis.