As if tennis and its cluttered calendar needed another complication….the postponement of the Olympics until 2021 will have huge effects on the sport going forward.
As it stood—in this pre-coronavirus world we are all already romanticizing—the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were to be held July 24 to Aug. 9, between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. It wasn’t ideal, especially given the distances and time zones. And, as is the case once every four years, it depletes much of the U.S. summer hardcourt circuit. But it was manageable.
Now? Who knows.
Even assuming Japan pulls off the Olympics in 2021, there’s no guarantee the tennis dates will align. If the Olympics conflict with Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, would either major be willing to shift to accommodate players (and audiences/sponsors)?
As recently as 2000 in Sydney, the Games were held after the U.S. Open; if that’s the case this time, will players make the trip? Will players also be willing to fly halfway across the world if the Olympics land between the French Open and Wimbledon?
And bear in mind: players will be coming off a year of depleted earnings, as events after events in 2020 are molting like snakeskin. After a year of austerity and reduced income, will players be as enthusiastic about the Olympics, which do not enrich them the way conventional tournaments do—and sometimes don’t enrich them at all?
Then there’s the question of which players will be around. As it stands, a raft of players—from teenagers a la Coco Gauff to those pushing 40 like Venus Williams—have made no secret of their fondness for the Games. For a number of players, competing in a final Olympics would be a capstone to monumental careers.
One wonders: will the lure of the Olympics be an inducement for, say, Serena Williams (39 in September), Venus Williams (40 in June), Roger Federer (39 in September) to keep going? Or will the cancellation in 2020 dull their desire to continue? Consider even, say, Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro, who announced this would be her last season—but made that declaration assuming she would get to represent her country in Tokyo. Will she reconsider and stick it out for another year?
Two players who are sticking to their plan and won’t be in Tokyo, regardless of postponement: Bob and Mike Bryan. They were unlikely to have played the Olympics anyway, having been part of multiple delegations in the past. But, while disappointed by the 2020 interruptions, they tell me they are keeping their schedule and plan to (hopefully) play WorldTeam Tennis this summer before putting a bow on their unrivaled career at the U.S. Open.
On the one hand, tennis players are lucky, compared to Olympic colleagues in other sports. The Summer Games are a bonus and a thrill and deeply meaningful. But tennis players have other opportunities to reach the sport’s pinnacles. There are 16 majors for each Olympics cycle.
At the same time, this is such a special and different event in the sport; it must be crushingly disappointing—especially for players who qualify as of today and might have to “re-earn their spot.” I spoke with Alison Riske in Australia and she was nearly reduced to tears, talking about the prospect of putting herself in a position play in Tokyo. One can only imagine how—of course on top of everything else—she feels today.
Tennis will have to figure out what to do about ranking points and eligibility. Will those players who are eligible today carry their status over to next year, not dissimilar to the freeze in rankings? Or will the eligibility period be extended now that the Olympics are more than a year away?
It is just one more riddle and problem that tennis—like all sports; like all sectors; like all of humanity—will have to solve. All because of this damn virus…..