Roger Federer may not like it, but playing behind closed doors is the only viable option for tennis in 2020
We all know Roger Federer loves playing to a crowd, but right now the tennis world needs him to play to anything but a crowd. The Swiss has the power to lead the way and help make tennis a reality again in 2020, so the sooner he lets go of his fondness for applause, the better it would be for the sport.
The Wimbledon 2019 final had a lot of memorable moments, which is bound to be the case with any match that lasts four hours and 57 minutes. But the most enduring — and most meme-worthy — moment from the epic contest was not Novak Djokovic’s searing backhand winner in the final set tiebreaker, or even his forehand pass to save championship point at 8-7, 40-30. It was, instead, what happened a minute earlier: a female Federer fan in the stands raising her index finger in the air with glee, announcing to the world that one point was all Roger Federer needed to create history.
As it turned out, Federer failed to get the point that everyone thought was a formality, and the unfortunate finger-raising fan became the butt of a million memes. The lady’s cocky expression single-handedly became a weapon of mass humiliation in the hands of Djokovic fans, and the symbol of everything that Federer fans hate about the nightmare match.
But what if there was no one in the stands to commemorate the historic occasion in the historic match? That’s precisely the prospect that tennis players and fans are facing in a post- Coronavirus world. And as you’d expect, not everyone is chuffed about it.
Roger Federer has become the first big name to voice his disapproval of playing tennis behind closed doors. “In my view, I can’t see an empty stadium,” Federer said in a video chat earlier this week. “I hope that doesn’t happen…Maybe we wait for the appropriate time to return to normal mode again. (Or) at least a third of the stadium or half full. But for me, completely empty when playing in big tournaments is very difficult.”
Of course, anyone who saw what happened before and after that infamous championship point would know the reasoning behind Federer’s comment. The Swiss is always the crowd favorite, and he has made a habit out of channeling the positives vibes he receives from spectators into his own positive shot-making.
Federer has often said that he loves playing for the fans, and the fans in turn love that he feels that way. The result is a mutual admiration society that is so full of mush it would be only slightly misplaced in a Nicholas Sparks novel.
But it’s not just crowd favorites like Federer who would be dismayed at the prospect of spectator-less tournaments. Tennis events are unique among the world of sports in that they strictly enforce the no-sound and no-movement policy between points. And while those rules might sound draconian at first glance, they have a way of giving a certain direction and gravitas to the court atmosphere that are hard to find in any other sport.
A tennis match may not have the passionate frenzy of a football game or the carnival-like revelry of a cricket event, but it does have an ebb and flow that make it easy to identify the defining moments of the contest. It’s almost like a maestro conducting an orchestra. The bigger the point, the quieter the fans go; the better the point-ending shot, the crazier the decibel levels rise to.
And the breathless countdown in anticipation of every ‘challenge’ replay? Many claim the biggest positive of introducing Hawkeye is not the elimination of umpiring mistakes, but the way it enhances the atmosphere in the stands through suspense and intrigue.
The crowd doesn’t just make up the numbers at a tennis match; it gives the contest drama and life. You could even say it gives tennis a meaning.
Then there is the issue of tournament revenue, which is another area where tennis is unique. Unlike football which has already started spectator-less games in Germany — and cricket — where TV rights are known to ring in billions of dollars — tennis’ share of broadcast revenue is notoriously low. For instance, just 36% of the 2017 US Open’s total revenue came from broadcast deals; the bulk of the remaining portion was made up by ticket and merchandise sales.
That is probably why both the US Open and the French Open organizers had said in April that holding their events behind closed doors was ‘highly unlikely’. Their statements were followed by the cancellation of Wimbledon altogether, and soon the reality of the situation dawned upon the entire tennis community: playing without spectators was neither feasible, nor practical.
But if tennis behind closed doors is not an option, what alternative are we left with? No tennis at all. And while the likes of Federer can afford for that eventuality to come to pass, the majority of the tour can’t.
Federer, together with his Big 3 peers Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, make enough money through endorsements to be able to skate through this crisis without much of a dent in their living situation. But the rest of the players don’t have that luxury, because prize money at the lower levels is infamously low in tennis. And given the high maintenance costs involved in being a pro, an entire year without tennis would be a death knell for dozens of careers.
To their credit, the Big 3 recognised the severity of the situation soon enough. Last month Djokovic proposed a player relief fund – where the top players would contribute a certain amount based on their income level – to help his lower-ranked colleagues. But money is such a sore point in the sport that even a noble initiative like that quickly ran into hot water.
Most notably, Dominic Thiem vocally refused to entertain the idea of contributing to such a fund, saying that he’d rather donate to organisations that ‘really need it’. And even though Thiem was widely criticized for his stance, many players defended him too, insisting that the system was too damaged to be saved by a quick-fix relief fund.
That the system is damaged cannot be denied. If even the World No 3 player is counting his pennies and being picky about where to donate, what must the situation be for a player ranked 303? And would a few thousand dollars procured from a charitable fund really solve his struggles in a tennis-less year?
There are some large-scale changes needed in the ATP and WTA prize money structure, and those won’t happen overnight. But the players can’t be left to fend for themselves in the meantime either. The lower-ranked pros do need a quick-fix solution – one that doesn’t depend on the generosity of the top stars.
Fortunately, there seems to be some light on the horizon now. Ever since the slim hopes of a coronavirus -free world by mid-2020 all but evaporated, tournament organizers have been looking at a host of alternatives.
Outright cancellation — which Wimbledon promptly announced given they were in line for a hefty insurance payout — may not be financially viable for the other big tournaments, so playing without fans has suddenly become a very promising possibility. And according to recent reports, both the US Open and the French Open have taken a U-turn from their earlier stance, and are now seriously considering closed-door events.
For the US Open, it was a tweet of encouragement by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that reportedly set the ball rolling. The fact that UFC events have started being held in the US (behind closed doors) has also contributed to the softening of the USTA’s anti-closed-doors view.
Meanwhile, the spectator-less resumption of the Bundesliga seems to have become a template of sorts for European sport. Just days after the German government gave the green signal for top-flight football to return, French tennis chief Bernard Guidicelli said that the option of playing Roland Garros behind closed doors ‘cannot be overlooked’.
The prevailing thought right now seems to be: If Bundesliga and UFC can do it, why can’t tennis?
But it’s not as simple as just waking up one day and deciding to play without spectators. While the US Open and the French Open can possibly manage to host a Slam-level tournament on just a third of their usual revenue (from TV rights), the smaller events will not be able to the same.
For any semblance of a full-fledged tour to resume, there will have to be compromises at the other end too. In other words, there will have to be a reduction in prize money.
I know what you’re thinking; prize money is already such a pain point for the players, so how can we think of reducing it? Well for starters, prize money is not a pain point for all players. The lower-ranked tennis pros struggle to make ends meet, but those in the top 10 are some of the richest athletes in the world.
A temporary adjustment in the way prize money is distributed across the different levels could allow a significant reduction in the overall pool. That, in turn, could help the tournaments make up some of their losses, and thus become feasible to organise.
This would still be a big change though, even if temporary; any reduction in income, however small, is guaranteed to be met with stiff resistance. A change like this will need extensive discussions and deliberations from the players before it can even get off the table. But more importantly, it will need strong leadership.
Djokovic is the president of the ATP Player Council, and he has already shown over the last couple of months that he is willing and eager to take charge in a time of crisis. Will the other big fish, and arguably the most influential man in the sport, step up and do his bit too?
We all know Federer loves playing to a crowd, but right now the tennis world needs him to play to anything but a crowd. The Swiss has the power to lead the way and help make tennis a reality again in 2020, so the sooner he lets go of his fondness for applause, the better it would be for the sport.
The tournament organizers have already taken the first steps towards compromise. Now it is the turn of the players, especially those at the top, to do the same.
Thiem lost in the last 16 of the Australian Open in February and suffered early exits at both Doha and Dubai.
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Federer hasn't won a tour clay title since Istanbul in 2015; his most recent Masters triumph on the surface was Madrid in 2012.