With the dust settled on the 2021 season, it’s time to take stock of one of the most remarkable periods that tennis has ever seen, an era in which the shadow of COVID has loomed over the sport like a spectre.
But first, the good news. Looking back at 2021, the first reflection of so many tennis fans is this: it’s great to be back.
It was far from a guarantee 12 months ago. The professional game in 2020 passed us by in almost a daze, with half of the season cancelled and the other half played in conditions that seemed almost otherworldly. Empty arenas, even at a Grand Slam final? Courts without line judges? The post-match racket tap replacing the mainstay handshake? It was tennis, but not as we knew it.
And this was just the on-court stuff. Off the court, tennis was introduced to a baffling new world with its own alien lexicon. Quarantine periods, ‘bubbles’ and lateral flow tests ruled every tournament, from Challenger events to Grand Slams. The hotel room became the new gym and it was near impossible to find a picture of a player unmasked if they weren’t actually playing a match. The logistical – and personal – challenges of competing in tournaments worldwide were so great that the ATP and WTA even suspended its ranking points system.
As we came into 2021, tennis faced a question that was mirrored by society as a whole: will this year be more of the same, or will we finally return to the old normal – or at the very least, something that resembles it?
The answer, perhaps inevitably, was a bit of both. Fans returned to Melbourne in January for the Australian Open – and then were abruptly removed again mid-tournament as the city re-entered lockdown. The usually-raucous Parisian stands at Roland Garros were at half capacity, but only until 11pm, where the French capital’s curfew rules resulted in nightly crowd clearing operations – for which an understandable exemption was made for that Nadal-Djokovic semi-final.
Yet just a month later at Wimbledon, we were reintroduced to the sight of a packed Centre Court, with strawberries and cream in full order, as Novak Djokovic beat Matteo Berrettini for his record-tying 20th Grand Slam. The footage could have come straight out of the halcyon days of 2019 – if you ignored the occasional mask in the crowd of course.
Predicting anything became a fool’s errand in 2021. Roll the dice – a tournament could go ahead, or be rearranged, or even cancelled altogether. The hosting of tennis tournaments became inseparably linked to national and international politics, with a healthy dose of bureaucracy thrown in, giving organisers an unenviable to-do checklist affecting every part of every tournament.
Will a nation’s borders be open or closed? How many fans will be able to attend, if any? And a new one – which we may well see often – will anyone without the COVID vaccine be permitted to attend the ground? This isn’t just a question for the public either, even nine-time champion Novak Djokovic will not be exempt from this latest development at the Australian Open.
Tennis’ governing bodies will continue to grapple with these issues, adjusting endlessly to a landscape where unpredictability is the only predictable thing. The stage is set for a gripping 2022.