One of the most heartening things to happen this past year for tennis players and fans is the incredible resurgence of the recreational game. In most parts of the world, where government-mandated lockdowns and park closures have meant few opportunities for civilians to go to the gym or gather for team sports, tennis has enjoyed its status as a safe, distanced sport optimised for these strange times.
The professional tennis tours have laboured intensely to bring elite athletes together to compete, from the successful player bubbles at the Western and Southern, and US Opens, both played in New York last Summer, to the most recent French and Australian Opens, which took place with limited spectators. While they’ve sometimes lacked fan presence and atmosphere, the tournaments have certainly proven themselves able to create scintillating matches for a television audience starved of live sports and the stories that accompany them.
It’s with some concern, then, that even as scientists have raced to bring to market effective vaccines and governments have launched global immunisation campaigns, there is some dissension in the ranks among professional tennis players about getting onboard. Famously, Novak Djokovic last year both questioned the notion of vaccination and then created an exhibition series in the pan-Eastern European Adria Tour lacking in safety protocols - a widely circulated video of shirtless players partying at a Belgrade nightclub neatly summed up the vibe - which resulted in a cluster of coronavirus cases that included himself as well as his wife, Jelena.
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John Isner, an American player known for his politically inflammatory opinions as much as his booming service game, had a word for anyone sceptical of one tournament’s plans to proceed safely with full crowds: “coronabros.” He lamented that these safety-minded sceptics were choosing to “stay in their basements” while he enjoys the “freedom to live” his life, then later had no comment when fellow American Frances Tiafoe tested positive for coronavirus during the same event.
Djokovic has been quoted on his opposition to governing bodies in tennis mandating vaccines, and now that the ATP and WTA tours have begun education campaigns to encourage players to get shots in arms, a bevy of other players have expressed their doubts. Last month in Miami, world number eight Aryna Sabalenka said she doesn’t “trust” the vaccine, and fellow women’s top 10 player Elina Svitolina said she’ll be waiting to “see what happens” before taking action. Andrey Rublev, a Russian in the ATP top 10, also said the vaccine doesn’t “give any privilege,” and if given the choice, he’d opt out.
So here’s what’s plain to most of us who want both a return to normalcy for our world and our sport, and for these exceptional athletes to use their platforms to encourage participation amongst their fans and followers for the good of global public health: the tours should make it mandatory.
It’s an idea supported by the Andys, both Andy Murray - almost without exception on the right side of history in the tennis world - as well as former American player Andy Roddick, who has continued to be one of the most consistently rational voices in the sport. He made the point quite clearly when discussing Djokovic’s lack of belief in the efficacy of vaccines, and tied it to the privilege of playing on the tour:
I’ll be curious to see how deep his belief system runs if he’s gonna have to sit out Grand Slams because he doesn’t want to take a vaccination shot.
We’ll go one further than the Andys and say that the ATP and WTA should not only make vaccination mandatory for any players wishing to compete in tour-sanctioned events, but they should also create a vaccine passport. Much like those currently under debate by countries wishing to relax their borders in a transitioning world, this would allow players and all vaccinated members of their teams to travel freely from city to city, country to country, event to event following the tour schedule without the need for the massive disruption that comes with isolating, testing and maintaining bubbles at every stop along the way.
Before any readers begin wringing hands about civil liberties and invasion of privacy, recall that traveling the world requires a government-issued passport and children aren’t admitted to schools in most countries without proof of their immunization records. People aren’t forced to leave the country or to put their children in public schools, but exercising those rights comes with adherence to and participation in those systems.
If personal beliefs prevent any tennis player from fully complying with tour-mandated immunisations and the vaccine passport it would support, they are free to stay home. It’s a solution John Isner - and any coronabros in the vast group of recreational players who’ve rediscovered the joy of tennis during this past year - should feel good about.
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