Novak Djokovic will be in the spotlight right from the off this season

Tennis won’t be back to normal even by Wimbledon, admits WTA chief Micky Lawler… but Novak Djokovic is likely to be front and centre again in the on and off court dramas of the coming season

  • Tennis tours return this week but an escape from coronavirus is some way off 
  • Ten cases were discovered in Melbourne on Friday in a worrying development 
  • Micky Lawler will be hoping her star players are seen far more often than in 2020
  • But Novak Djokovic is likely to dominate in the on and off court dramas

The first thing that Micky Lawler, President of the WTA Tour, does upon waking at her Florida home each morning is check the latest world developments around Covid-19.

She admits that she does so with some trepidation, and will hardly be alone in that among sports executives.

With the tennis tours returning to action this week after a longer than usual hibernation an escape from the disease’s clutches is still some way off. The latest development of 10 new cases in Melbourne on Friday will have sent another frisson of anxiety through the sport.

Novak Djokovic will be in the spotlight right from the off with tennis getting underway

Coronavirus is threatening the Australian Open but Serena Williams will travel to take part

‘I think tennis did an amazing job last year because of the huge challenges due to the global nature of the sport, and those challenges continue,’ she says.

Armed with a new logo as part of a re-brand, and a sharpened tournament structure, the women kick off in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, while there are men’s events in Turkey and Florida. The idea is that everyone then heads to the Australian Open, via unprecedented qualifying events in Dubai and Doha.

This much we know, but nobody can be certain about the future beyond that. Lawler reveals that her planning involves nine different scenarios, depending on the spread of the disease and the speed of vaccine rollouts.

Like many in the game she looks towards Wimbledon in the summer as the sunlit uplands, although with some caution. When does she expect things to be back where they once were?

‘The safest assumption is that the tour will be back to normal in 2022, but the aim is to be flexible,’ she says. ‘Wimbledon is the Mecca, I found the hardest part of last year was missing that. I think it’s too soon for Wimbledon to be fully normal (this summer), but I am really hoping that it will be as normal as possible.’

Another thing she will be hoping for is that her star players are seen far more often than in 2020. For instance Ash Barty spent most of last year holed up at home and played only 14 matches, but still ended as No 1 due to freezes in the ranking system.

A promising start is that Serena Williams is prepared to swallow the highly restrictive measures being imposed in Australia and will travel. A women’s tour that is struggling to hold its own as a standalone product, and that has developed an over-reliance on government funded events – especially in China – needs its big names out in force.

There are good intentions about more co-operation between the men and the women, and they released a joint promotional video last month. Against that is the disappearance of the app that was a one-stop shop for all WTA and ATP tournament results, angering many fans.

WTA Tour  President Micky Lawler (centre) is looking towards Wimbledon as the sunlit uplands

Lawler bluntly admits that this was a ‘mistake’ caused by having to fight fires on so many other fronts last year. ‘There have been technical changes to do with the app but we should have got ahead of it,’ she says. ‘It is a top priority to address that and we are actually having a meeting on Monday to discuss this issue, we want to restore it.’

The women players behaved notably more responsibly than their male counterparts when it came to Covid compliance in 2020.

Novak Djokovic’s conduct was well-documented, and he is likely to be front and centre again in the on and off court dramas of the coming season.

The dominant narrative will be the battle among the Big Three to see who can end up with most Grand Slam titles, and the increasing challenge presented by the younger players.

This will be further spiced up by political machinations around his proposed new men’s player association. Usually such matters are a yawn to most fans but maybe not this time. Its formation has seen Djokovic barred from standing for the ATP Player Council, and he is not happy.

Ash Barty spent most of last year holed up at home but still ended the season as No 1

In the dog days before Christmas he issued a statement saying: ‘I believe it is extremely important that we do not have conflicts of interest in our sport. I hope that going forward this is not only applied to the formation of new associations at the player level but further applied to all levels within the ATP structure.’

Interestingly his main career rivals – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray – are now all back on the same Player Council after recent elections. Their restored presence looks very much like a concerted attempt to curb his influence.

Djokovic and his supporters are set to wage war on the vested interests they see. They do not like the fact that the main ATP’s main Board contains a representative from the IMG management agency, Gavin Forbes, and the manager of Dominic Thiem, Austrian promoter Herwig Straka.

Novak Djokovic’s conduct when it came to Covid compliance last year was well-documented

The insurgents undoubtedly have a point about the dysfunctional governance of the sport. If it is causing Djokovic some bristling resentment it may drive him to even greater heights on the court, providing he does not get too distracted.

All this is likely to play out against a background of challenging commercial conditions and prize money reductions.

An indicator of the wider situation came in another announcement slipped out just before Christmas.

This involved the title sponsorship of the prestigious pre-Wimbledon event at London’s Queen’s Club. A tournament which was for decades associated with premium drinks brand Stella Artois has most recently been supported by the hugely fashionable maker of tonic water, Fever Tree.

Djokovic’s main rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are back on the same Player Councils

Now its owners, the LTA, have replaced them on a four-year deal with cinch, an online platform for buying second hand cars, whose TV ads are fronted by reality star Rylan Clark-Neal. It might politely be termed an abrupt change of direction, but then this is an extremely difficult sports market right now.

For most fans the key thing will remain the on court fights for supremacy, featuring the younger generation trying to dislodge an ageing collection of superstars.

A prediction would be that, on the men’s side, the likes of Nadal and Djokovic will still hold sway, winning three Majors between them this season. Yet that is far from certain. As for the environment they will be playing in, and the size of the crowds, we must all just hope for the best.




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