Grandslamtennis.online publisher and chief photographer ROGER PARKER looks back at a tumultuous year through the lens of his camera …
The 2020 season began normally enough in Australia for most players and fans, all of us blissfully unaware of the catastrophe that was soon to follow and bring the sport, and life as we know it, to a juddering emergency stop.
The inaugural ATP Cup took place in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth with the World No. 1 Novak Djokovic leading his Serbia team to victory over World No. 2 Rafa Nadal’s Spain.
The Australian Open was played out in Melbourne while devastating bushfires in Victoria itself, and neighbouring states of New South Wales and South Australia claimed the lives of 75 people including 13 firefighters, and up to 400 others soon after due to the toxic smoke pollution. 6,000 properties were destroyed and an estimated 46 million acres of land. Three billion animals were killed or displaced.
The often abrasive Nick Kyrgios soon showed the tennis world he had a softer side too and was first to suggest innovative ways for the players to donate to the rescue fund and more than $5.1 million AUD was raised through Tennis Australia’s Aces for Bushfire Relief initiative.
Who would have thought that a far worse and more extensive disaster had already incubated in a wet market in Wuhan and was soon to spread its tentacles across the planet?
On the courts Novak Dokovic remained undefeated in 2020 to claim the Men’s title in an epic five setter with heir apparent Dominic Thiem.
Djokovic was to extend his winning run to 19 matches only to hit the buffers in the most dramatic of circumstances at the US Open which was to become the second Grand Slam of the year, rather than the fourth and last.
Previous Ladies champion Caroline Wozniacki made an emotional farewell from the tour in Melbourne and was soon followed off court by Maria Sharapova, two of the biggest draw cards in the women’s game.
The Ladies Daphne Akhurst Cup was won by 21-year-old Florida-based Muscovite Sofia Kenin to claim her first Grand Slam, thus becoming the youngest American female winner to capture a major title since Serena Williams in 2002.
Just as the Tennis world was looking forward to the USA lead in to the European season culminating in Roland Garros and Wimbledon, the BNP Indian Wells Masters, the first mandatory WTA Premier and ATP 1000 event of the year was stopped in its tracks on March 9 as the COVID-19 pandemic struck its first major blow to the world of sport.
Many players were already onsite, and some chose to stay on in the USA hoping for a quick resumption of normality for the Miami Masters due to start on March 25.
COVID had other ideas, and it would be another five months before any competitive tennis could resume.
In a misguided but no doubt well-intentioned attempt to bring some sort of competitive tennis to the Balkans, Novak Djokovic organised what was to be a calamitous three venue summer event, The Adria Tour.
With not a hint of concern for the rapidly expanding COVID threat, starting with pre-event player and fan party in a sweaty Belgrade nightclub to the admission of closely seated, maskless fans who were allowed to mingle with the players.
It was no surprise that a few days later many players, Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric, Viktor Troicki plus the World No.1 himself and his wife Jelena went down with the virus.
Wimbledon, rightly smug that they alone of all the slams had for many years paid a US$3 million annual insurance premium against a pandemic cashed in with a US$236 million payout. Not only did that sum mitigate actual losses, they were able to make charitable donations to worthy local causes, and paid out prize money of US$ 12.5 million to 620 players, a financial lifeline to many who were facing financial difficulties due to the shutdown.
The FFT also acted quickly as soon as they realised Roland Garros could not go ahead on schedule due to the pandemic and staked a claim on a slot in the autumn calendar to move their main event to, much to the chagrin of the organisers of the already sold out Laver Cup due to be played in Boston following the US Open.
The new French Open start date was fixed for September 27, allowing time for those players who were prepared to brave spending three weeks in a bio-bubble in the then COVID-19 epicentre of Queens New York to get to Paris in time. That move was to save their season economically.
Having invested US$400 million on expansion plans including a roof over it’s showpiece Philippe Chatrier court, the last of the slams to do so, an injection of cash was critical to their survival.
The Tour finally re-commenced after five months with low key events in Palermo and Lexington.
The on-off-on US Open was finally declared “all systems go” for an on schedule August 31 kick-off with the final boxes apparently being ticked by City Hall and State governor Andrew Cuomo.
The original super strict protocols:
* All players to be picked up by USTA organised charter flights.
* Each main draw player allowed to bring just one other person of his or her choice …
* … and be allocated two rooms in a new, lavish 512 room (exactly two rooms for the 256 main draw players – how convenient) TWA Hotel at nearby La Guardia airport.
The rules were watered down under pressure from players with clout who use Netjets for themselves and their entourages like lesser mortals use Ubers, and who find it impossible to make themselves comfy in just a five star hotel suite.
The Billie Jean King Tennis Centre indoor practice facility was reclaimed from serving as an emergency COVID field hospital, the South Plaza area which was to be devoid of fans was turned into a private state of the art Disney style theme park for big kids which would have impressed Michael Jackson.
The COVID abandoned Western and Southern Open was swiftly relocated to the National Tennis Centre and re-scheduled as the warm-up to the main event. It was to be the first ATP Masters 1000 event of 2020 and the second WTA Premier 5 event.
The unstoppable Novak Djokovic continued his faultless season by taking the Men’s title and Vika Azarenka took the Ladies title on a walkover when Naomi Osaka withdrew from the final with a thigh injury.
So against all odds, the US Open took its rightful place in the 2020 calendar.
Some of the top players decided not to take the gamble of throwing themselves into the lion’s den of COVID, saving themselves for the re-scheduled French Open, notably Rafa Nadal and Simona Halep.
In the women’s singles Naomi Osaka claimed her third major title at the expense of resurgent mum Vika Azarenka, quick revenge for the Western and Southern final walkover defeat just two weeks earlier.
The tennis story of the century was to unfold in what looked to be a routine fourth round men’s singles match for World No. 1 Novak Djokovic against Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta. Having been broken to trail 5-6 in the first set a frustrated Djokovic carelessly whacked a ball towards the baseline wall behind him as he walked back to his chair.
Unfortunately the ball hit a lines woman in the throat, sending her to the floor. The startled look on Djokovic’s face immediately signalled to him the enormity of what the response to his careless action would mean. Instant default. The rules do not permit any other decision.
His nineteen match winning streak ended in a disaster of his own making.
Lines women Laura Clark was to have her “Andy Warhol” moment, or rather 15 minutes of world fame, with the incident being shown and replayed from every angle instantly around the planet.
Whilst Djokovic was the principal culprit in his own downfall, The US Open official outfitters Ralph Lauren inadvertently played their part and accidentally shot themselves in the foot, losing the top prime time TV draw card for the rest of the tournament.
How come? Because of COVID-19 line judges on most courts for most of the matches were replaced by automated Hawkeye calling, sponsored in turn by J P Morgan Banking.
However Ralph Lauren insisted on maximum exposure of their Polo branded clothing worn by on court officials for certain matches on some courts. If Djokovic had struck the same ball on a court with HawkEye Live, no line umpire would have been in the line of fire.
“Novak would have been fine, everything would have been good,” said Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a veteran American player now commentator . “So it was kind of ironic.”
So the third and final slam of this crazy 2020 season played out at Roland Garros, with a daily ration of just one thousand spectators allowed in to watch the world’s finest players adapt quickly to the shortened clay season.
Not in the pleasant early summer climate Paris has to offer but in the Autumnal chill with players often wrapped up like alpine ski competitors to combat sometimes single digit temperatures as the mellowing sun fell below the horizon in the late afternoon.
On Day 4 players and spectators alike were startled when a French Airforce Dassau Mirage 2000 jet on official intercept duty broke the sound barrier overhead Court Philippe Chatrier, but nothing short of an earthquake, was going to stop Rafa Nadal securing an incredible 13th Roland Garros title, brushing aside an inept Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the final.
A star was born in the Ladies Singles when unseeded 19-year-old Pole Iga Swiatek sliced through the draw like a hot knife through butter, winning her maiden title without even dropping a set, swatting aside hot favourite Sofia Kenin in the final.
All that was left of the 2020 season now was the final London edition of the Nitto ATP Masters finals, as the WTA US$14 million money-spinning equivalent due to have been played in COVID hotspot Shenzhen was cancelled.
The quality of the tennis at the 02 was superb throughout the entire week, a fitting end to a dramatic season with Dominic Thiem taking down Nadal in the group stage and Daniil Medvedev disposing of Novak Djokovic to meet in the final.
Medvedev ended his season on a high, adding the ATP Masters title to his Rolex Paris Masters victory two weeks earlier.
So bring on 2021, it can’t be any worse, can it?
Main photo:- Novak Djokovic looks back in horror at Lineswoman Laura Clark he had just inadvertently felled, realising his US Open was over.