As tennis' restart date nears, does it need to borrow from cricket's rules playbook?



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As tennis' restart date nears, does it need to borrow from cricket's rules playbook?

We all know tennis is an individual sport. Yet, the pandemic-imposed-stoppage of the tennis tour has volleyed this point like never before. And in doing so, has given way to an unwitting and unlikely comparison with another sport – a team sport, no less – in cricket.

In the past couple of days, English pace bowler Jofra Archer found himself left-off from the English Test team for breaking the team’s mandated “bio-security protocols” during England’s ongoing Test series against West Indies.

Archer’s mistake was that he made a personal visit to his home after the first Test and repercussions not only involved him getting axed from the team but also included a compulsory five-day self-isolation and two negative tests for Coronavirus before getting his place back in the team.

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) were caught off-guard by their player’s lackadaisical attitude towards the predetermined protocols but were then swift enough to penalise him noticeably. The imposition of punishment also proved that the sport’s administrators were serious about establishing norms and enforcing the same when needed.

Tennis and cricket: Different sports, different roads

Tennis’ administrators – and there are many – are, on the other hand, struggling to find a stable ground beneath their feet as they work their way towards steering the sport towards normalcy, or a semblance thereof.

But their attempts have been bogged down by tennis’ inherent individuality that has pitted the players and them on opposite sides of each other. Excluding the fiasco that were a couple of exhibition events, the yo-yoing between the players and administrators is occurring at a frenetic pace the likes of which is usually not seen during the regular course of the tour.

And, with the tour almost about to get off, this vehement push-and-pull has manifested in a couple of ways. Firstly, there have been players who have straddled the lines of polarity regarding the tour’s – in a manner of speaking – revival.

There have been those who have been wholeheartedly amenable to playing as there have been those who have not been agog with the idea of having to play and travel while the pandemic surges. On the second front, there have been those who have opted to have time to draw out the eventualities of whether the tour goes ahead or not.

Since “other things are not the same” right now, these responses have not evoked a push back from the sport’s administrative section. Instead, they attempted to alleviate these concerns by way of modifications in the ranking system in such a way that no player was left behind – either because of one’s personal prioritising or because of want of availability of opportunities to play this year.

And, although these tweaks in the ranking system are not without loopholes, they are nonetheless mostly player-centric. Away from these then, is the other overt reaction that is startling in its outpouring since it is coming from top-ranked players including world no.

3 Dominic Thiem and the world no. 1, Novak Djokovic. Reportedly, to the Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung, Thiem expressed his discomfort about travelling to play in the United States with restrictions on his support staff contingent.

“I do not think so… Three or four people must be allowed. It would be extremely risky to travel without your own physio. You need a coach on site,” Thiem said. The Austrian no. 1’s grouses were insensitive to the point of white-washing the reality that the 2020 North American swing is going to be a barebones occurrence featuring culling of not just events but also side-lining of players, many of whom who have had no choice but to accept the swing of the decision-making axe.

Yet, they were similar to the complaints first raised by Djokovic who initially termed the USTA’s proposed rules as “extreme” before visibly altering his stance, a few days later. However, barely did the hullabaloo around the 17-time Slam champion’s dicey calls die down that reports came in about him acceding to play the US Open provided the ATP ensured that he and other players travelling back to Europe to resume the clay circuit would be spared from being quarantined for 14 days, as per the European Union stipulations.

In the end, the intervention of Spain’s National Sports Council (CDS or Consejo Superior de Deportes) exempting sportspersons from having to quarantine themselves, mooted Djokovic’s grievances. Yet, the 33-year-old’s positioning of himself once again put him on the other side from regulations, with self-interest and ambitiousness for company.

Inadvertently – or because of his newest viewpoint – Djokovic also came to be caricatured. Since the last time he fell afoul of respecting rules and their thriftiness, he had to endure the worst-possible consequence in testing positive for Covid-19.

Besides the world’s best male player, the sport’s administrators’ visage, too, has been left distorted – not only as a standalone sport but also when threading back to the narrative of comparison with cricket.

That certain players can be so eager to set aside the laid-down measures despite having seen the virus’ threat and pervasiveness first-hand and among colleagues, even as those governing the sport paradoxically maintain a voluble silence, does widen the abyss of dissimilarity between tennis and cricket.

But as with Jofra Archer, whose actions could have affected his teammates around him, in cricket, any lackadaisical approach from any tennis pro could impact others around them. Rather, this has had happened already. Tennis’ management had no jurisdiction to exercise when the virus first affected some players.

But it does not need the experience of braving a similar incident, for the second time. And, for this eventuality to never take place, tennis’ administrators will be better served in seeking commonality with cricket, while keeping the game’s intrinsic individuality intact.