The world is reeling from the suspension of sporting events during this pandemic. From the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to the rapid halt of the all North American “Big Four” leagues (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB), sports fans have collectively felt the void in their lives where pro sports should be. Recently certain sports leagues across the world have resumed without fans, such as the Bundesliga in Germany and the Korean Baseball League in South Korea. However, these particular cases feel more like outliers to a North American audience rather than the new normal; both Germany and South Korea were hit earlier with COVID-19 outbreaks, and both countries handled their situations much more effectively than the responses throughout Canada and the United States.
One of my favourite sports to watch (and to play, no doubt), is tennis. Due to the international nature of the tennis season, both the men’s tour, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), and the women’s, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), suspended their seasons in mid-March, cancelling all events through Wimbledon in early July. Though the final Grand Slam of the season, the US Open beginning in late August, remains scheduled as of now, it seems unlikely that the event will take place in its usual form. Tennis players, who usually spend 10 months of the year flying around the world and playing in tournaments, now find themselves at home, unable to access a tennis court, nevermind hitting with their coaches and staying on prescribed fitness regimens.
With all live tennis on hold, and players at home just like their fans, something amazing has happened. Tennis players have decided to take an active role engaging with fans throughout their mutual quarantine period. A lot of what the pros are doing has been for the pure enjoyment of the fans. In mid-April, 3-time Grand Slam champion and former world number one Andy Murray started it off by hosting an Instagram Live session with world number one Novak Djokovic, asking fans before the event to send in specific questions for Novak. In their now-famous public chat, the two contemporary greats spent time building their ideal player, taking specific skills from other players and combining them to create the best pro possible. They also talked about what quarantine has meant for themselves as individuals. Djokovic and Murray described how this period away from tennis has felt different, yet very fulfilling. Both men are young fathers, and they discussed how being with their family for this long is something that has never really happened in their careers (save brief injury stints). Novak simply put that this time off has helped him develop in his role as a father. Murray also noted how he has been able to witness some of his children’s firsts, things he may have missed on tour, such as riding a bike.
Through these live sessions, some of the most beloved faces in tennis have been able to connect with their fans like never before
A few days later, Canada’s own Bianca Andreescu offered a similar opinion in her Instagram Live with TSN’s Caroline Cameron, stating that she had not been home for this long in over three years and that although COVID-19 has brought a lot of professional challenges, being home with her family has been refreshing for the young US Open champion. Later on, 19-time Grand Slam Champion Rafael Nadal joined the wave of Instagram Live, hosting his first-ever session (it showed through his lacklustre command of Instagram functions), featuring none other than Roger Federer and Andy Murray. Through these live sessions, some of the most beloved faces in tennis have been able to connect with their fans like never before.
It does not stop at Instagram Lives; players continue to engage with fans in other ways, such as through virtual tennis tournaments. The Mutua Madrid Open, a Masters 1000 event usually scheduled to occur during the second week of May, hosted a gaming tournament version of their event instead, all taking place within the tennis game Tennis World Tour. They invited tennis players, such as Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal, to go head-to-head in a knockout tournament similar in format to the actual event. Every match was live-streamed on the Madrid Open website, giving the fans hours and hours of enjoyable and lighthearted content. Andy Murray, the truly competitive champion that he is, emerged victorious, even though the tournament is hosted on clay, and he has only won it once on that surface in real life.
Despite being in the midst of the longest suspension of sporting events in recent memory, athletes are doing their best to be transparent and accessible to their fans
Of course, there is another dimension to this pandemic: the fact that many people – the poor, unemployed, elderly – are disproportionately suffering, has given rise to a wave of celebrity actions trying to curb the negative effects of the pandemic. This charitability has not eluded the tennis world, with many players participating in initiatives to help people in need. Roger Federer and his wife Mirka donated 1 million Swiss Francs ($1.02 million CAD) to “the most vulnerable families” in Switzerland. Novak Djokovic eagerly threw his hat in the ring for the All-In Challenge, a movement where celebrities give away fantastical experiences in the form of auctions or raffles, with the proceeds going to organizations helping to solve food insecurity for the vulnerable during COVID-19. His pitch involved inviting the lucky winner to New York for the 2021 US Open, to watch a match of his from his player’s box next to his coach and team. Afterwards, Novak will hang out with the winner in the players’ lounge, and hit balls and talk tennis the next day on the practice courts. For tennis and DjokerNole fans, that is quite an experience. Other people from the tennis world joined in with their own experiences too, such as legend Billie Jean King and 16-year-old phenom Coco Gauff.
Finally, players continue to engage fans by launching ephemeral challenges on social media for their fans and fellow players. Roger Federer started the “100 Volley Challenge” in which one has to hit a tennis ball against a wall 100 times without failing. The challenge caught fire around the global tennis community, with the ATP and WTA Instagram pages posting fan submissions of their attempts at the challenge. Just days ago, Novak Djokovic started the “100 Double Jump Rope Challenge”, calling out other pros and athletes to participate, while encouraging fans to stay active during these trying times.
Despite being in the midst of the longest suspension of sporting events in recent memory, athletes are doing their best to be transparent and accessible to their fans. Yes, a summer without baseball, the Olympics, tennis, track and field, cycling and the conclusions of the NBA and NHL seasons all may become an unfortunate reality. Yet the fact that athletes are taking this opportunity to engage with fans in an online fashion like never before is promising – an effective consolation to the utter despair of a briefly sportless world. We will get through this, and once we come out of the other end of the tunnel, those dunks, bardown snipes, home runs, and one-handed backhand winners up the line will never be sweeter.