Tennis players losing all sense of enjoyment but the show must go on | Tennis

In the last 16 at the Argentina Open in Buenos Aires this month, all hell broke loose in the form of a Benoît Paire explosion. The world No 31 was leading by a set against the young Argentinian qualifier Francisco Cerundolo when he contested a line call. After raising his voice as he raged at the umpire, Nacho Forcadell, Paire terminated the argument by spitting bitterly on the contested ball mark. It was the beginning of an extended, excruciating meltdown that ended with Paire shamelessly tanking the final games. He closed out the match by deliberately double-faulting.

None of this is new. Paire, 31, is well known for his volatility, his aversion to effort and his greater interest in the social and travelling benefits of his profession than the actual competition. But after the match the Frenchman posted a lengthy Instagram statement explaining his frustrations: “The ATP circuit has become sad, boring and ridiculous,” he wrote. “I know you are going to say you don’t realise how lucky you are, blah‑blah-blah, but playing in closed stadiums without any atmosphere isn’t why I play. Having to stay at a hotel or club and be forbidden to go out without risking a fine, where is the pleasure of travelling? For me, tennis has become a tasteless profession.”

Paire’s comments reflected the worst of tennis over the past 12 months – the inability of some players to grasp that there is minimal sympathy at a time when so many people around the world have also found their lives limited in some form, particularly as he has the means simply to not play. Still, what is clear, as these abnormal times endure, is that Covid fatigue has set in across the sport.

Last month the veteran and former top 10 player Gilles Simon cited diminished motivation as he decided to take a break from the tour: “My heart is no longer there to travel and play in these conditions, unfortunately I have to take a break in order to preserve myself mentally,” the Frenchman wrote. “Hoping that morale returns as soon as possible.” As Simon departed, his good friend and compatriot Jo-Wilfried Tsonga returned after being out for a year with injury. Not even the joy of competing for the first time in so long was enough for him. “We are not motivated, there is no fun,” he concluded.

Empty stands at the Australian Open Photograph: James Ross/AAP

During his run to the Dubai Open semi‑finals, where he exited on Friday, Denis Shapovalov explained that he had felt drained after the Australian Open quarantine experience and that he had deliberately chosen to lighten his schedule and compete in new tournaments in order to maintain novelty. He also noted the varied reasons for most players choosing to play on. “We have other obligations from sponsors, contracts that obligate us to play as well,” he said. “So for sure that’s definitely why a lot of players are still playing, because otherwise I feel like a lot of players just wouldn’t play at all.”

Such perspectives were expected. In the midst of his Australian Open run, Novak Djokovic and other players had called for an NBA-style bubble in tennis. But that bubble cost the NBA an estimated $180m, while the Australian Open tournament director, Craig Tiley, said the event cost A$100m (£56m) to run. It is unrealistic. The ATP and WTA tours, composed of independent tournaments that mostly rely heavily on ticket sales, have neither the finances nor fan following for such an endeavour to work.

Apathy has also recently led to a greater interrogation of the rule changes since the start of the pandemic. The lowered prize money across the tour has become a point of contention and Alexander Zverev branded the current ranking system “absurd”. Although the rankings usually take into account only the previous 52 weeks of results, they currently allow players to retain points accrued from March 2019, protecting them from tumbling down the rankings in these uncertain times. It means Roger Federer is still ranked sixth despite his hiatus.

Players self-isolated for up to two weeks before the Australian Open.
Players self-isolated for up to two weeks before the Australian Open. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

As is often the case, the top players’ problems are the least pressing. The real complications are further down the pecking order, as the rules make it extremely difficult for lower-ranked players to rise up the standings. The ITF women’s circuit has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Over the past week there were three ATP Challenger events with prize money of around $52,000 (£37,500). The biggest women’s tournaments below the main WTA tour this week were a handful of $15k events.

The past few months for Britain’s Francesca Jones underline the challenge. Jones was the lowest‑ranked player to qualify for the Australian Open and then she won her first WTA match in an Australian event. Although it was a life-changing month in terms of recognition, she rose less than 40 ranking spots.

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Still, Jones’s positive outlook is also an example of the varied perspectives among players. “The rankings are probably, in terms of the numbers, slightly harder to get up,” she said. “But at the same time, it evens itself out with the fact that you don’t have anything to lose yourself.”

The effects of the widespread angst will be evident over the next two weeks at the Miami Open: 21 players have withdrawn from the main draw, including four of the world’s top six. For the first time since 2004, a Masters 1000 event will take place without Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. Regardless of their reasoning for pulling out, from Federer’s continued recovery to the undesirable prospect of travelling all the way to the United States for one tournament with diminished prize money and few spectators, the tour goes on.