Figuring out where and how to start the tennis season is usually pretty easy for the world’s top players. They catch a flight to Australia around Christmas, spend a few days getting over the jet lag, then compete for two weeks in warm-up tournaments ahead of the Australian Open.
But with the sport’s calendar upended by the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted a three-week delay of the Australian Open, players have had to make difficult calculations about the value of traveling to compete now, as infection rates are still soaring in many parts of the world.
As the 2021 professional tennis season began this week, several of the top players opted not to attend the only opening tournaments before they have to quarantine for two weeks in Australia. This year, they cannot simply show up in Australia and compete right away.
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 among the men, remained on their practice courts rather than venturing to Turkey or Florida for the first events on their tour (Roger Federer is out with a knee injury). Andy Murray of Britain, a three-time Grand Slam winner, was supposed to play in Florida, then grew skittish about traveling during the pandemic and pulled out. On the women’s side, the American stars Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka skipped the event in Abu Dhabi.
The plans for those three tournaments were announced only in late December, as the organizers of the Australian Open decided that the start of their Grand Slam event would be delayed until Feb. 8 and that all participants would be required to heavily restrict their movements for two weeks ahead of the tournament.
“I was ready to go and ready to play matches,” said Cam Norrie of Britain, who played in the Florida tournament, the Delray Beach Open, after practicing indoors in London since late November. “But for a lot of players since it was sprung on them a bit last minute, they were not ready and didn’t want to compete.”
The schedule follows an off-season that, for most players, was longer than the usual six-week break. The pandemic forced the women’s tour to cancel its fall Asia swing. On the men’s side, for all but the top players, there has not been a tournament since early November.
Sofia Kenin, 22, the reigning Australian Open champion, went to Abu Dhabi and said at a news conference this week that opting to play was a “last-minute decision” motivated in part by a desire “just to get out of the house.”
Also competing there were Karolina Pliskova, a former world No. 1, and Coco Gauff, the rising American teenager.
For most top players, the decision to play or not to play this week ultimately came down to whether they thought playing real matches now would help them get mentally and physically prepared for the rigors of a Grand Slam.
“I need some time to get back into rhythm and play more matches,” Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, who won the last two tournaments of 2020, told reporters as she competed in Abu Dhabi this week. She won her 11th consecutive match on Friday.
The open question for Sabalenka and other players is how their individual choices during the first weeks of the season might play into the unusual routines for this Australian Open.
During the quarantine, players will be allowed to practice for only two hours each day, initially with just one practice partner and then with two more in the second week. They will also get to spend about two hours in the gym, and one other hour at the tennis center in Melbourne. They must spend the 19 other hours in their hotel rooms.
After the quarantine, the men’s and women’s tours will hold three competitive events in Melbourne in the week before the Open.
Craig Morris, a former coach for the Australian Samantha Stosur, who won the 2011 U.S. Open, said that given how little tennis took place last year, competition this month would be valuable.
“Anything they can get under the belt is going to help,” he said.
Tennis players are constantly searching for the optimal rhythm — to hit the ball cleanly on nearly every shot and to feel confident about their strokes regardless of the situation. It’s not something that can easily be turned on and off, and for many players that zone is reached through the right combination of practice and match play.
The coronavirus is just the newest twist to that hunt.
Murray, 31, was ready to play this week, but announced in a news release on New Year’s Eve that he was too concerned about the pandemic to make the trip.
“Given the increase in Covid rates and the trans-Atlantic flights involved, I want to minimize the risks ahead of the Australian Open,” Murray said.
Several other notable players, including the Italians Matteo Berrettini and Fabio Fognini, plus John Isner of the United States and Adrian Mannarino of France, were competing in either Turkey or Florida.
Plenty of players competed this week because they knew they could use some prize money after so many competitive opportunities were canceled last year, when the tour was shut down for about five months. Many also wanted to see if the off-season work they put in was paying dividends on the court.
Leylah Fernandez, 18, a fast-improving Canadian, said making the trip to Abu Dhabi was “a very difficult decision,” but with all the uncertainty hanging over the tennis schedule — and all sports in 2021 — she and her team took the bird in hand.
“We wanted to get as many matches under my belt as we could,” Fernandez said after winning her first match on Wednesday.
Tommy Paul, an American who spent the off-season training at the tennis complex in Delray Beach, Fla., said the realigned schedule had shifted his approach to the weeks leading up to a Grand Slam. Paul, 23, said in an interview Wednesday that he spent the off-season trying to turn himself into more of an all-court player by coming to the net more often.
The Delray Beach tournament, he said, offered him an opportunity to measure his progress and figure out what he still needs to work on. The two-week quarantine in Australia, where his hitting partners will be the Americans Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey, will give him the chance to work on the weaknesses he identifies in competition at the Delray Beach event. Paul won his first round match Thursday over Nam Ji-sung of South Korea, 6-1, 6-4.
“If there is something I don’t like about my game I have time to fix it.” Paul said.