Wimbledon’s expected cancellation — an official announcement is scheduled for Wednesday, but a German tennis official told Sky Sports the decision has been made — will reduce the number of 2020 Grand Slams from four to three at a time when Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are battling age and younger rivals to extend their career tally of major championships.
Moreover, the French Open’s plan to start just one week after the U.S. Open is scheduled to conclude (Sept. 13) sets up a logjam that may force top players to decide which of the two Grand Slam events to enter.
As it stands, players who reach the final weekend of the U.S. Open and play the rescheduled French Open would have to contest four weeks of Grand Slam-caliber matches — for men, best-of-five-set matches rather than best-of-three — on two radically different surfaces over a five-week span.
“It’s almost impossible,” said Tennis Hall of Famer Donald Dell, a former U.S. Davis Cup captain turned sports agent and a co-founder of the Association of Tennis Professionals. “With the U.S. Open and French Open being so close, in some ways I wouldn’t be surprised if the top 20 players select the one with the surface that’s best for them. Federer’s best chance is on concrete. Some players are much better on clay, like Nadal and [Dominic] Thiem. Djokovic, it seems, can play on water!”
The notion of the world’s best having to choose between the U.S. Open and French Open is nothing any tennis fan wants to see. But it may come down to a calculated decision about which event gives title contenders the best chance of claiming another major.
Federer, who will turn 39 in August, leads all men with 20 Grand Slam singles titles. Nadal, who will turn 34 in June, has 19. And Djokovic, who turns 33 in May, claimed his 17th major at the season’s outset by winning a record eighth Australian Open.
On the women’s side, Williams is without peer in the modern era, with 23 Grand Slam singles titles. Yet, at 38, she is chasing the one goal to elude her: tying and surpassing Margaret Court’s record of 24.
Although New York is currently the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, the U.S. Tennis Association is proceeding with plans to hold the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows as scheduled Aug. 24-Sept. 13.
“We’re very hopeful, we’re very optimistic, that the 2020 U.S. Open will occur on its scheduled dates,” Chris Widmaier, the managing director of corporate communications for the U.S. Tennis Association, which runs the U.S. Open, said in a telephone interview Monday. “Because of that, our plans are ongoing.”
Widmaier added that tournament officials were proceeding with “our eyes wide open.”
“We understand what an unprecedented, rapidly changing scenario we’re facing, and because of that, we are also planning for every potential contingency,” Widmaier said. “Whatever you’re thinking could be a possibility we’re thinking about as a possibility."
Widmaier said U.S. Open officials don’t have a firm deadline for deciding whether to proceed with the tournament as scheduled.
Citing German Tennis Federation Vice President Dirk Hordorff, Sky Sports Germany reported Sunday that officials of the All England Club, which hosts Wimbledon each June, have decided against the limited options available for safely staging the tournament in 2020, which included contesting it without spectators.
It would be the first time the grass-court event has been canceled since 1945 and the first time it has been canceled for reasons other than war. Wimbledon was not held from 1915 to 1918 because of World War I; it was suspended again from 1940 to 1945 because of World War II.
“Wimbledon will decide to cancel on Wednesday,” Hordorff told Sky Sports Germany, alluding to the meeting of the All England Club’s main board that day. “There is no doubt about it. This is necessary in the current situation.
“It is completely unrealistic to imagine, with the travel restrictions that we currently have, an international tennis tournament where hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world would travel. That is unthinkable.”
Options other than canceling Wimbledon have been considered, including postponement.
Because Wimbledon is contested on grass, which is extremely costly and labor-intensive to maintain, the two-week tournament can’t be easily postponed. The window for competing on the All England Club’s grass doesn’t extend past late summer.
Moreover, the international tennis calendar is extremely crowded and now further complicated by the French Open’s shift to Sept. 20-Oct. 4. The new date also conflicts with the Laver Cup, an all-star event co-founded by Federer and Tennis Australia that is scheduled for Sept. 25-27 in Boston.
The decision by the French Tennis Federation to postpone the French Open four months, reportedly made without consulting the other Grand Slams or players’ organizations, has drawn sharp criticism for its perceived arrogance.
The unknowable in all such decisions, of course, is the timeline of the virus, making it impossible for officials in any sport to schedule or reschedule events in 2020 with 100 percent confidence that they can safely honor those dates.
Yet even in the best of times, the global tennis schedule is complex and politically fraught, with events often overlapping. That’s largely because tennis is governed by a half-dozen entities that don’t always see eye to eye; among them: the International Tennis Federation; the ATP (men’s tour); the Women’s Tennis Association; and the entities that run the four Grand Slams (Tennis Australia, the French Tennis Federation, the private All England Club and the USTA).
Tinkering with the timing of any major event, and particularly a Grand Slam, is disruptive at best and potentially catastrophic, akin to removing a foundational toy block from a child’s tower without it toppling.