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Palermo in spotlight as WTA season restarts after virus shutdown

Almost five months after the tennis season ground to a halt following the global coronavirus outbreak, the WTA Tour will restart Monday with a low-key but closely-monitored event in Palermo.

The tournament in Sicily, which comes just weeks before the US Open and Roland Garros double-header, has already lost top seed Simona Halep to lingering health concerns while an unnamed player withdrew from qualifying after testing positive for COVID-19.

Sofia Kenin and Elina Svitolina captured titles in Lyon and Monterrey respectively on March 8, the last day of competitive matches before the circuit was put on hold as the tennis calendar was shaken upside down.

The prestigious Indian Wells event in the California desert became the first competition axed due to the pandemic. The French Open was then moved to late September with Wimbledon cancelled for the first time since World War II.

All elite tennis in China between now and the end of the year has been scrapped, but the US Open sought to restore a semblance of normality in June when it announced the Grand Slam would go ahead in its scheduled time slot — albeit without fans and under strict health protocols.

However, while the women will resume their season Monday, the men must wait until the Western and Southern Open — moved from its traditional Cincinnati home to New York — begins on August 22, after the tournament in Washington DC was called off.

Next week’s Palermo field will feature players exclusively from Europe and just three of the world’s top 20 — led by 15th-ranked Petra Martic, 2019 French Open runner-up Marketa Vondrousova and Greece’s Maria Sakkari.

Trial runs

“The WTA has warned us that these first two weeks are test tournaments,” France’s world number 174 Chloe Paquet told AFP, with competitions lined up in Prague and Kentucky the following week.

“We know that if it goes well, there could be others. If it goes badly, the calendar could be reviewed. We’re aware of that,” added Paquet, who fell in qualifying in Palermo.

As tennis looks to reconcile staging top-level events during the ongoing pandemic, players will face regular testing — starting upon their arrival in Palermo and repeated every four days. 

Masks are required aside from when playing or eating while support teams will be limited to just one person, as organisers attempt to limit contact between players and the outside world to a minimum.

A number of exhibition events have taken place this summer with varying degrees of success, although Novak Djokovic’s ill-fated Adria Tour served as a warning of the inherent risks at large.

Four players including the world number one himself tested positive for COVID-19 in June after taking part in the Balkans event, where social distancing was minimal and matches were played in front of thousands of fans. 

The players were also seen partying at a packed Belgrade nightspot, earning a storm of criticism. Djokovic later apologised, saying he was “so deeply sorry” that the event “caused harm” but said the widespread criticism he received was like a “witch hunt”.

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