Palermo sets example for the return of tour-level tennis

ROME (AP) — The only player who tested positive for the coronavirus was withdrawn from the tournament without ever setting foot at the venue.

Another player was admonished for venturing outside the event bubble and posting a selfie on social media showing her posing in front of a downtown fountain.

Former French Open finalist Sara Errani and Slovenian qualifier Kaja Juvan received verbal warnings from the chair umpire for throwing their wristbands and a visor to kids in the crowd following victories.

Local organizers and the WTA Tour have been vigilant about abiding by strict health protocols in order to hold this week’s Palermo Ladies Open, the first tour-level tennis tournament for men or women in five months.

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“If this was the way all European citizens were being checked, the coronavirus would no longer be a problem,” tournament director Oliviero Palma told The Associated Press in an phone interview before Friday’s quarterfinal matches.

“We’re showing that it’s possible to restart,” Palma added. “I think this experience can be repeated anywhere. The important thing is to follow the protocols very carefully.”

The protocols require players and staff members to be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival and then again every four days; players to handle their own towels; only three ball collectors per court and all of them at least 18 years old; players to wear masks as they enter and leave the court; and all media interviews to be conducted electronically.

“It definitely is different,” said fourth-seeded Anett Kontaveit. “I literally haven’t left the hotel to go anywhere but the court. … That’s what the situation needs right now.”

Players will encounter a similar, albeit on a much larger scale, bubble atmosphere at the upcoming U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 31 and will be preceded by a warmup tournament at the same venue in New York.

“It’s going to be a lot longer in the States,” Kontaveit said of the bubble. “The key is just to find something to do and keep yourself entertained as much as you can.”

As the first tournament back, Palermo has served as a test for the events that follow. For example, there was already a change in shower protocols.

Whereas initially players and coaches were told to bathe only at the hotel, organizers quickly changed the rule when they realized that putting sweaty players into tournament cars could be unhealthy and unsanitary.

Players and coaches can now shower at the venue in different locker rooms. Only two people can enter any locker room at the same time.

“Obviously nobody can have a police officer hovering over their shoulder 24 hours a day, because that’s impossible,” Errani said. “But if we’re all able to be responsible and handle ourselves well we can move forward.

“If everyone starts to go off doing crazy things and doing whatever they want,” Errani added. “That’s when the problems start.”

In June, top-ranked Novak Djokovic and several other players tested positive for the virus after playing in a series of exhibition matches he organized in Serbia and Croatia with zero social distancing.

“As the first tournament back, Palermo has done a great job. The safety element is there,” said Italian player Jasmine Paolini. “Let’s hope we can continue like this without glitches in other tournaments.”

When an unnamed player tested positive on the first day of qualifying last weekend, she was immediately moved to a facility designated for asymptomatic patients with COVID-19. Then once she returned consecutive positive tests, she was sent home.

“It was caught right away. It means that the tests work and the protocol is correct,” Palma said. “I would have been worried if we hadn’t discovered anything immediately and found out later.

“That’s the whole point of the tests: to intercept a positive before it can create any damage.”

Likewise, Errani and Juvan were spoken to by the umpire after throwing items including a visor and wristbands to the crowd, which is being limited to less than 300 spectators per day.

“I understand their concern but it was actually like an instinct,” Juvan said after upsetting second-seeded Markéta Vondroušová. “Maybe I won’t do it the next few days.”

The next WTA tournament in Europe will be held in Prague next week.

“A large part of the players are coming from Palermo,” Palma said. “So they’re going there negative, which gives Prague a head start.”

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Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf

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