As Britain’s only playing representative at this week’s return of tour tennis in Palermo, Emily Webley-Smith was backstage to witness its trials and tribulations.
A sudden positive test announced 35 minutes before the first ball, players escaping the official hotel to go out and eat, the initial greeting of being tested in the car park by medics in Hazmat suits.
These are the kind of things to which those on tour will need to become accustomed, particularly at the US Open later this month, when the upheavals will be on a grander scale altogether. Rafael Nadal is among those who have decided it is not for him.
Emily Webley-Smith, pictured in 2011, played at the Palermo Ladies Open this week
‘My feeling is that the top players are going to find it harder than the rest because they are used to having everything how they want it,’ says the 36 year-old from Bristol.
‘They normally have lots of people with them but for me it doesn’t change anything because I travel alone anyway.’
Webley-Smith is GB’s longest-serving pro on the men’s or women’s tour and these days competes as a doubles specialist.
While her compatriots stayed back at Roehampton for the unofficial ‘Battle of the Brits’ team event, she intrepidly took herself off to Sicily.
There were various safety measures in place at the tournament including temperature tests
While there were mishaps, it is hoped this will allow more tournaments to take place
Not, she says, for the sheer adventure of it but because she saw it as a chance to secure some precious ranking points with playing opportunities now so limited.
She was desperate for competition after a lockdown which she spent in two ways. At home in Gloucestershire she was caring for her mother and father, who are suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and cancer respectively. She earned money by coaching while trying to keep up her training.
Then she found a partner in Germany’s Vivian Heisen and entered the Palermo Ladies’ Open, where they narrowly lost their opening match in an unfamiliar environment. Only 350 fans per day were allowed in (350 more than there will be in New York) while only one player at a time was allowed in the locker room.
Inevitably, there have been some mishaps en route to the final, with Bulgarian player Viktoriya Tomova testing positive and some taking it upon themselves to ignore advice not to leave the hotel other than to go to the courts.
There were 350 spectators per day allowed to watch the action in Siciliy, Italy
Viktoria Tomova returned a positive test for coronavirus during the tournament
Webley-Smith played it to the letter, and on her first night at the hotel even went hungry. Room service was closed earlier than expected and she chose not to break her self-isolation as she waited for the results of her initial on site Covid test.
One of the teething problems, she says, was the hotel catering: ‘Some players went out to eat because the hotel didn’t follow through on its arrangement with the WTA and at first food, or the right food, wasn’t available at certain times, but that did improve after the first couple of days.’
There was understandable concern also about the positive test for Tomova, but what really happened shows the potential problems that events will have to deal with. She is understood to have tested negative just before leaving Bulgaria, but then when she took a test on arrival in Palermo it came up positive.
The key to the return of the circuit being successful, Webley-Smith says, will be players taking personal responsibility, which is not a given by any means. She has written a long email to WTA Tour chief executive Steve Simon detailing her thoughts.
Webley-Smith has written to WTA Tour Chief Executive Steve Simon about the tournament
‘The problem is that you are dealing with players from all sorts of different countries where experiences of Covid, and attitudes towards it, are very varied. It comes down to players being able to trust each other, but tennis players tend to be quite selfish, because you have to be.
‘The rules have to be made very clear. If one person steps out of line there is the danger it will ruin it for everyone else.
‘It was a bit of a case of muddling through this week but I think the tournament and the WTA did a good job and they will have learned a lot for the tournaments coming up like the US Open.
‘I was quite anxious about going if I’m honest but travelling through the airports was fine and then when I got here I was grateful to be back in what we would call our normal life.
‘I think most of the other players felt that way too, they just want to play.’
She has been round long enough to understand how the game’s economy works, but many of her peers do not have that experience and she suspects there will be impatience among some of them.
‘The costs of operating tournaments safely mean that there are going to be cutbacks in other areas, and some players are not going to like that,’ says Webley-Smith.
‘But the fact is that if we want to the opportunity to do what we love and still have events we are going to have to accept compromises. It’s important players take responsibility and not all of them are going to like that.’