2020 has been a tough year for tennis players and fans alike. Two of the four Grand Slam events over the summer were drastically altered due to the coronavirus pandemic, with French Open being moved from May to late September and Wimbledon being canceled outright. The U.S. Open will be held on schedule in August but with no fans in attendance, while other prominent U.S-based tournaments like the BNP Paribas Open and the Miami Open were canceled in March.
Despite the inherent social distancing nature of the sport, efforts to return professional to the court have hit snags. Top-ranked Novak Djokovic was forced to cancel his Adria Tour event after several players – including him and his wife – tested positive for COVID-19. The four-city tour, which began in Belgrade, was heavily criticized for its lack of social-distancing efforts, which led to Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric, Viktor Troicki, and his pregnant wife also testing positive for the virus. Other players have raised concern about competing, especially given tennis’s international footprint and travel requirements.
But a new event in Atlanta being held on July 3 to July 5 is not only looking to help relaunch the professional side of the sport, but also bring fans back as well.
The DraftKings All-American Team Cup, which will feature the top-eight American men’s tennis players in the world rankings at Life Time Athletic and Tennis in Peachtree Corners, will be the first sporting event in Georgia since the pandemic began, as well as the first tennis tournament to have fans in attendance in the United States since the 2020 Delray Beach Open in February.
“We know that there’s a lot of pressure on us, but we feel like it’s important that we’re able to show the world that a tennis event with fans can be done,” tournament director Eddie Gonzalez said.
The cancelations that cut across the sports world caused the 2020 Truist Atlanta Open to be one of the casualties. Usually scheduled in July or August, the ATP Tour 250 tournament has risen in popularity since launching 10 years ago, attracting approximately 40,000 fans every year.
Before the 2020 Atlanta Open was formally canceled on May 15, Gonzalez had already received verbal confirmation from five-time champion John Isner that he was ready to play. When it became clear that the tournament would not be happening, Isner kept the dialogue open to see if there were any other options.
Isner had made it clear to Gonzalez that he and other American players were interested in competing in an Atlanta-based tennis tournament. The agency that represents Isner, Topnotch Management, also has clients like Steve Johnson, Reilly Opelka, and Tennys Sandgren.
Knowing that there was a legitimate level of buy-in from numerous players, Gonzalez next had to find a venue to accommodate any tournament. He landed on Life Time Athletic and Tennis, which has a stadium court, the amenities, and – very importantly – no built-out costs to host an event.
Finally, it needed media and corporate sponsors to join the event. DraftKings, which Gonzalez says had never ventured into tennis sponsorship, emerged as a title sponsor. It was then followed by securing Tennis Channel as a broadcast partner. The event will feature the four Topnotch Management players, as well as Taylor Fritz, Sam Querrey, Tommy Paul, and Frances Tiafoe.
“Really a lot of the credit goes to John Isner, his [management] team and the American players,” Gonzalez said. “It was the end of May that I had a conversation with John and his agency, Topnotch Management, just letting me know that John was ready to play and the American players were ready to play. They know and trust us in Atlanta and said, ‘is there anything we can figure out there?’ and so here we are a month later.”
Welcoming tennis fans back to live events is a risky proposition for Gonzalez and the DraftKings All-American Team Cup. According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, Georgia set a new record-high on June 29 for single-day increases in confirmed COVID-19 cases with more than 2,300 cases reported in 24 hours. Since June 26, the state has seen 6,422 cases, bringing the total number to 79,417 – the ninth-most in the country. It is one of 35 states designated by a New York Times’ database as seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases. As of June 30, Gwinnett County – where the Life Time Athletic and Tennis is based – has accounted for 7,755 cases, the most of any county in the state.
For the event, Gonzalez and tournament host GF Sports will be limiting the stadium seating capacity to no more than 30%. Gonzalez estimates that the number of people in attendance will fluctuate between 400 and 450.
The tournament’s ticketing software automatically blocks seats between every online transaction, meaning that if somebody buys two seats, the next three seats are restricted. Those three seats equate to six feet of social distancing. With seats being sold only in every other row, it remains consistent with a Georgia executive order banning gatherings of more than 50 people unless there are six feet between each person.
For those entering the venue – fans, patrons, volunteers, staff, and players – will be subject to temperature checks. Players will also be tested for COVID-19 before their arrival, Gonzalez said.
“We have two great physicians who are well-renowned and well-respected and have been a part of our ATP event,” Gonzalez said. “They are helping make sure that we have the utmost COVID-19 protocol to be able to showcase for the world that tennis can be played with fans in a very safe and social-distanced environment.”
There won’t be 40,000 people in attendance at the DraftKings All-American Team Cup; there might not be 2,000. But, Gonzalez said he has seen a strong interest in fans wanting to attend the event. As of June 30, it is one sale away from selling out its $2,500 Michelob Ultra Courtside & Club View Table packages. Three of the five-match sessions have seen people calling the ticket office to ensure that they can have two seats together, Gonzalez said. By the time that play begins, he anticipates the event being at or near a sellout for every session.
As his fellow American players return to the court, professional tennis player Noah Rubin is having a difficult time justifying fans being in attendance. Events like the UTR Pro Match Series and the Tennis Point Exhibition Series show that professional tennis can happen even with the absence of spectators.
Sixteen WTA players recently came together to launch the Credit One Bank Invitational in Charleston, which ran from June 23 to 28 and was the largest-scale event since the sport reopened in late April – all without fans. Miami also hosted the three-day Altec Styslinger Tennis Exhibition, played without fans at a private home, from June 29 to July 1. That too featured Johnson, Opelka, Querrey, and Sandgren before they ventured to Georgia for the DraftKings All-American Team Cup.
“I just think it’s an unnecessary risk right now,” Rubin said. “If you weigh the pros and cons, and when I do it quickly in my head, it doesn’t add up. What are we gaining from taking this risk right now? Numbers [of COVID-19 cases] are going in the wrong direction. You have Georgia being one of those states that’s highly affected by a spike. It just doesn’t really make sense when I put it all together.”
“The girls had it in Charleston, and there’s one in Miami right now, where everybody’s social distancing, and that seems to be fine. That seems to be not really affecting people. They’re doing it the right way, but once you start bringing fans from a place with a lot of cases, I don’t know what the pros of that risk are besides financial gain.”
Gonzalez finds it difficult to compare the DraftKings All-American Tour and its capacity limitations to the laissez-faire approach taken by Djokovic’s Adria Tour. He is confident that he and GF Sports are ready to welcome tennis fans back but that they can also host an event under less-than-normal circumstances.
“There’s no 100% sure-fire guarantee, but we feel like we have checked every box manageable,” Gonzalez said. “Working very closely with the city of Peachtree Corners and Gwinnett County leadership as well as the governor’s office and the governor’s guidelines, we’re a hundred percent confident that we can present a very safe and healthy event.”
“If we can have a positive event in which all the players and the fans and our partners walk away saying, ‘we’re glad we’re a part of it,’ we will view that as a success.”