The drive to reopen professional tennis absorbed a blow on Monday with the cancellation of the Citi Open, an ATP 500-level event that was scheduled to relaunch the official game starting Aug. 14 in Washington, five months after the coronavirus pandemic shut down tennis in mid-March.
"The tournament was just getting closer and we still had a lot of unresolved issues," Mark Ein, chairman and CEO of MDE Tennis, operator of the tournament, told ESPN. "And more were popping up than getting solved."
Among the leading reasons for the cancellation: confusion over the patchwork of global immigration and quarantine policies affecting international travelers, including the players; a worsening of the pandemic in the United States after a period of slowdown; and uncertainty about the ability of tournament partners to meet their obligations.
"When we announced our plans to go ahead, everything was getting better," Ein said. "The trends were moving in the right direction. The virus was under control, travel was opening up, locally people were allowed to congregate with social distancing. But two weeks ago, they all reversed and started heading in other direction."
Ein had been hoping the tournament could host a limited number of fans, the way World TeamTennis is currently doing at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.
"It became clear that wasn't going to happen," Ein said. "DC is one of the better places, but around the country [the pandemic] is getting worse, and that made it even harder to open up."
The tournament had embraced the "bubble" concept as a safety precaution, with plans to house all the players and some staff in one hotel with ample health facilities and protocols. But, Ein said, just two hours before the deal with the hotel was to have been finalized, the establishment backed out. "They told us all the business they had booked for September and October had just cancelled, so it didn't make sense for them to open up just for us," Ein said.
An international cast of players had indicated a willingness to help reboot the game in Washington. Although the official entry list was never made public, Ein said that about two-thirds of the Top 30 ATP players, led by No. 5 Daniil Medvedev and No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas, had entered. As the only ATP event scheduled before the combined Cincinnati Masters/US Open is slated to begin in at the National Tennis Center in New York on Aug. 23, the Citi Open loomed as an important tune-up event after nearly five months without ATP competition.
The WTA is still planning to resume operations with the Palermo Ladies' Open in Italy on Aug. 3, followed by the Prague Open in the Czech Republic and the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Kentucky, both new events. The WTA tournaments are all lowest-tier "international" events (although Serena Williams is the headliner in Lexington). The WTA, whose constituency is largely based in Europe or North America, is able to run its events partly because players who do not wish to travel overseas have the option to play an event of equal value either in the U.S. or Europe.
Men players don't have the same choices in the coming weeks. The Citi Open was supposed to be the only game in town, which put even more pressure on the tournament organizers.
"The international travel restrictions are the biggest things that aren't resolved yet," Ein said. "They're complicated because they involve traveling to and from the U.S. So we were looking at a huge amount of the field that can't enter the country or can't get back home. Things began to change at the borders two or three weeks ago, and it became clear that things weren't going to get any better."
However, Ein believes there's a "good shot" that the Cincinnati/US Open combination will happen as planned.
"I do think the cancellation of our event may force the acceleration of resolution on the immigration issues," Ein said. "When people see there's real consequences to them not getting resolved, I think it will draw a lot of focus to them."