By Agence France-Presse
Staging the Wuhan Open later this year will send a powerful message about the city’s recovery from coronavirus and have an impact that stretches beyond tennis, the tournament’s co-director told AFP.
The central Chinese city was the original epicenter of the pandemic and nearly 4,000 people died from the disease there before it spread worldwide.
But the annual Wuhan Open is now penciled in for October 19-25 after the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) this week released its provisional calendar for the rest of the year.
The schedule “is conditioned on several key factors” including player safety, government approvals and relaxation of travel restrictions, the WTA said. At present, most foreign nationals are barred from entering China.
Wuhan Open co-director Brenda Perry told AFP the tournament will not go ahead if overseas players cannot come, and that a final decision will be made around early August.
But she added: “I’m thrilled for all my colleagues and friends in Wuhan, and what this will mean to the city and the people of the city.
“It’s hugely symbolic of overcoming a hugely challenging moment. They went through what seemed to me one of the most stringent lockdowns in the world,” said the 62-year-old, speaking by telephone from Auckland.
“To come through that and then hold an international professional tennis event would be amazing for morale and show the world the great job they’ve done on recovery.”
Last year’s Wuhan Open had a nearly $3 million prize fund and a high-quality field, with world number one Ashleigh Barty losing in the semifinals to eventual champion Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.
But just a few months later Wuhan’s 11 million people were subjected to a harsh lockdown that lasted 76 days and put the city in the global spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
Perry, a former player who was New Zealand’s number one, hopes that staging the tournament for a seventh year can help change perceptions.
But she can understand why some players may have reservations about signing up for the tournament, even though Wuhan is now largely back to normal.
“We probably need to educate, to be honest, what is the reality in Wuhan compared to other cities around the world,” said Perry, who gave assurances that Wuhan’s tough anti-virus measures have made it a safe place to visit.
“They’ve followed such a stringent lockdown and the recovery process has been so cautious and they still have so many protocols in place.”
“I would be the very first person to put up my hand if I thought it was not safe to be going there,” she added.
Like other WTA tournaments when the coronavirus-ravaged season resumes, starting at Italy’s Palermo on August 3, Wuhan will have no spectators under current guidelines.
Significant hurdles still lie ahead if Wuhan is to see tennis in October.
China is now experiencing a fresh outbreak of infections in Beijing and the ATP Japan Open scheduled for October was cancelled on Thursday over fears of a second wave.
As part of measures to prevent imported coronavirus cases, China has indefinitely closed its borders to most foreigners. International air travel is also badly disrupted.
For all tournaments, from Wuhan to Roland Garros and the US Open, officials are keeping their fingers crossed.
“The tournament is four months from now and if you think back four months, to February, and what has changed and happened for better and worse round the world,” said Perry.
“Four months is still a long time for things to change and know what’s going to happen.”