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Sparse crowds watch the tennis action in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

Spectators at Berlin tennis tournament in sport's new normal

Pascal Jochem
July 16, 2020

The controversy surrounding Novak Djokovic's Adria Tour has focused attention on the return of tennis. A tournament in Berlin is being played under strict hygiene rules and with fans. Is this a pointer for the US Open?

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Fans attend Berlin tennis event

Anyone who wants to watch live tennis has to put up with a lot right now. As you enter the arena, you must put on a mask, make sure your forehead is accessible and take your temperature. Next, fill out a questionnaire on your phone. But before all that, why not take a shower?

Skeptical, suspicious looks abound. What, at first glance, looks like a small spaceship capsule with green and red lights turns out to be a disinfection shower. For four seconds, skin and clothing are sprayed in a tunnel and, reportedly, 99 percent of all viruses are killed, including the coronavirus. As spectators leave the tunnel, a slightly damp film remains on the skin, complete with the distinct scent of alcohol.

This is part of the hygiene and safety concept for a tennis tournament in Berlin, approved by the health authorities and "59 pages thick," as tournament director Barbara Rittner likes to point out. The company responsible for the hygiene measures has already worked with football clubs in connection with the Bundesliga restart.

A woman takes a hygienic shower at the entrance of the Steffi-Graf-Stadium
Spectators had to take a 'shower' before enteringImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Hundt

"We have to prove to the tennis family that we can do it, that we are able to take responsibility, that we found a way to play with a couple of spectators, as well," says Rittner, who also acts as Germany's Fed Cup captain, in an interview with DW. Such a tournament has already been attempted on a much smaller scale in Neuss, near Düsseldorf, but this tournament in Berlin is the first major sporting event in Germany where spectators are allowed.

Empty seats, empty wallets

The Steffi Graf Stadium in Berlin's Grunewald district can hold 5000 spectators, but only a maximum of 800 are currently allowed in. People from the same household can sit next to each other but social distancing rules otherwise apply in the stands. But that's not the only reason why empty red seats dominate the scene on the first three days of the tournament. In fact, there are far fewer than 800 fans. Is that general skepticism about the return of live sport or is it the steep ticket prices of €120 ($137) to €380?

It's an experiment that's gone down well, at least with the athletes. For the week of the tournament, they live in their own bio-secure bubble. In the days leading up to the event, the players were tested for COVID-19 before the six male and six female players, including such illustrious names as men's world number three Dominic Thiem from Austria and two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova from the Czech Republic, all moved in to the same hotel. A shuttle service ferries the players to and from the courts, while contact with fans is strictly forbidden. "Everybody feels safe. From the safety point of view I think all measures are perfect here," said Thiem.

World number 3 Dominic Thiem in action in Berlin
World number 3 Dominic Thiem in action in BerlinImage: Getty Images/M. Hitij

These are the type of positive headlines which tennis badly needs after a chaotic few weeks. Carefree party scenes on the Adria Tour - initiated by Novak Djokovic and attended by Thiem, Alexander Zverev and others - have battered the image of tennis. Several players were infected with the coronavirus, including world number one, Djokovic. A fiasco.

Thiem repentant 

"We lost touch with reality. We saw the euphoria there," Thiem now admits. "If we learn from the mistakes, then it's a good thing. We have to be careful." But even after the aborted Adria Tour, which largely dispensed with hygiene measures and thus became a corona hotspot, the bickering continued.

Twitter quarrels, in which even German legend Boris Becker was involved, more party videos and disregarded quarantine. And right in the center of it all: Germany's current number one, Zverev. He too was supposed to compete in Berlin, and the organizers had hoped he would "face up to the criticism". But Zverev canceled at short notice, saying he wanted to concentrate on the work with his new coach David Ferrer.

Even without Zverev, the organizers in Berlin are trying to polish the sport's image. "Everyone is watching us. We could be a role model in future, even for the US tournaments, to say 'this worked well,'" said Rittner. "Maybe the hygiene shower will be a key for spectators."

The US Open, currently set for early September, is of particular note. Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have expressed doubts about participating, given the number of cases in the USA while Roger Federer has already said he won't play. Similar sentiments could be heard in Berlin. "The whole thing is on very shaky ground," said Thiem. 

The New York event was scheduled in June, but it is clear that the pandemic is nowhere near as under control stateside as it is in Germany. A tournament with spectators like the one in Berlin seems unthinkable.

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