From Zoom to empty stadiums, returning to cover live tennis in Dubai a stark reminder of the strange new normal

A year of reporting on tournaments remotely has presented unique challenges, so being back at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis stadium was a real privilege

After a year of covering sport through a computer screen, a year of waking up at strange hours to follow a match taking place several time zones away, I got to attend a tennis tournament and report on it live last week in Dubai.

It had been 53 weeks since I last sat in the stands at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis stadium to cover an event.

Early March last year, I was asked by the ITF to report on the Asia Group I tie of the Billie Jean King Cup after it was relocated from China to Kazakhstan and ultimately to Dubai due to the spread of the coronavirus.

I had just wrapped up two weeks of tennis coverage in Dubai, where sell-out crowds witnessed Simona Halep and Novak Djokovic clinch the WTA and ATP titles.

Staying for an extra seven days at that gorgeous tennis venue was something I was happy to do for the ITF, and I ended up spending the week following intense match-ups between nations like India, China and Indonesia, chitchatting with Sania Mirza in the stands as she cheered on and encouraged her teammates, and enjoying what turned out to be my last week of live tennis for another year.

Halfway through the event, ball kids stopped showing up, for safety reasons, and by the end of the week, we were social distancing and sanitising every few minutes.

The world went into lockdown a few days later, and the tennis tour shut down for the next five months before it restarted in empty stadiums, with bio-secure bubbles and Zoom press conferences.

Three Grand Slams have come and gone since, while I remained glued to my desk at home, covering the action through multiple screens, and throwing the occasional tantrum each time the beIN Connect app crashed at a crucial moment during a match.

Those few seconds of will-my-WiFi-abandon-me-or-come-through-for-me suspense I frequently experienced right before I was about to ask a question in a Zoom press conference were a welcome adrenaline rush during a period of perpetual stagnation.

After years of travelling the tennis tour full-time, going from Qatar to Australia to the UAE to California to Europe to New York to China and ending the year in Milan and London before doing it all over again a few weeks later, I was forced to take a break from the airport/hotel life and got to be around family for several months.

We had all our meals together, traded Zoom/Teams stories from work, and argued over what movie or show we were going to stream that evening.

I’d set the clock on my computer to the time zone of the tournament I was covering that week. Weeks where tournaments were held simultaneously in Delray Beach and Abu Dhabi or Adelaide and Montpellier meant separate devices were set to different time zones.

The odd mishap would happen where I’d hop into a Zoom meeting thinking I was going to find a certain player only to realise I’ve crashed an interview between a Japanese doubles team and their national press. There was also one time a journalist took his shirt off on camera during a press conference, and another where my internet froze while I was blinking and the press officer took a screen shot of the Zoom meeting at the exact same moment, which made it look I was sleeping while Rafael Nadal was talking to us.

Virtual press conferences are mostly a gamble, and not just because you never know when your internet is going to turn on you. If there’s a waiting room, more than likely, you will either be stranded there while the presser got underway, or you’ll get admitted to the conversation after it has already started and you spend the next several minutes worrying if your question has already been asked.

Then comes the real Russian roulette of the situation, which is the moderator – is it someone who will mute you the second you finish your question, denying you the simple act of thanking the player for their response when they’re done, or following up if you need further clarification; or will you be treated like a reasonable human being who is capable of muting themselves at the right moment? To mute or not to mute, quite the dilemma!

Zoom nightmares aside, I’ve mostly spent my year of virtual tennis coverage wondering if I was actually adding any value to the conversation around the sport from afar.

I made a living off of travelling the tour and conveying stories from the heart of a tournament to the rest of the world and suddenly I’m expected to bring insight when I’m not actually there and I’m watching everything through a TV screen just like everybody else?

No longer can I stroll into a players’ lounge at an event and walk up to a coach for a quick chat, nor can I sit courtside to watch a practice session. But the circumstances have also pushed us all to find creative ways to keep doing our jobs. If a coach is in a different time zone and cannot video-chat, we resort to sending voice notes back and forth on WhatsApp and I eventually end up with something that resembles an interview.

Following tennis on a screen instead of live can have its advantages. You can listen to commentary, replay points as frequently as you need, and pull up the live stats on another screen while watching. It’s also easier to jump on a Zoom call mid-match than it is sprinting to the press conference room at a Slam while covering a match from the stands or from your desk at the media centre.

What struck me the most through all of this is how quickly we’ve adapted to this ever-evolving situation.

As I returned to the stands for my first live tennis experience in a year last week in Dubai, I couldn’t get over the eerie feeling of being in an empty stadium watching two players going at it, competing for prize money and ranking points, with no one watching.

It was so quiet that at one point, Marton Fucsovics glared up at a journalist, who was talking to someone beside him in the top row of the stands, as the Hungarian was about to serve.

The fact that the players are able to dig deep and fight this hard in such sterile conditions is quite remarkable. I had been watching them doing it since August on TV but witnessing it live was really eye-opening.

Denis Shapovalov said the bubble in Dubai was probably one of the best players were going to experience all year but he still felt like he was “in an aquarium”, looking across the tiny pond that separates the Irish Village from the players’ bubble and knowing he can’t just walk over there.

“It’s still the feeling that you don’t have freedom, you can’t go to a restaurant when there’s people just literally across the pond just looking at you,” said the Canadian, who lost in the semi-finals.

It felt strange the other way round as well, being outside the bubble and looking in.

The venue for the Dubai tennis tournament is one of my favourite on tour. Each season, I typically spend two and a half weeks staying at the onsite hotel during the event, attending players’ practices, catching up with the security guards, and interviewing coaches and other members of the players’ entourages. It’s my home tournament and I cover it from every possible angle.

Last week, I stayed at the onsite hotel but I was strictly separated from all those involved with the tournament because of the bubble protocols in place that ensured everyone’s safety.

Besides the main stadium, all the other courts were off limits to journalists, and we weren’t allowed to talk directly to the players in any way other than virtually through Zoom. At one point, a player spotted me from across the pond while I was grabbing a bite to eat at the Irish Village and waved at me. It was the first time we’d seen each other not through a screen in over a year. I quickly thought of Shapovalov’s words and understood what he meant.

Being able to watch live tennis from the stands in such circumstances felt like a real privilege, but it was also sad sitting in a deserted stadium during one of the most popular events on the UAE sports calendar.

It’s normal to have mixed feelings about anything and everything right now and this job is no different. I’m lucky I’m still able to do it in some shape or form, and I’m excited about hopefully getting back on the road in the future. But I also know that wherever my next live tennis experience will be, it’s not going to be like it used to be.

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