Is it safe to play tennis during the coronavirus pandemic?

is it safe to play tennis
Photo via Tim Vrtiska/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: June 9, 2021

The coronavirus effectively put a kibosh on most group sports and activities, leading many people to seek substitute forms of exercise. This may account for indications that suggest more and more people are now getting into tennis. But is it safe to play tennis during the pandemic? 

Michael Dowse, the CEO and executive director of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) told USA Today that he had heard reports of tennis balls and pre-strung racquets having a double-digit surge in sales by the end of March 2020 alone. These types of purchases are indicative of new players, as opposed to seasoned players who already own equipment.

And it’s not difficult to see why. At face value, tennis seems to be a sport uniquely suited for social distancing, as players face off on opposite sides of a tennis court—typically, in an outdoor setting—and have little close contact with one another. When even walking and running paths tend to be overcrowded by people trying to get some fresh air and exercise, tennis can provide a safe alternative.

“Our sport is conducive to social distancing,” Dowse said. “Health and safety are paramount and tennis comes second, but once that first box is checked and it’s deemed safe, it’s the perfect sport for all of us to participate in coming out of this pandemic.”

“Ultimately, it’s up to each individuals’ decision-making whether it’s proper to come back in the communities they live in,” Dowse added. “But if the local guidelines have approved outdoor recreation, go for it. Tennis is the perfect sport to start playing in this phase. It’s social, it’s physical and it’s intellectual and that’s what we’re starved for.”

But that’s not to say the sport is a free-for-all. Many local ordinances and clubs are still advocating for common-sense measures, such as wearing masks at all times when not playing, using hand sanitizer, and keeping six feet of distance from other players.

“Social distancing goes without saying—handshakes are out—and we encourage players to place their equipment bags far from each other,” said tennis supervisor Robert Campbell, who works for the Ken-Caryl Ranch in Littleton, Colorado.

“There has been little drama over the rules,” Campbell told AARP. “If anything, the only issue has been with court space and so many people wanting to play.”

People also might want to play tennis indoors. Obviously, there’s a little more risk if you’re inside a confined space, but indoor tennis is one of several relatively safe winter activities that can be done outside the home.

Not even the world’s best tennis players are immune from being infected. Novak Djokovic was diagnosed with the virus in June 2020. Juan Sebastian Cabal, a former No. 1 doubles player and a three-time Grand Slam winner, also tested positive in October.

In April 2021, Daniil Medvedev, the world’s No. 2 player, had to withdraw from the Monte Carlo Masters after testing positive.

Nobody in the top-100 on the women’s side had tested positive until No. 2 Simona Halep confirmed that she had been infected in late October. In February 2021, former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez, who also coaches Garbine Muguruza, said she had tested positive.

In the words of Diego Schwartzman, the pandemic has been a hardship for pro tennis players. “I believe that no sport can sustain this for a long time,” Schwartzman told La Nacion, via TennisHead. “We were able to play with a lot of cuts, from the money for the players, the access of your team to the tournaments, protocols, bubbles… Neither mentally nor financially it is very bearable.”

Despite this, some top female players aren’t quite ready to get a COVID vaccine, even though the women reportedly were more cautious about the virus than their male counterparts. Rafael Nadal also isn’t sure he’s interested in playing in the Tokyo Olympics because of COVID concerns.

By June 2021, many players were tired of basically still living and working in a bubble. “I am obviously waiting for the week where all of this is going to disappear and none of that is going to be a part of our procedure and routine,” Stefanos Tsitsipas told the New York Times. “So really looking to the next couple of months. We might see things go back to normal, and I’m waiting for that day.”

Either way, it doesn’t sound easy for players on tour in 2021.

“I definitely don’t want to play too much this year if it’s going to be a bubble life because it is extremely difficult mentally to be locked up like this,” Denis Shapovalov said. “Of course it’s amazing to play, but as the weeks go on, you kind of lose that passion for tennis and a lot of players are struggling with that.”

Guidelines for a safe tennis game

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—and given that we still do not have a vaccine for COVID-19, this rings truer than ever. The USTA has outlined some tips and recommendations for playing tennis safely, in accordance with your state and local guidelines. However, the organization also notes that these precautions must remain in place for people to be safe if they still want to play tennis until there is a universal vaccine or effective treatment for the coronavirus.

  • If you can’t play tennis with members of your own household and you still want to stay safe, choose opponents who you consider at low risk of contracting the virus.
  • Do not make any physical contact with other players, such as shaking hands or high fives.
  • Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water before heading to the court, and make sure to bring hand sanitizer in the event soap and water is not readily available.
  • Do not share racquets or any other equipment such as wristbands, grips, hats, and towels.
  • Each player should ideally bring and use their own can of balls for serving—and if possible, use different colors or brands to differentiate between the two.
  • Always pick up balls with your racquet and/or foot, rather than with your hands, to hit back to your opponent or players on other courts.
  • Open a new can of balls and a new grip (if possible) every time you play, and make sure to clean and wipe down all equipment, including racquets and water bottles.
  • Bring a full water bottle and avoid touching taps or water fountain handles.
  • Keep at least six feet apart from other players and maintain physical distancing by changing sides at opposite ends of the court.
  • When not actively playing, adhere to all proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and mask protocols.
  • If you feel the urge to sneeze or cough, make sure to do so into a tissue or sleeve.

The USTA also asks that you do not play if you or your opponent were in contact with someone with COVID-19 in the last 14 days, are exhibiting any coronavirus symptoms, or are at high risk. By adhering to these simple guidelines, it’s easy to engage in a safe and healthy tennis match, even in COVID-19 times.

After you get the vaccine, is it safe to …

Sources: USTA, AARP, USA Today

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