Top-tier field set for WTA’s return to play in Italy


ROME — Two Grand Slam champions. A finalist from last year’s French Open. A handful of top-20 players.

With second-ranked Simona Halep joined by 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and last year’s Roland Garros finalist Marketa Vondrousova, the upcoming Palermo Ladies Open will be like no other.

“The entry list is incredible. It’s practically like a Premier,” tournament director Oliviero Palma told The Associated Press this week, referring to the WTA tour’s top-level tennis events.

Also entered are No. 14 Johanna Konta, No. 15 Petra Martic and No. 20 Maria Sakkari.

The reason for such a high-profile field in a small clay-court tournament usually skipped over by top players is simple: The Aug. 3-9 event marks the return of tour-level tennis following a five-month break for the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s the first official event — for men or women — since early March.

“It’s certainly a big honor for us but also a matter of great responsibility,” Palma said. “We’re the first in the world, and we need to experiment all of the new rules.”

Those rules include players handling their own towels instead of being assisted by ball kids; no handshakes at the end of matches; no autographs or photos with fans; and no showers for players at the venue.

Players and anyone who comes into contact with players will be administered nasal swab tests for COVID-19 before they depart for Palermo, upon arrival and then every four days.

So far, the biggest problem for the tournament hasn’t been positive tests but travel restrictions, which resulted in the withdrawal of two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and have limited the field to exclusively European players.

“We knew when we decided to go forward with the tournament that there would be some unexpected developments,” Palma said. “All we can do is keep our fingers crossed.”

Halep, who is from Romania, was also at risk of missing out, after Italy’s health minister on Friday signed an ordinance requiring all those who have in the past 14 days stayed in Romania or Bulgaria to quarantine.

Palma responded to the ordinance by making an urgent appeal to Health Minister Roberto Speranza to make a special exemption for the players competing in Palermo.

Third-ranked Karolina Pliskova also asked for a top-10 wild card like Halep, Palma said, but the Czech player will come only if the US Open is canceled.

“Otherwise she’ll head to the U.S. at the start of August,” Palma said. “These tournaments are going to become more like regional events in these conditions. There’s going to be an American circuit and a European circuit.”

On Thursday, 11 men’s and women’s tournaments planned for China in October and November — including the WTA Finals — were canceled because of the pandemic.

While Italy was the global epicenter of the virus in March and has recorded more than 35,000 deaths from COVID-19, Sicily was not hard hit and counted only 163 positive cases in its latest report.

A limited number of fans will be permitted to attend the tournament, with 280 allowed in for each session, bringing the total number of people inside the 1,500-seat stadium court — including players — to 327.

Fans and anyone else attending will also be tested for the virus.

With fewer tickets sold, tournament prize money has been reduced from $250,000 in 2019 to $222,500.

“A top-10 player could care less about the prize money here,” Palma said. “They’re coming just because they want to play and return to their normal lives.”

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