Thu, 24 Sep 2020

Palermo organiser 'proud' to host return of tennis

05 Aug 2020, 05:12 GMT+10

The organisers of the Palermo Ladies Open had just a month to get the first post-coronavirus tournament WTA tournament up and running.

While many tournaments, even some scheduled much later in the year, have opted to throw in the towel in the face of the problems posed by the pandemic, the Palermo director Oliviero Palma, was always determined to go ahead, despite the complications of health protocols

One advantage was that Sicily has been hit much less hard than northern Italy. The island has recorded fewer than 300 deaths and around 3,500 cases.

"We've always been convinced that we could organise the tournament because the sanitary conditions in Sicily have always led us to believe that it was possible. We can almost say we're a 'Covid-free' city because there are so few cases in Palermo," he said.

The event did move back a week from its original dates at the end of July, "because the WTA needed time to put in place its health protocols and new rules."

These include a hotel exclusively reserved for the players, who are housed in a hygiene bubble, with reserved floors and communal spaces, Palma said.

The Sicilian capital is "proud" to host the return of tennis, but is also aware of "the weight of responsibility".

But the pandemic is taking a financial toll on the event that Palma says he "tries not to think about".

With only 300 spectators allowed at a venue with a daily capacity of 1,500, Palma estimates ticket revenues are down 70 per cent.

Palma says that while all the sponsors have stayed loyal, the financial crisis has led them to cut contributions by 50 per cent.

"It's an emotional presence, they wanted to support this new start," he said.

That's a total shortfall of several tens of thousands of euros.

To balance things out, Palermo has adopted a two-year budget, covering both this year's tournament and 2021 "as if they were one big tournament".

Yet how will world tennis cope if the Covid-19 crisis continues?

"Wait and see", says Palma with a smile.

Palermo has reduced prize money by almost 20 per cent, from $275,000 to $222,500.

"The WTA has told us that there will be no return to normal prize money and circuit economics until 2022," French player Fiona Ferro said earlier this week, referring to "a phase of reconstruction until then."

Looking ahead to ATP and WTA plans which include the US Open from August 31 behind closed doors, and then the French Open, Palma is cautious.

"Today, we can't talk about optimism or pessimism, but realism," he said.

"Under these conditions, it's alright, but everything can change."

He believes the model deployed at his modest tournament can work on a larger scale at events with both greater resources and greater risks.

"The protocol is good, it's applicable everywhere, so far it's safe, it works. But we're in a quiet part of the world. I understand the difficulties that the US Open could have with many more people," he said. "But New York's budget is not Palermo's budget."

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