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Sports News

Palermo opens way for return of Tours amid pandemic

(Reuters) - High-profile withdrawals and a player testing COVID-19 positive threatened to derail the Palermo Ladies Open before it even started but despite the early jitters the event heralded tennis’ return from the forced shutdown after five months.

FILE PHOTO: Tennis - French Open - Roland Garros, Paris, France - May 31, 2018 France's Fiona Ferro in action during her second round match against Spain's Garbine Muguruza REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

While the focus remained firmly on the health protocols - a couple of players had to be reminded by the chair umpire not to throw items like wrist bands into the sparse crowd after their matches - the action on court was exciting.

France’s Fiona Ferro was unbeaten in regional exhibition events after the Tour was suspended in March and continued her momentum by becoming the first WTA champion in five months and making her debut in the top 50 at number 44.

“We are extremely pleased with how the 31st Palermo Ladies Open was conducted and received this past week,” the WTA told Reuters on Monday.

“Our season’s resumption has required intricate and comprehensive planning and it speaks volumes to the level of professionalism and dedication we have in the tennis community, including a committed tournament team in Palermo, our players and the WTA staff.”

The WTA International level tournament would usually attract only a modest field but the initial entry list boasted a host of players in the top 20, including twice Grand Slam champion Simona Halep of Romania.

As organisers continued the preparations in their bid to prove to the world that the professional Tours can still run this year amid strict COVID-19 protocols, the first signs of trouble emerged.

With a week to go before the start of the main draw on Aug. 3, world number two Halep pulled out citing anxieties over travelling to the Sicilian capital amid the pandemic.

Leading British player Johanna Konta also withdrew, robbing the event of two of its top draws.

On the eve of the qualifiers, the organisers found that two players had tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies. However, both returned negative results when they had a Polymerase Chain Reaction to detect the virus.

There was no such luck the next day as one player returned a positive result for COVID-19 and withdrew from the event.

There were calls to cancel the tournament but the organisers and WTA decided to continue as planned.

“As this is a new environment for all of us, we continue to learn every day how to operate in this new normal,” the WTA added.

“We are excited to be back on the court showcasing the best in women’s professional tennis and will continue to move forward with an abundance of caution.”

Top seed and world number 14 Petra Martic agreed and her words resonated among her colleagues during the week.

“Personally, I’m just happy to be here. I’m happy to see that it’s possible to actually start again because still a week or two ago I didn’t believe it, to be honest,” Martic said before starting her campaign.

“So this really gives me hope and I hope that things are going to go in the right direction and we’re going to have quite a few tournaments still this year.”

Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai; Editing by Ken Ferris

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