European summer grass report of 2021

Tennis Tourism for Germany in 2021 was too soon

As a tennis journalist, I was able to enter Europe in June 2021 before the official tourist restrictions were lifted for vaccinated Americans. This article offers a glimpse of reality for American travelers and foreign tennis fans considering a European vacation this summer.

Grass Court Tennis
This seemed like an exciting opportunity to cover a couple important grass tournaments at the WTA Berlin and ATP Halle locations in Germany.

Held in mid-June, these were the key warm-up events for Wimbledon. Plus, I was eager and excited to finally be going to Europe for the first time since COVID-19 became our new reality.

Flying and Testing
Before my trip began, I was pleased to secure a round trip ticket for $500 USD on TAP Portugal from Washington DC to Lisbon and then Berlin and back.

Prior to flying, I used Same Day Health covid-19 testing to present a negative PCR test and associate it with my passport # in order to fly into Portugal. Even being fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine and having my CDC health card was insufficient for entry.

Getting PCR Tests in Europe
Once I arrived in Germany, daily COVID test documents were officially required by all hotels each night of my stay. In Berlin, I walked 20 minutes to Mitte (Center of the city) to get my test first thing in the morning. Test results for 75 Euros were guaranteed to come within 24 hours, though the results came back near the very tail end of that limit. However, a faster test would have doubled my testing cost.

In retrospect, a simple "rapid antigen" test at the airport for 40 Euros would have been the better option, but there was a lot of competing and conflicting information out there. Different countries and locations accept different types of tests for entry, increasing the complexity. TPG's frequent flying staffers had their own field reports that echoed similar confusion at European airports. It is definitely a big business for test companies that issue time-sensitive test results to desperate travelers.

The true cost I'd estimate was about $200-$300 more when you add in all the required PCR tests before and after the trip. It can be a bit cheaper if you plan can afford to wait at least 48 hours for the test results sent digitally.

Grass Tennis - Finally!?
Once I cleared the testing hurdle, I was able to attend the grass-court tournaments in Berlin and Halle.

Roger Federer made his appearance at the tournament he had won 10 times in Halle. The excitement of his appearance was enough to fuel the vast majority of excitement over the possibility that he might win and have a strong chance to win Wimbledon. The buzz was a hope to catch a glimmer of his past brilliance on his favorite surface.

Halle, Germany - round 1 victory for Federer

At his second-round match, he squeezed out his first set against Felix Auger Aliassime (FAA). However, at that point, the magic ran out and all that collective fan optimism came crashing to an end when he lost in 3 sets.

At the WTA's Berlin event, most of the top seeds in the women's tournament had also fallen victim to upsets by the quarterfinals.  Plagued by even hotter and sunnier temperatures, made each afternoon in the full sun risky even for the players involved.

For the limited press and media present, masks were required. I must say it was not ideal to have to try to work while wearing one, particularly while carrying heavy camera gear and being exposed to the elements. The temperature at the tournament peaked at over 90F every day. If it was not bad enough to fog up your view, the obstructions certainly did not cater to getting good photographs.

Promoting Entertainment while Enforcing Safety Procedures
I did encounter a few distant fans at the two events that dotted the stands, but the attendance was extremely limited due to COVID-19 restrictions. Additionally, those fans who were present seemed to find little enjoyment sitting isolated and so far back in the scorching summer sun. It really was a test of self-punishment. What I observed made me question what the point was of having fans at all.

The real challenge to returning to Normal for sporting events is the sense of safety and security for fans. If fans cannot cheer and celebrate with their closest loved ones in the stands - I would highly recommend that they enjoy it at home instead. Without a blanket policy for the event and city, most of the fans will not be comfortable attending. This lack of comfort translates directly into the food vending, merchandise sales, and tourism that surrounds a tennis event ecosystem.

"Even if you gave me a free round trip ticket to go back to Europe this summer, I would probably delay it to avoid all the headaches."

This young fan personifies the mood of masked tennis attendees.

The lack of a real audience and fan electricity in the viewing experience sharply contrasted that of attending previous historic grass events like the Tennis Hall of Fame grass tournament in Rhode Island, where I joined Kim Clijsters and Andy Roddick for their retirement ceremony.

The shining moment was seeing the loyal fans and crowds that greeted Roddick, the last American male to win a tennis Grand Slam, on that special day. Had it been a small gathering without John Legend and Andy's lifelong friends in attendance, it might have felt just as anticlimactic.
Strict City Protocols Indoors vs Super Lax Adherence Outdoors
Beyond tennis, one of the great things about traveling to tournaments in Europe is the chance to visit the cultural landmarks and great museums located throughout the continent. Sadly though, the famous museums on museum island in Berlin were either closed or had prohibitively strict policies to discourage visitors.

In general, most local, indoor establishments required full documentation (PCR test within 24 hours or vaccination proof) to gain entry plus a KN-95 mask (FFP2 or better) for entry. Even the UNIQLO store would not let me enter without signing a waiver with my name, address, plus personal information.

Steps outside these indoor facilities, you could see thongs of Berlin citizens - mostly young adults were wearing no face coverings at all. I often received stares when walking outside with a mask around my neck - most I observed did not have one on except when mandated.

Meanwhile, there is nothing like getting probed up the nose and throat daily with a super Q-tip for a minimum of 10 seconds. That really makes one reconsider whether is it really worth staying another day or venturing into another European country.

Taking a pass on Wimbledon because of the 10-day Quarantine

With Wimbledon set to start in late June, the thought of staying in Europe and making my way from Germany to London to visit the All England Club was tempting. But London, as well as the rest of the UK, has a 10-day mandatory quarantine to enter. Plus, there were many fears of COVID outbreaks and new Delta Variants spreading, factors that could have potentially made re-entering the US from the UK tricky.

The mounting number of withdrawals at Wimbledon among many top seeds including Nadal, Osaka, Halep, Thiem, Goffin, and Raonic missing also makes this Championship Title rather diluted from a pure "Open" format perspective.

Ultimately, I decided to skip this final leg of the grass-court season. Even my UK to US flight was canceled by TAP! So I had to make arrangements via my business Twitter account to return from Germany instead. It would have been too risky to dawdle in Europe longer waiting for an opening.

Thoughts from the Berlin Wall
It is a great privilege to be part of tennis media. But to push the boundaries for the sake of carrying on is not logical.

My recent odyssey to Europe ultimately reminded me of a thought I had looking at the Berlin Wall:
"The real worth of passing through walls is based - not to the thickness of the barrier - but the value of being on the other side."

If you don't need to travel yet, then you can wait for more activities to get back to normal first.

It is premature to have an open border but a closed society.

Time will tell how the UK covid-19 cases will react due to the Euro Cup soccer event coupled with Wimbledon. This will need to be monitored carefully in July.

The real challenge is how the American hard court season will fare. The US Open series kicks off with Atlanta and the first Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati in August.

US Open Fans can sign up for live updates on our email newsletter to get conditions reported directly from the ground.

If the situation is not fan-hospitable and safe for us to attend personally as media, we will not recommend anyone else to attend either. The exclusivity of having a singular presence is not worth the absence of the crowds. Tennis needs spectators to be true tennis.