COVID-19 alters SEC tennis format for fall season

The unique tennis season has caused Missouri tennis athletes and coach Wootton to adjust to a new normal.

With the COVID-19 pandemic impacting nearly every element of day-to-day life, news broke out proclaiming the Southeastern Conference established a new start date and format for the upcoming tennis season.

The SEC announced on Aug. 27 competition can take place no earlier than Oct. 1 and teams may compete in up to three events.

“We’re losing a little bit of the experience side of not being able to play at the highest level in September,” Missouri tennis coach Chris Wootton said. “We are gaining the ability to allow our students to get academically integrated into a new COVID world.”

Missouri tennis generally starts in September during a couple of months of play at tournaments with singles and doubles results being the focus. There’s no team scoring at those events. After a two-month break from live action, play resumes in January with the commencement of team matches.

With the new SEC format, teams are losing the flexibility of spreading their teams out over three or four different events simultaneously. More specifically, if four players played Friday and Saturday, and another four players played Sunday and Monday, it wouldn’t count as a team event in the old system. However, in the new system implemented this fall, it does.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s one person or 10 people, [the team] can only compete three times,” Wootton said. “It eliminates a lot of the experience that we need to be able to play in the sprint.”

Wootton said the format change can potentially cause the athletes to be “a bit short-sighted” when it comes to the amount of tennis they’ll encounter in the spring.

“We’re asking some of our athletes to play upwards of 60 to 70 matches in between Jan. 23 and April 15,” Wootton said. “So, if they only get to play five or six matches in the fall, that doesn’t get their bodies and brain ready for that sort of product.”

To avoid that type of situation, Wootton plans to play dual matches in October against regional rivals that would generally take place in January to alleviate physical pressure on the athletes. Not only does it alleviate physical pressure, but it gives them experience since Division I schools don’t play dual matches during the fall season, while Division II and Division III schools do.

Wootton said Missouri tennis will compete in two events this fall season due to travel challenges related to the pandemic. The first event will be held at the University of Central Arkansas, while the ITA Regionals will take place at the University of Arkansas. Missouri will compete against regional schools like Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Tennessee.

Missouri will compete at UCA on Oct. 2 and then compete at the ITA regionals held by Arkansas from Oct. 22-25. After Oct. 25, Missouri won’t compete again until Jan. 23.

While this season presents challenges, Wootton expects a culture change within the team and his athletes to be 100% ready. Furthermore, having his athletes understand how to win to be fundamentally the best team in the country.

“We have veterans coming back that have played a lot of matches and a lot of young blood that’s hungry,” Wootton said. “I can guarantee everyone’s going to see a huge difference in Mizzou [this fall season].”

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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