Fake injury, glitches: Madrid Open tennis tries COVID gaming

A screen grab taken on Monday April 27, 2020 showing Spain's Rafael Nadal, bottom left, playing against Canada's Denis Shapovalov, bottom right, in a "virtual" tennis match at a tournament hosted by the Madrid Open. Tennis has joined the video game craze taking over the sports world during the coronavirus pandemic, with Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and 30 other pros trading in their rackets for controllers this week to participate in a "virtual" tournament hosted by the Madrid Open. (Mutua Madrid Open via AP)
A screen grab taken on Monday April 27, 2020 showing Spain's Rafael Nadal, bottom left, playing against Canada's Denis Shapovalov, bottom right, in a "virtual" tennis match at a tournament hosted by the Madrid Open. Tennis has joined the video game craze taking over the sports world during the coronavirus pandemic, with Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and 30 other pros trading in their rackets for controllers this week to participate in a "virtual" tournament hosted by the Madrid Open. (Mutua Madrid Open via AP)

So here’s a dose of realism — or surrealism — for the first video game tournament of the coronavirus pandemic involving professional tennis players: A match supposedly was postponed Monday because of Rafael Nadal’s balky back, except the tournament director later admitted he was just kidding.

That bit of silliness from Day 1 at the controller-instead-of-racket Madrid Open came 24 hours after another pro, Gael Monfils, really did withdraw because of ties to a streaming service not involved in this virtual venture.

Add those bizarre developments to technical glitches, some odd announcing and plenty of enthusiasm from the participants — including a particularly creative Belinda Bencic, the 2019 U.S. Open semifinalist who posted a video of herself entering a living room to the strains of “I Love Rock ‘n' Roll” — as tennis joined the move to gaming for a sports world largely on hold during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“I don’t know when it’s going to be over, this nightmare, because it’s been really long already, and it feels like it’s never going to be over,” said Feliciano Lopez, a pro who’s been ranked in the top 20 in singles and doubles and now oversees the Madrid Open.

The real clay-court tuneup for the French Open was supposed to be played May 1-10. But it is among more than 30 tournaments canceled or postponed because tennis tours are suspended until at least mid-July. Wimbledon was called off for the first time in 75 years.

“The first thing when we started working on this project was to give the fans something that they don’t have right now,” Lopez said.

It was Lopez who earnestly (well, seemingly earnestly) said Monday he got a text from Nadal explaining “he was really worried about the injury” to his back and wanted to put off a match. There was zero indication at the time that this was an attempt at humor.

But later, Lopez wrote on Twitter: “Guys, I was joking of, course.”