Nancy Gillen

Naomi Osaka earned her second US Open title last night, withstanding a scintillating opening set from opponent Victória Azárenka to triumph 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.

The match took place in an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, with the Japanese 22-year-old and Belarusian 31-year-old, one at the start of her career and the other at the end, battling it out in front of just their coaching teams.

This was due to the ongoing global health crisis, of course. Competitors were part of a "bio-secure bubble", where masks and tests were mandatory. The majority of participants stayed in the same hotel and were shuttled to the venue. This was all necessary to ensure sport could take place during the coronavirus pandemic.

When nearly all events, leagues and tournaments were suspended in March, there were concerns women’s sport would be impacted the most. Indeed, female athletes were disproportionately affected financially and were statistically more likely to struggle from mental health issues during lockdown.  

This seemed like a distant worry during last night’s contest, the pinnacle of an entertaining women’s tournament, albeit one missing some of the world’s best female players. But what is the reality? Has the pandemic resulted in a loss of momentum for women’s sport?

The answer is varied. As seen with the US Open, some elite sport has returned.

In England, the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) has come back with aplomb. The league has attracted a whole roster of high-profile footballers, including numerous members of the American World Cup winning team. Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis have signed for Manchester City, Tobin Heath and Christen Press have gone to Manchester United, and Alex Morgan is set to don the white and navy of Tottenham Hotspur.

Naomi Osaka won the US Open in an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium ©Getty Images
Naomi Osaka won the US Open in an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium ©Getty Images

These signings have given the FAWSL an unprecedented level of attention and coverage. For Americans wanting to watch their favourite players in England, a new broadcast deal with Atalanta Media means matches will be shown on NBC Sports and streamed by DAZN, including live broadcasts in the United States, Germany and Italy.

At a time when there is not a lot of sport to watch, having women’s football on television is a big opportunity to garner interest in the game. But what about other leagues?

It seems the FAWSL’s haul of American players can be largely put down to the uncertainty surrounding the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL). The competition was actually one of the first to return as the world emerged from lockdown, although it was in the guise of the Challenge Cup, a 23-game tournament won by Houston Dash.

Teams are now playing a Fall Series, but this will consist of just four games for each club during September and October. NWSL players are instead choosing to temporarily switch to Europe, where they are guaranteed an eight-month season.

Nonetheless, the NWSL Fall Series is being broadcast worldwide on Twitch, and even though it is depleted, it still constitutes an attempt to ensure women’s football is played in the US this year. The French and Italian domestic leagues are also back underway, with Spain’s Primera División due to begin next month.

Elsewhere, Australia’s Super Netball season begun in August. England Netball have confirmed their domestic season will begin in February but have pledged to get "some form of netball" on television before the end of the year.

Sam Mewis is one of several American football players to sign for a FA Women's Super League team this season ©Getty Images
Sam Mewis is one of several American football players to sign for a FA Women's Super League team this season ©Getty Images

England and West Indies will play a five-match Twenty20 series from September 21 to 30, with one match set to air on BBC. It will become the first women’s international cricket game to be shown on free-to-air TV since the 1993 Women’s World Cup final. This is a significant achievement considering England’s calendar was left looking sparse after both India and South Africa withdrew from scheduled series. 

In rugby, there are now dates for the rescheduled Six Nations, which was stopped in its tracks in March by the pandemic. Italy, France, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England will play in October and December to ensure the winner is crowned.

It was recently announced that the International Swimming League, which enforces an equal split of men and women on its teams, is scheduled to launch on October 16 and will be mainly focused in Budapest. Diamond League events have allowed female track and field athletes to get back into action, while races in the International Cycling Union's Women's World Tour started last month and will run until November. Two majors have already been played as part of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour. 

Subsequently, there are clear signs that women’s sport, whether that be football, netball, cricket, rugby, swimming or cycling, is beginning to get back on its feet. In some cases, tournaments and matches featuring female athletes have been the sole sporting event taking place. This has resulted in sportswomen gaining unprecedented access to premium broadcast slots and newspaper space.  

Track and field athletes have been able to compete again at Diamond League events ©Getty Images
Track and field athletes have been able to compete again at Diamond League events ©Getty Images

Sponsorship deals and investment has not stopped, and women’s sport does not seem to have taken the hit from cash-strapped International Federations and governing bodies. 

It is fair to say that the forecast for women's sport is more positive than it was at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. This does not mean that there are no issues remaining, however. 

Due to travel restrictions put in place during the crisis, many female athletes are unable to travel to competitions, or feel uncomfortable in doing so. 

This is why so many stars were missing from the US Open. World number one Ashleigh Barty has also withdrawn from the French Open, with border regulations meaning she is unable to meet up with her coach and train. Several South Korean golf stars felt it was unsafe to travel to Scotland for the first event of the LPGA Tour, the Women's British Open.

Many elite leagues and competitions have returned, but there are events which are postponed and yet to be rescheduled. There will still be many female athletes, in many countries around the world, who are currently unable to compete. Women's sport is still yet to fully recover from the first wave of COVID-19, so stakeholders must continue to work hard to ensure that it does.  

Nonetheless, the initial warnings of a silent summer for women's sport were necessary but, fortunately, slightly adrift. It is good to see women's sport regain momentum once more.