Tennis, anyone? The first Grand Slam event is being held since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with a strict player bubble, no fans allowed on site, notable absences and history on the line. Here’s six things to know.
In the coming days, your eyes are not deceiving you: Those are the best tennis players in the world, playing in front a sea of 23,000 empty seats.
Such a scene will play out as the US Open is set to get underway on Monday (31 August), and it will be unlike any major tennis event before, with strict protocols being put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably no fans being allowed on site at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens.
Players – much like the NBA in the U.S. and football leagues around the world – are adhering to a strict “bubble,” wearing masks and following social-distancing measures as they compete for one of the most coveted trophies in the sport, alongside the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon.
“It's a ghost town,” world No.1 Novak Djokovic said in a press conference as players participate in a warm-up event in New York City this week, usually held in Cincinnati. “Not many people around. We're not used to seeing it that way."
"(The) US Open is arguably the tournament that has the best energy: The people just get involved so much. It's going to be missed. It's missed already, for sure.” --World No.1 Novak Djokovic
The days leading up to the Open have been full of off-court drama, too: Naomi Osaka took a stand with NBA and WNBA players to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man in Wisconsin. Osaka said she would forego her semi-final on Thursday, prompting organisers to call off the day's tennis in full.
And Friday night, Djokovic was part of an announced new player-rights group, the Professional Tennis Players Association, which says it will better represent the issues of male players on tour, as reported by the New York Times.
While the lack of on-site fans will no doubt play a factor in on-court dynamics, the TV broadcasts and international streams are fired up for at-home viewing, paramount to the event this year.
Here, we lay out six things you need to know about a US Open like we’ve never seen before.
Aside from Grand Slam-level tennis, players flock to New York City each year for just that: To hang out in the city that never sleeps. But this year, with COVID-19 still among us, a “bubble” has been instituted for all competitors and their entourages, which have been limited to up to three people.
Players shuttle between the tournament site and official hotels (on Long Island) via designated transportation, are tested regularly and must follow mask-wearing rules on site, only taking them off to play, practice or train off court.
“I want to make sure that we are all keeping ourselves in this giant bubble,” Serena Williams, the four-time Olympic gold medallist who is going for a record-tying major No.24, told reporters. “It's more people now: A 128 draw for each singles, men and women. So, it's going to be a lot of people that enter this bubble. … I'm all for the extra protocols and the extra safety.”
While some 40,000 fans are usually milling about the NTC each day of the US Open, the grounds have been transformed into a player-friendly campus, with mini football fields, pickleball courts, giant pool tables, cabanas to relax in and social distance “ambassadors” to make sure everything is clean – and everyone is following the rules.
The US Open is the biggest annual sporting event in the world, buoyed by international travellers and a New York crowd that loves good tennis drama. But none of those fans will be allowed on site this year, with the tournament announcing in mid-June that it would go on without them to make the event as safe as possible for its participants.
“The transformation here on-site with having no fans, [the players] are enjoying being able to be spread out,” first-year tournament director Stacey Allaster told reporters. “I think you'll see that through the television as well.”
While lost ticket revenue is a hit to the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA), which puts on the event, the tournament has always been first and foremost a TV product, broadcasting in over 200 countries and territories around the world.
With Arthur Ashe Stadium holding some 23,000 fans as the biggest tennis arena in the world, and Louis Armstrong Stadium boasting 16,000 seats, empty stands will feel strange to all involved. But how will they impact the players?
“I'm the type of person that I thought it would be weird, because I really love the energy of the big courts and just having fans around,” 2018 US Open champ Naomi Osaka told reporters.
“But when I started playing (my first) match, I remembered that when I play I don't focus on anything outside of the court. So honestly, it was just me and her. I didn't really focus too much on the fact that we had no fans or anything.” --Naomi Osaka, 2018 US Open champ
While Djokovic, Serena, Osaka and more big-name stars have descended on New York for the Open, there are notable absences, including six of the top 10 women and both defending champions: Rafael Nadal on the men’s side and Bianca Andreescu on the women’s.
Nadal cited travel concerns over the coronavirus as his reason not for coming, though the rescheduled French Open – due to start two weeks after the US Open – could have been a factor, as well. Nadal is famously tough on clay, winning Roland-Garros a record 12 times. Switching from hard courts to clay in a matter of weeks is particularly hard on players’ bodies.
Also absent: Fed’s Swiss compatriot and 2016 US Open winner Stan Wawrinka; world No.1 women’s player Ashleigh Barty; two-time major champ Simona Halep; headline-maker Nick Kyrgios; world No.5 Elina Svitolina; and a host of others.
But for the players who have decided to play – and both fields still boast strong line-ups in singles – the perks are many, even as life in the bubble may feel strange versus the normal they knew just one year ago.
Most notably, top players have been awarded the VIP suites usually reserved for corporate sponsors that circle the interior of Arthur Ashe Stadium, meaning less traffic in the traditional locker rooms and a sort of real-world who’s-who of tennis apartment complex.
“It’s amazing. You have a massage table, a couch, your own bathroom,” world No.39 Ons Jabeur told Olympic Channel in an Instagram live last week. “All the other players are our neighbors. You can watch whoever is practising (on Ashe).”
One trend borne out of said practices: Mixed-gender sparring, with Serena hitting with Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas, American Tommy Paul practising with France’s Kristina Mladenovic and other combos.
Sure, the Open might feel a bit surreal, but the reality is that major trophies are still on the line – and history, too.
Serena is chasing that aforementioned No.24, though she owns the Open Era record with 23, Steffi Graf winning 22. Margaret Court competed in part before tennis’ professional era, capturing 24 major titles – the most all-time.
Djokovic has his eye on history, too: He stands at 17 majors currently, two behind Nadal (19) and three behind Federer (20). The Serbian star has said it’s a goal of his to topple both of those counts by the end of his career.
And: Djokovic is still unbeaten this season, having won the Australian Open and and the re-branded ATP Cincinnati Masters.
Plenty of players are after their first majors, respectively, including top women’s seed Karolina Pliskova, 2019 runner-up Daniil Medvedev, American Madison Keys, and a host of up-and-comers, like Tsitsipas, Dominic Thiem, Matteo Berrettini and – it’s a long shot, but why not? – 16-year-old Coco Gauff of the U.S.
Also of note: Multi-time Olympic gold medal winners Venus Williams and Andy Murray are set to play, as is former world No.1 Kim Clijsters.
Those are the big differences at the US Open this coming fortnight, but even the smallest of details are changed… right down to the linespeople who help officiate matches.
While stadiums Ashe and Armstrong will maintain a full line-up of line umpires, electronic calling will be utilised on the other match courts throughout the tournament, a system known as Hawk-Eye Live, which tracks the ball’s flight path via a system of cameras placed around the court. Hawk-Eye is normally used in tennis as a review system, but this will be its debut as a live-use officiating tool.
Ball people will be limited on outside courts, as well, with players tasked in handling their own sweaty towels.
Plans are in place for positive COVID tests, as well, with players set to be removed from the event if they test positive (and that test is confirmed), with a contact tracing system set up to find out if other individuals came into close contact with said individual.
And while some 400+ players are due to compete, no qualifying event will take place this year to lower the number of people on site, as well as no mixed doubles or junior events. The wheelchair event, however, will roll on, after Paralympic gold medallist and world No.1 Dylan Alcott petitioned the USTA for the wheelchair athletes to be included. That event will take place Sept. 10-13.
Come Monday in New York City, it’s – as the chair umpire says – “Ready? Play.”