Never before has the fate of a tennis tournament been so debated and dissected. While the French Open quickly moved its date to late September and Indian Wells, Miami and Wimbledon were canceled, the US Open has taken its time. As New York became a hotspot for the pandemic and massive protests for racial justice were less explosive, the Open pondered its fate.
Amid unprecedented, often mind-boggling developments, USTA officials have maintained a certain passionate, almost warrior-like desire to stage the event. And they have had unwavering clarity. Three considerations were in play: everyone’s health, the good of the game and money.
While the USTA implemented stunning cutbacks and huge layoffs, in which 130 people lost their jobs, it was clear they really wanted to have an Open.
Playing it in Florida at the USTA’s National Campus was briefly seen as a option. A more appealing alternative was staging the Open in the Slam-ready Indian Wells in November. The idea struck a chord – but not for long. Tournament owner Larry Ellison was wary about hosting tennis in a world without a COVID-19 vaccine.
Then the USTA’s focus returned to having the Open as originally scheduled in New York. Okay, Roger Federer, announced he wouldn’t play until 2021, and defending champion Rafa Nadal voiced doubts on even having a 2020 season. As for the US Open, earlier this week he said, “It’s not an ideal situation…If you ask me if I want to travel today to New York…I will say no, I will not. In a couple of months…hopefully, it’s going to improve.”
Still there were optimists who noted that the Billie Jean King Tennis Center was no longer being used as a medical site, COVID-19 in New York was curving down and the most intense protests were receding.
The USTA spelled out strong protocols for a safe tournament. In some ways this Open would be closed and played in a bubble. There would be no fans, no qualifying tourney, no group locker rooms, no kid ball persons and no “Your-wish-my-lord-is-my-command” entourages. The doubles draw would be smaller and players from Europe would fly in on charters and get special treatment from authorities. But they would have to quarantine in less than glamorous airport hotels and be tested frequently and quarantine again when they return to Europe.
This would be in marked contrast to an exhibition Novak Djokovic hosted this weekend in Serbia. The small event drew a tightly-packed crowd with few masks who came to see Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov and Jelena Jankovic.
Djokovic, who said he would be reluctant to get a COVID-19 vaccine, even if one is created, is often incredibly conscious of health issues. But he asserted, “You can criticize us and say this is maybe dangerous. But it’s not up to me to make the calls about what is right or wrong for health. We are doing what the Serbian government is telling us. Hopefully, we soon will get back on tour collectively. Of course, lives have been lost and that’s horrible to see, in the region and worldwide. But life goes on, and we as athletes are looking forward to competing.”
But probably not in New York. He bristled at the USTA’s guidelines for a COVID-sensitive Open. He said, “The rules they told us we would have to respect…to play at all – they are extreme. We would not have access to Manhattan, we would have to sleep in hotels at the airport, to be tested twice or three times per week. Also, we could bring [only] one person to the club, which is really impossible.”
Danielle Collins had other views. The American, ranked No. 51, wrote Djokovic, “It’s easy when someone’s made $150 million throughout their career to try and tell people what to do with their money, and then turn down playing in the US Open. For those of us (most tennis players) who don’t travel with an entourage, we actually need to start working again. It would be nice to have the best player in the world supporting this opportunity and not spoiling it for the players and the fans!”
Still, skepticism about the Open was commonplace. The rarely reticent Nick Kyrgios tweeted, “The ATP is trying to make the US Open go ahead. Selfish with everything going on at the moment. Obviously COVID, but also with the riots, together we need to overcome these challenges before tennis returns.”
On a group call of European players reportedly there was little enthusiasm for “traveling to New York and being locked up for a month.”
On a USTA sponsored video conference with 400 participants that lasted for over three hours, Marin Cilic said players should get more compensation. USTA president Patrick Galbraith was not pleased. He noted the efforts the USTA was making to provide tennis to players and fans.
In Serbia, No. 3 ATP player Dominic Thiem said, “Some circumstances would have to change to go there.” He added that it would be tough to choose whether to bring a coach or a physiotherapist. WTA No. 1 Ash Barty felt things were going in the right direction, but said safety came first and she was reluctant to travel with her team from Australia.
No 2. Simona Halep was more doubtful. She told the New York Times that she’s concerned about the livelihood of players, but added, “We should do what’s best for our personal health and also think long term…I have strong concerns about going there…not only because we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. But also because of the risk of travel, potential quarantine, and the changes around the tournament.”
All the while questions lurk. Will more C0VID-19 or political surges change the landscape? Despite the many precautions, would the Open still be safe? Would just having an Open amidst so many mighty obstacles be a huge boost to a reeling sport, in America and around the world? What will the impact be of staging a tourney without the game’s Big Three? Will fans put an asterisk by the results? Could this be an opening for a Next Gen player, or goodness, even an American man to win? Will eager but Slamless young Euros like Thiem, Zverev and Tsitsipas resist the temptation of winning their first major? What about Serena and Venus? How will the status of college football, that is key to ESPN, impact the Open? What will be the atmosphere of a “ghost tourney” without fans? And what about the media?
For now, one thing is crystal clear. In a sport known for its decades-long routine, we have never seen such pre-tourney theater. This week the USTA (or perhaps even new Tournament Director Stacey Allaster herself) will probably reveal their momentous decision, and the tours will announce updated schedules.
One very bright version of the calendar would have play start August 10 with the Washington DC tourney. Then there would be the qualifying for the Western and Southern Open and the Western and Southern itself. Both would be played in New York, not Cincinnati. Then there would come the US Open, Madrid, Rome and the French Open. In the meantime, the quip of one observer rings true: “This is big drama about the Big Apple. And it’s only June.”