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2020 U.S. Open Tennis Is Closed • Serena Williams Is Getting Ready

By Alix Ramsay

It was the announcement that everyone had been expecting for days: the USTA will hold their grand slam in New York at the end of August. With the blessing of the state and all necessary health authorities, it is full steam ahead for tennis in Flushing Meadows.

But it won’t be the US Open. At best it might be the “US Watered Down But, Hey, If It Makes The USTA A Few Bucks, That’s All That Matters”.

Everyone wants to see tennis back up and running, but they want it to be safe and they want it to be fair.

Holding a major international event in the one of the cities worst hit by Covid-19 does not sound particularly safe. Holding it in Flushing, Queens, where 31 per cent of those tested returned positive results for the virus, one of the highest rates of infection in the whole city, sounds insane.

In effect, it will be the US Open Closed. Oh, sure, the tournament will still go ahead but it will be with no qualifiers, limited doubles, no mixed doubles, a sprinkling of line judges (on the two main courts only), some “ballpersons” and absolutely no fans.

The US Open will be closed to spectators.

The USTA revealed all of this to the world on Wednesday. After busting a gut for the best part of three months, they had come up with a formula to hold a Covid-free (they hope) tournament starting on August 31. It will be preceded by the Western and Southern Open – the mixed Masters 1000 and Premier 5 event normally held in Cincinnati – which has been transplanted to New York for ease of operation.

Oh, and no media, either. Broadcasters are allowed (they pay cash money for the privilege); annoying journalists who ask awkward questions when things go wrong are not invited. There is talk of a “virtual” media room. That doesn’t sound good: “Jim – put the bald bloke with the glasses on mute; he keeps asking about testing.”

The Western and Southern Open, which will start on August 22, is allowed to have qualifying tournaments and will have increased doubles draws (32 teams for both men and women, up from 28). That is not seen as viable for the US Open which will have 120 direct entries to the men’s and women’s singles plus eight wild cards and doubles draws of 32 teams, down from 64. And that’s pretty much it.

As the USTA was announcing this, the WTA, ATP and ITF were busy making their own announcements about the restarting of their tennis circuits. Inboxes were filling by the second.

The WTA is planning to hold 20 tournaments in the remainder of the season, starting with Palermo on August 3. The ATP will start a week later with Washington on August 14 with seven other events planned, subject to change. The ITF are still finalising their calendar but they are hoping that around 80 per cent of their events scheduled for August and September will now go ahead.

And just in case there was not enough news and upstaging around, Serena Williams announced her intention to play in New York. That was part of the US Open press conference but it did hog the limelight somewhat.

Serena Williams announced her intention to play in this year’s IS Open.

Clearly that whole idea of coordinating and combining of the major powers in tennis, the one mooted at the beginning of lockdown, never got off the ground. Hey-ho.

Serena, it turns out, has had a new tennis court built in her back garden and she has had it laid with the same surface as used at the US Open. Not a similar one but the actual surface. She had slabs of the stuff shipped to her house and the builders did the rest. All of which is fine: she can afford it; she will leave no tiny detail unattended as she chases down that 24th grand slam title. Good on her. But quite why that information was part of a press conference about holding a major event in the middle of a pandemic is any one’s guess. Unless, of course, the USTA wanted to play down some of the objections to their event posed by other multi-slam winning players.

The rules for the players are strict – but not as strict as they could have been. Novak Djokovic took a pasting on social media for complaining that he could not compete if he was only allowed to take one member of his team with him to the Open. Now, it seems, he is allowed to take three. Or maybe as many as he likes.

From “one player, one team member”, the USTA will now allow those who can afford it to rent houses for themselves and their entourages.

As Stacey Allaster, the new tournament director, explained: “If they want to invest in a private home, we have a realtor who will be available to them.

“These will be residential homes in non-dense locations outside of Manhattan. That, then, would be an option within their own home, their own bubble group, for them to bring their entourages and family members.

“When they come in then to the US Open world, they will be tested, along with those entourage members who will be coming on-site to support them, whether it be coach, physio. They, too, will go through the same testing as all players.”

Players will be staying at the TWA Hotel at JFK airport and shuttled to the Open.

Those players with smaller bank accounts will be allowed two hotel rooms: one provided by the USTA and one paid for by the player. This is planned to be at the TWA Hotel at JFK. Said hotel, at the moment, offers little by way of food and drink (thanks to lockdown restrictions) but the USTA assures us that there will be more on offer when the players get there.

The players must make their own way to the United States and have been promised that they should have no trouble entering the country (the US still has severe Covid restrictions on most foreign travellers crossing their borders).

Once they get to the hotel, the players will be tested for the virus and will then be enclosed in the US Open bio-bubble. They will be transported to and from the venue; they will not be allowed to go into Manhattan and they will be stuck in their bubble until it is time to go home.

The method of policing this policy seems to be: “they don’t want to get Covid-19”. Which is fine unless you have a young lad or ladette who thinks: “I’ve just beaten a big name – let’s go out for a drink!” Which is not beyond the realms of possibility – and is not a sin against humanity if you have just won your first major multi-thousand pay cheque (and bars are open in NYC). But it is a risk to the Open.

That bubble does not sound at all sound safe. The UK (population 66 million) has one of the highest death tolls from Covid-19 at 42,153. This is not to begin a debate on how the UK government – or any other nation’s government – has handled the crisis; this is just simple mathematics. New York City (population 8.4 million) has a death toll of 17,455. New York has a death toll around 5/12ths (so a bit under a half) of that of the UK and yet has a population of around 1/8th the population. That is not a good stat. And around JFK Airport, the infection figures are even higher than they are in Flushing. That does not sound like a safety feature for the tournament.

Will all the hotel staff be tested regularly throughout the tournament? Will the hotel staff be allowed to go home once their shift has ended (so increasing the risk of letting the virus into the bubble)? How about the drivers? How about everyone on site, from the cleaners to the security staff. How many times will they be tested?

What about the player who contracts the virus on their way to the US, tests negative on arrival (as many would before the symptoms start) and then heads out to the courts to practice, eat, use the gym, get treatment, meet their friends and rivals? The bubble cannot be secure unless there is absolutely no contact with the outside world.

Players will be tested upon arrival and weekly thereafter.

According to Dr Brian Hainline, the USTA’s medical voice at Wednesday’s presser, testing will be limited. “The minimum that everyone will be tested is upon arrival and once weekly thereafter,” he said.

Just by way of contrast, Jamie Murray is undergoing daily tests (and check out his footage on social media – those tests are horrible) ahead of the Battle of the Brits at Queen’s Club next week. It has an eight-man singles field and six-team doubles field and it’s being held behind closed doors. But they are leaving nothing to chance.

No one is forcing the players to go to New York; it is for each individual to decide whether to play or not. But if the tournament reaches a conclusion – and there are contingency plans, including compensation for travel costs, if it is cancelled once the players are in the US – it cannot be regarded as a proper grand slam.

US Open Championship Singles Trophies.

The two singles champions will have every right to claim that they have won seven matches and, therefore, have won their grand slam title – no one can or should take that away from them – but history will look at this venture as little more than a ripple in the records; the slam that wasn’t a slam. And that is not fair on either champion.