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Get Ready For The New Normal. Tennis Is Back In New York • Serena Ready • Clijsters Pulls Out • Novak And Andy Are Ready • All Staying In Their Bubbles

 

Tsitsipas, one of the first players to arrive in New York and is happy to be competing again.

By Alix Ramsay

All things considered, it was an inauspicious start to the Western and Southern Open, held this year at the Billie Jean National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows.

Before a ball had been hit in earnest, one of the physios inside the magic, Covid-free bubble had tested positive for the dreaded bug and another two – Guido Pella and Hugo Dellien, the players he works with – were in quarantine.

Oh, well. At least it proves that the Covid protocols are working inasmuch as they can weed out anyone with a germ before they have the chance to spread it. That has to be a positive, as it were.

Andy Murray warming up and ready at the Western & Southern Open.

So, on to the media day on Friday: the big curtain raiser to the proper restarting of the tours. Of course, there have been other women’s events held in the past couple of weeks but they have been smaller affairs. This was the big time; this was your Serenas and your Novaks; your Cocos and your Saschas. This is was what we had been waiting for. This was the beginning of the countdown to the US Open – tennis was back and it was hoping to be back with a bang. As they say, hope springs eternal…

“Can somebody please unmute Stefanos?” It was a polite yet persistent request from the masked moderator as Stefanos Tsitsipas was the first name presented to the world’s press.

As we all Zoomed in from all over the globe, the technology was holding up as best it could (there were 37 of us waiting on tenterhooks) but there was always the risk of human error. Stefanos goldfished to the assembled, yet virtual, throng as the moderator tried again: “Could you unmute him? We can’t hear Stefanos…Stefanos, can you hear me?” Much goldfishing in the affirmative from the world No.6 until, finally, the bloke with the laptop woke up, pressed the right button and there was Stef in perfect stereo. Ah, my Greek friend, welcome to the new normal.

And the new normal, it turns out, is not so very different from the old normal. True enough, the lack of fans milling about the place feels a little odd and the monotony of being either on the practice court or in the hotel room is a little draining but work is work and, Tsitsipas thought, it was good to be back.

“I’m very happy to be back on the court,” he said. “I was very happy when I came here and saw my fellow players. I greeted all of them, had a smile on my face seeing them, being surrounded by them. Honestly, I’m just happy competing again, just happy to be back to my normal happiness.”

That happiness of the happy-chappy is stretched at times, though, and he can see a swing in the balance of power in the coming weeks.

“It is difficult at first,” he said of life in the bubble. “You’re not able to go anywhere except your hotel room. You keep going back and forth from your hotel room and on the site. I think it’s difficult not to be able to mix it up a little bit, go somewhere else, go to a nice restaurant with your team, go explore the city a little bit. That daily routine, that daily repetition makes it difficult.”

Players who do not stay within “The Bubble” will be withdrawn from the tournament.

That does not bode well: the main draw players have only just started their three and a bit weeks in Queens and already Stef is getting cabin fever (alas, as yet there is no known test for that). And he is one of the more sensible lads on the tour. We wait to see how the wilder ones cope with the coming weeks of house arrest with no time off for good behaviour.

Then there is the business of playing big matches with no one watching. For those who have become accustomed to playing in front of thousands of screaming and adoring fans, Tsitsipas reckons the experience might be unsettling. Surprisingly so.

“Without the atmosphere it does look and feel different,” he said. “For me, I haven’t really gone out there and played without spectators. I think last time was when I was 12, 11 years old, a long time ago,

“I think it’s going to be challenging for most players, especially for the top players, who are used to having a big fan base, being surrounding by fans cheering their name, having people that love them when they play.

“I think it’s going to create a more equal space for any player. I think it is going to be challenging. I think it benefits a bit the lower-ranked players.”

Serena Williams is used to being the star of the show in New York but there have been times when that has been her undoing.

Being the crowd favourite in a final is pressure enough but when she is chasing history and that 24th grand slam title, sometimes it can become suffocating. We all remember what happened when she faced Naomi Osaka two years ago. And while there was no mental meltdown last year, the result was the same against Bianca Andreescu. Whatever happens this summer, there will only be the woman on the other side of the net for Serena to worry about.

Clijsters is out of the Western and Southern Open with an abdominal injury.

One of those women will not be Kim Clijsters who, just to make the Western and Southern’s day a little grimmer, pulled out with an abdominal injury as Serena was speaking. They really weren’t having much luck at W&S HQ.

“I hope I’m a fan favourite,” Serena said. “I love playing here. I’m vintage, so, it’s like I don’t have that many years left at some point.

“It would be nice to try to keep winning. I don’t know. I don’t mind not having the fans. I would love if the fans were here, because it’s so special to play with the fans and they really pull me up when I’m down, but at the same time, we need to be safe right now, so let’s not have anyone – when we are all feeling better, we can all come back and we can all have fun.”

Serena Williams the number one seed, hopes to be a fan favorite and winner.

“I didn’t want to be in the hotel because I have lung issues, so I felt like it was actually a big risk for me personally,” she said.

“At my house, I can control more. There is no housekeeping, there is none of that type of stuff. And so, as much as I want to be here, it’s great, but I have genuine health issues that I just really needed to put my mind at rest to even be able to perform in New York.

“I’m OK to not go out. I don’t really go out much anyway. I literally stay home all the time, because it’s kind of hard for me to go out.

“So this is not really new. I mean, I might go to a restaurant every now and then, but especially during the US Open, it’s a hardship to go out because it’s, like, everyone’s eyes are ready for New York and they are ready to see tennis players, so it’s not the best situation for me if I’m trying to stay focused and stay in a zone, so that part hasn’t been a huge adjustment for me.”

Djokovic, on the other hand, was veering more to the ‘I don’t stay in hotels like that anymore’ argument, as he explained to Chris Clarey in an exclusive interview for the New York Times on Thursday (it’s a cracking read). He, too, has settled into his plush pad with his garden and his space to sunbathe and even if he has to stump up for the security watchdogs to monitor his every move, he prefers it that way.

“With the trees and serenity, being in this kind of environment is a blessing,” Djokovic told Clarey. “And I’m grateful, because I’ve seen the hotel where the majority of players are staying. I don’t want to sound arrogant or anything like that, and I know the USTA did their best in order to provide accommodation and organise everything and organise these bubbles so the players can actually compete and come here, but it’s tough for most of the players, not being able to open their window and being in a hotel in a small room.”

The new normal, then, will be a fascinating thing to watch in the coming weeks.

As for being stuck in her hotel room, Serena has sidestepped that issue. She, like Novak Djokovic, has rented a private house on Long Island so she has a little more elbow room than most of her rivals. Her reasons for splashing the cash and opting for this luxury, though, are based purely in self-preservation. She has a history of pulmonary embolisms and that puts her in the ‘high risk’ category should she come anywhere close to the virus.

According to Tsitsipas, it will be a new rule for the rich and a better one for the poor: those who usually have their double faults cheered and their failures applauded when they face a big name in New York  will now be left in peace to focus on their tennis in an empty arena.

According to Serena, it is all about the health and safety issues – “I want to know where people are going. I want to make sure that we are all keeping ourselves in this giant bubble,” she said on Friday – which may just be enough of a distraction to keep her nerves in check should she head towards another final.

Djokovic the world number one and men’s number one seed hopes to win again, this time in New York.

And for Djokovic, it is all about being the world No.1, living like the world No.1 (Covid pandemic or no) and making the most of his first Federer and Nadal-free grand slam.

It’s a funny old world, this new normal.