US Open to go ahead, but with no qualifiers, mixed doubles or fans

Cincinnati Masters transfers to Flushing Meadows in week before US Open; Rogers Cup postponed to 2021; Madrid and Rome to prelude French Open in September

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

Proposals to play this year’s US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows have been approved by New York governor, Andrew Cuomo. That means that the second Major of 2020 will begin as scheduled on 31 August.

In addition, the Western and Southern Open, usually played in Cincinnati in the week beginning 17 August, will be played immediately before the US Open at the same venue, and will include qualifying rounds on 20-21 August. Main draws for ATP and WTA players are slated to start on 22 August.

But this will be a US Open like no other, as extensive and stringent changes will be introduced to take account of the COVID-19 pandemic. And with the USA still managing high infection rates, it is little wonder that there remain doubts about which players will venture into New York.

Since the coronavirus ripped its way from China across each continent, some of the hardest hit countries—many in Europe—have started to flatten the infection curve to such an extent that lockdowns are gradually being lifted.

So for the thousands whose livelihoods are entirely dependent on tennis, any sign of a return of the professional tour will be a huge relief. The tennis calendar has been on hold since March, when Indian Wells and Miami were cancelled, and not a single tour event has yet been played, though some regional exhibition-format matches have begun to spring up that have, by and large, been played with no spectators.

And the suspension of the tour will continue until the beginning of August, wiping out the entire grass season in the process, including Wimbledon for the first time since World War Two.

However, while the whole clay-court spring/summer season was also postponed, along with the handful of smaller clay events in July, the French Open made a unilateral decision to move from May to late September, and will begin with a full qualifying draw on 21 September, just a week after the conclusion of the US Open.

In between the two Majors, the postponed Madrid and Rome Opens have also been repositioned to ensure some vital clay preparation for those intending to transition between the hard-court Major in New York and the clay-court Major at Roland Garros.

Indeed, it will be on clay and in Europe that the tennis tour first emerges from lockdown this summer. With confirmation that the hard-court Rogers Cup in both Montreal and Toronto have been abandoned, the Palermo Ladies Open in Sicily has been slotted into the first week of the revised women’s calendar, on 3 August.

With the men’s tour starting up again on 17 August, a clutch of smaller hard-court events such as the ATP’s Winston Salem have also been abandoned, leaving the Citi Open in Washington as the first tournament in over five months.

So players outside the USA will be starting to weigh up whether, and how soon, they will head to North America, or if they should instead stick with clay-court training, ready to throw themselves into the packed pre-Paris Europe schedule.

It is worth adding that while New York was the first epicentre of the infection in the States, it has also been the first to see dropping levels of infection and fatalities. Nevertheless, even this far ahead of the start date, the USTA is rightly imposing significant restrictions on its schedule, on players and their teams, and around the grounds.

The US Open scenario

The Cincinnati tournament will be a revealing tester for the main event, comprising as it does men’s and women’s singles draws of just 56, an expanded qualifying draw of 48, and a generous doubles draw of 32.

Should that run smoothly, things are scaled up for the US Open itself with its 128-player draws, but there are serious casualties along the way.

In order to limit the numbers at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, there will be no qualifying draws—and each of those usually comprises 128 men and women playing three rounds to earn one of 16 spots in each of the main draws. Instead, there will be 120 direct-entry players to each singles draw plus eight wild cards.

The doubles draws will be reduced from 64 pairs to 32 for both men and women, with three or four wild cards, and the mixed doubles draw—another 32 pairs—is abandoned entirely.

And for the players who do take part, they will live and compete in very different circumstances. But for all the uncertainties surrounding which players will take part, the newly-appointed Tournament Director, Stacey Allaster, expressed confidence when asked in a video press conference about whether the conditions would satisfy the marquee names:

“We are going to have incredible star power at the Western and Southern. We have 59 days until the opening of the hotel, and while some will make their own decisions, we are confident we have a lot of players who want to compete.”

The Safety Plan, issued yesterday, certainly puts the players at the heart of things:

“Players are our biggest priority and we plan to offer them a first-class experience. Given that there will be no fans on site, there will be an abundance of space that will be used for player dining, player lounges (indoor and outdoor), training and recovery space in order to keep with social distancing protocols.”

The Center at Flushing will be open from 16 August—that is, four days before qualifying for the Cincinnati tournament. And Allaster confirmed that each player will be allocated two rooms at, for example, the vast new hotel TWA hotel at JFK airport. And although the second room would be at their own expense—meaning a player could accommodate three additional people—that marks a significant move.

For one of the ‘sticking points’ raised by No1 Novak Djokovic was the suggestion that each player may only bring one guest to the tournament. Another option is that players who can afford to do so may rent a private home, but in either case, they will be asked to stay away from Manhattan.

Another major concern for players and organisers alike has been how to overcome border closures and possible quarantines, but a key sentence in the Plan assures:

“We have received assurances from the Federal governments that you and your team will have no issues interesting the country.”

So what can players and their teams expect?

Testing

· Everyone will be tested before they travel to the USA, and then will be tested on arrival at the hotel. The tournament anticipates 1-2 tests per week, perhaps more in the first days for those who have travelled from outside the US, plus daily temperature checks and symptom questionnaires. If a player tests positive or shows symptoms, he/she will be isolated.

· Everyone at the venue will be expected to wear a face mask, unless playing, practising or working out.

Social distancing

· Official shuttles between hotel and the Center will operate at 25-50 percent capacity, and will be cleaned between trips. There will be extensive food outlets all day on site and at the hotel, and meals can be pre-ordered via a mobile app and delivered throughout the site.

· Locker rooms, fitness centres and showers will operate social distancing and enhanced cleaning. And with no spectators, the suites inside the Arthur Ashe stadium can be converted to private lounge areas for top-32 seeds.

· Social distancing guidelines will be followed in all common areas of the Center and hotel, both of which will have designated entrances and exits.

· There will be no on-site media. Instead new arrangements for remote reporting will be incorporated into a new media plan.

· There will be line-judges on the Ashe and Armstrong courts but all other courts will use Hawkeye Live to reduce the number of officials on site. As for ball kids, they will all be adults this year, with six each on Ashe and Armstrong and just three on each of the other courts.

The finances

Without the ticket revenue from around the usual 850,000 attendees, the bulk of earnings will come from sponsors and broadcasting rights. Even so, the tournament will make available $60 million (£48 million) for prize money for the two tournaments, with approximately $3.3 million of the purse distributed to each of the ATP and WTA tours.

The aim is to help compensate those players unable to compete due to this year’s restrictions, and this may be via extra Challenger events or direct grants, as decided by the tours.

Comes down to… priorities

There is no doubt that the USTA has worked hard to put together a tournament that should be safe, comfortable and efficient for all players and their teams.

The big question remains: will the top-ranked players feel sufficiently prepared and fit, after such a long lay-off, to hit the hard courts in such an intense fashion? Or will they bide their time on the clay courts to prepare for back-to-back tournaments in Europe in September. And if they head to the USA, will their return to Europe and clay involve quarantines?

It is worth pointing out that defending champion Rafael Nadal is also defending champion at Roland Garros, and at the age of 34, will he really want to commit to such a full-on schedule in the US and then Europe through a solid two months?

No1 Djokovic has put together a clay tour in Belgrade with plans to move through adjacent countries in the coming weeks. With Roger Federer absent with injury for the rest of 2021, there is certainly room for a new name to make hay in New York, but then all but one of the top 12 men are Europe based.

On the women’s side, perhaps things can be rather more optimistic, with four Americans in the top 20, and the biggest attraction of all, Serena Williams, already lending her support to the tournament via a video link:

“I really cannot wait to return to New York… It’s been over six months since a lot of us played pro tennis. Don’t get me wrong, we’ll miss the crowds, but I’m excited.”

In the end, it may not be the players at all who decide whether they play one or both Majors in September. Covid-19 is bigger than any of them, and may yet have the final say.

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