“The US Open is open.”
That was the final sentence said at today’s press conference announcing that the US Open will indeed be held on its scheduled dates of August 24 – September 13, 2020. In addition, today saw both the ATP, WTA, and ITF announce a revised schedule of their events, including Roland Garros (French Open) later this year. The news-filled day showcased that many in professional tennis are trying to salvage the 2020 season, even if not everyone agrees on how it should be done, or even if it should be done at all.
Pro tennis tournaments, like other in-person events this year, were cancelled due to the current pandemic. The reality is that the COVID-19 pandemic is not cancelled and is still ongoing. But with encouraging signs of lower numbers of cases, and with the approval of the New York State government, the USTA announced that both the US Open and the Western & Southern Open (normally held in Cincinnati) will take place at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
The US Open will, of course, be very different this year. No fans on site. No media (except TV). Players will be limited in the number of additional entourage they can bring (unless, of course, they are housed in private quarters somewhere). Matches on the outer courts will rely mainly on electronic line calling. The full list of all the changes can be found here.
The big question that everyone is asking though is “How many of the big stars will actually play?” Serena Williams, in a pre-recorded segment during the press conference, confirmed her participation. Serena, who is still chasing after a record 24th major title, and her willingness to play in New York, is likely a huge reason why the USTA, ESPN and the other TV networks, decided to give this a go in the end.
With Roger Federer shutting down his season earlier this year due to undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, it still remains a question if Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal will play New York. Both men have their own Grand Slam quests, but Djokovic particularly has been critical of any tournament’s attempt to mandate specific safety measures (like vaccinations) for players. Djokovic’s recent Adria Tour exhibition events held in Serbia raised eyebrows at the scenes of packed crowds sitting shoulder to shoulder in the stands.
Nick Kyrgios, the always provocative Australian, had this to say about traveling to the U.S. just to play the event.
Simona Halep has gone on record saying that she likely will not play in events either in the U.S. or in Asia. Current World No. 1 Ash Barty has also expressed reservations about playing in the U.S.
The pandemic continues to expose the major differences and rifts between people in the globe, particularly on a socioeconomic level. Tennis is no different, with the basic argument again is that the “haves” have more options than the “have nots”, when it comes to competing at the pro level.
This year’s US Open will include 120 direct entrants into the singles draw, eight wildcards, but no qualifying. The event will also have a limited doubles draw, but no mixed doubles, juniors, or wheelchair events. Though a compensation fund will be set up to help support some players due to the limited doubles draw and no qualifying, not everyone is pleased or feels it’s the best solution for all.
Gaby Dabrowski, a top doubles player from Canada, posted on Twitter this candid response to the US Open moving forward.
Dylan Alcott, a top wheelchair player from Australia, was more blunt in his assessment of the decision.
The very different US Open, especially without fans in the stands, might in some ways be an advantage for those lower ranked players who are used to playing on smaller courts in front of a few people. What will it be like to play a real match, not a practice match, inside the cavernous Arthur Ashe stadium with no people except a few sitting in each player’s box? If many of the big names, and those in the top 20, decide to sit out, it could present an even bigger opportunity for those lower ranked players to have a stellar US Open run.
If a majority of the big names on both the men’s and women’s tours decide not to play in New York, there’s concern that this year’s US Open will have an asterisk around the whole thing. That ultimately, despite the best intentions of “the show must go on”, that it won’t count in the history books. Tennis majors have dealt with this sort of thing before, but without a global pandemic of course.
During the 1970’s, when the emerging pro ATP men’s tour clashed with the ruling bodies of the Grand Slams, many players did not play the majors. In 1974, the French Open banned Jimmy Connors and Evonne Goolagong from playing there since they both signed contracts with the World Team Tennis league, thus denying Connors and Goolagong, who had earlier won the Australian Open, a chance to win the calendar Grand Slam. A similar thing happened in 1977 when Bjorn Borg, who also signed with World Team Tennis that year, could not play. Guillermo Vilas ended up winning the title.
And then there’s the Australian Open. Margaret Court may hold the record number of Grand Slams title for a woman at 24. But she won 11 Australian Opens at a time when the event was mostly filled with local players. The Australian Open, especially in the 1970’s and up to mid 1980’s was also held at the end of the calendar year when many players chose not to fly all the way to Australia during the holidays, thus allowing for a more open field, and thus led to some unexpected winners, especially on the men’s side.
The point here is that Grand Slams have had incomplete player fields before, but, that still doesn’t mean that winning the title that year doesn’t count as winning a major.
The USTA was not going to please everyone with their decision on how to host this year’s US Open. Mike Dowse, USTA Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director, said in a Tennis Channel interview that the guiding principal behind today’s decision came down to “BIT”, or “Best Interest of Tennis”. One has to give credit to the USTA for making the decision to move forward, but one also has to be aware that not everyone, especially some players with less star power, would have their interests recognized in this decision.
There’s a lot to be figured out between now and the end of August, and a lot could also happen before then, especially with the pandemic. We’ll just have to wait and see what takes place, but, as the press conference this morning concluded “The US Open is open.”