The main hurdle for holding the US Open in its scheduled time slot beginning Aug. 31 in New York City was cleared Tuesday, as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state is satisfied with the U.S. Tennis Association’s plan to put on the event with strict health and safety protocols to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
“The numbers today look very good,” Cuomo said, referring to the flattening of the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re excited about the US Open being held in [the New York City borough of] Queens. … It will be held without fans, but we can watch it on TV. And I’ll take that.”
Many fans will agree, but significant obstacles still loom as the USTA prepares to present a two-tournament package with the US Open tuneup tournament that usually takes place in mid-August in Cincinnati also being played at the National Tennis Center as a prelude to the Open.
“We are incredibly excited,” USTA CEO and executive director Mike Dowse said in a statement following Cuomo’s announcement. “We recognize the tremendous responsibility of hosting one of the first global sporting events in these challenging times, and we will do so in the safest manner possible, mitigating all potential risks.”
In a tweet, Cuomo wrote that the USTA’s commitment to safety will include “robust testing, additional cleaning, extra locker room space, and dedicated housing & transportation.”
The ATP and WTA also have signed off on the plan, meaning that unlike the spate of exhibition-style events that have popped up around the world since the tours suspended play in mid-March, the US Open likely will offer rankings points as well as prize money. Details concerning those items, as well as specifics of the format, are set to be revealed by the USTA as early as Wednesday.
Standing in the way of a smooth reopening for tennis are a number of unresolved issues, including the trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic in the coming days and weeks, and player commitment — or lack thereof.
“With the recent protests and people being together more closely lately, we’ll have a sense in the next few weeks of how well the virus is controlled,” James Gladstone, the US Davis Cup team doctor, told ESPN. Gladstone is part of the Mount Sinai Hospital team that works with the USTA and US Open; his partner-in-practice, Dr. Alexis Colvin, is the USTA’s chief medical officer. “If lots of people don’t get sick, then we may be over the hump. But another outbreak, and we’re all in trouble.”
Gladstone was in Hawaii with the US Davis Cup team until March 9, returning just days before the pandemic hit New York full force and triggered a lockdown.
“We learned the past few months: We don’t have a good grip on the virus, there’s no treatment or cure. But we also found out that we do have a much better sense of how to protect ourselves, and people,” Gladstone said. “So we can control it if necessary precautions are taken.”
However, a growing number of top players from Europe — and more than half the men in the ATP Top 100 are from there — have expressed reservations about traveling to the U.S. to play the combined event. Those who choose to compete will face frequent testing, and strict limits on their activities and daily movement. There also will be a limit on whom each player may bring to the event, currently projected as a single individual. That will force players to choose among bringing a coach, a spouse or a physio to Gotham for four or more weeks.
Patrick Mouratoglou, coach of Serena Williams, has said Williams would almost certainly play the US Open if she were not mandated to be apart from her 3-year-old daughter. But WTA No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and No. 2 Simona Halep, the defending Wimbledon champion, have expressed reservations about playing without fans and under laboratory-like conditions.
Novak Djokovic, the top men’s player and president of the ATP Player Council, has called the proposed restrictions “extreme” and rebelled against the idea that he would be prohibited from bringing his entire entourage.
As if to underscore his complaints, Djokovic organized and took part last weekend in a virtually unrestricted exhibition in Belgrade, Serbia. His supporting cast included ATP No. 3 Dominic Thiem and No. 7 Alexander Zverev. A full house of fans sat elbow-to-elbow, few wearing masks, while the competitors high-fived and hugged with abandon. Chastised for being reckless, Djokovic defended his event on the grounds that the Serbian government had recently lifted the restrictions associated with COVID-19.
Rafael Nadal, ranked No. 2, has questioned, on humanitarian grounds, whether tennis should try to restart while the pandemic rages in parts of the world. He also said he abhors the idea of playing without fans, telling Eurosport: “Tennis and sport without the fans loses every single thing.”
In addition, Roger Federer recently declared that he’s finished for 2020, following complications that arose from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the rank-and-file pros seem eager to resume competition, and some of them have been critical of the stars for being insensitive to the larger needs of their less gifted peers. Great Britain’s Daniel Evans and Danielle Collins of the U.S. have been among those calling out Djokovic for his attitude.
“This is a serious contradiction,” Collins, a 2019 Australian Open semifinalist, wrote on Instagram. “This is a massive opportunity for players to start making money again, and here we have the top player in the world saying only being able to bring one person with [him] will be too difficult.”
The top players, especially those from outside the U.S., find themselves in a quandary. If the tournament goes on, declining to participate in the reopening of tennis will leave them open to accusations that they were selfish no-shows while their less fabled peers mounted a show of resilience and strength in the face of the pandemic.
There is one other major impediment to staging a robust, star-laden US Open — a French Open that was postponed in May and is now scheduled to begin Sept. 20, a scant seven days after the final day of the US Open.
Nadal, whose 19 Grand Slam titles are just one title off the men’s record held by Federer, has won the French Open a record 12 times. He’s also 34 years old. Djokovic, not far behind with 17 major titles, is 33. While Nadal’s extraordinary record at the French Open has kept Djokovic at bay, the Serbian star is more than proficient on the red dirt. Will they be willing to assume all the risks associated with playing in New York and then attempt, almost overnight, to adapt to clay and find fresh legs?
The Cincinnati/US Open combined event might not even be the first official tournament to take place. The tours are suspended until at least the end of July, with the Citi Open, a combined WTA/ATP event in Washington, D.C., penciled in as the tournament that jump-starts the tours. But it is uncertain that the Citi Open will win the blessing of D.C. health officials, at least for its projected Aug. 2 start date.
Sources familiar with the situation have said the Citi Open might be pushed back a week. It could start Aug. 10, the time slot allotted to the soon-to-be-canceled ATP Masters event in Toronto. Or Washington could be pushed back another week, to take the calendar slot left open by Cincinnati.
Even that doesn’t guarantee the event will get the blessing of D.C. officials, or the support of players who might be targeting the two-tournament event in New York — not when taking into account the current 14-day quarantine for players arriving in New York from foreign shores. Tennis officials are hoping that the quarantine rules will be lifted as soon as early July.
So why the big rush to reopen tennis in New York?
Part of it is economics. Unlike Wimbledon, the US Open had no insurance to protect itself in the event of a pandemic. Should the event not take place, the organization could lose the revenue promised in contracts with sponsors and broadcasters, including ESPN.
However, the USTA also wants to make the tournament happen in order to affirm its leadership in the game. The first major events to rebound from the pandemic in any sport will earn renown, and they will be entitled to claim credit for offering hope and entertainment to a world still reeling from the pandemic.
“We now can give fans around the world the chance to watch tennis’ top athletes compete for a US Open title, and we can showcase tennis as the ideal social distancing sport,” Dowse said in the statement. “Being able to hold these events in 2020 is a boost for the City of New York and the entire tennis landscape.”
Gladstone said the US Open could be uplifting for anyone who has missed the mileposts of normalcy.
“Is it important to hold the US Open?” Gladstone said. “As a life-and-death matter, no. But from a societal and morale point of view, it could be an awfully good thing.”