Tennis: US Open likely to go ahead without fans amid Covid-19 pandemic

The USTA is said to be waiting for a green light from local and state health officials. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYT) - Despite major challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) is set to announce this week that it will hold the 2020 US Open with the support of the men's and women's tours.

The tournament is expected to run as originally scheduled from Aug 31 to Sept 13, but without spectators, at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre, according to four tennis officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans had not been announced and formal government approval had yet to be secured.

Even if the tournament is confirmed this week, more than two months will remain before it begins, and outside forces, including the path of the virus and global travel restrictions, may still scuttle the USTA's plans. The field may also be thinner than usual, with athletes making individual decisions about whether to compete.

Still, after lengthy meetings and negotiations with tennis's other governing bodies, the USTA intends to proceed with the US Open in its traditional late-summer dates with the support of its primary sponsors and ESPN, which is paying more than US$70 million (S$97.5 million) annually in rights fees to the organisation mainly to televise the tournament.

In a normal year, the US Open would be the fourth and final Grand Slam tournament. But the men's and women's tours have been shut down since March because of the public health crisis. The start of the French Open, normally the second Grand Slam tournament of the year, has been postponed until late September. Wimbledon, the oldest of the major tournaments, was cancelled for the first time since 1945.

"Our team has literally worked around the clock to figure out a way we can have the US Open and do it in a safe way," Patrick Galbraith, the president of the USTA, said in a conference call with more than 400 men's players and coaches last Wednesday (June 10).

There has been considerable resistance from international players to the centralised US Open plan.

Players will be subject to frequent coronavirus testing. With few exceptions, they will be lodged together at a hotel outside Manhattan, and some restrictions are expected to be placed on their movement to protect their health. Even without spectators, social distancing is critical to the plan in the event of a player or staff member contracting the virus.

"Without having close social contact, we feel if one player gets it, it's not going to spread," Galbraith said in the conference call. "Our infectious disease specialists are confident on that. They are going to be pulled out of the environment, but you have to have close contact to get this."

To reduce the number of people at the National Tennis Centre, the USTA also plans to reduce the amount of support staff that players may bring to New York to as few as one team member. That would represent quite a change for the game's biggest stars, who typically travel with large entourages including family.

The men's No. 1, Novak Djokovic, who is from Serbia and based in Monaco, has criticised the restrictions as "extreme." As if to underscore the point, he organised a series of exhibition tournaments this month in the Balkans that began with an event last week in Belgrade, Serbia's capital, with fans in the stands, ball kids on the court and players hugging and high-fiving.

The women's No. 1, Ashleigh Barty, who is from Australia, has also expressed uncertainty about committing to play in the Open. So has Simona Halep, the women's No. 2, who is from Romania.

"Not only because we're in the middle of a global pandemic," Halep said. "But also because of the risk of travel, potential quarantine and then the changes around the tournament."

Once the center of the coronavirus, New York has had a steady decrease in new cases and in deaths.

"The situation is steadily improving," Eric Butorac, the USTA's director of player relations, said during Wednesday's conference call. "I want to make people understand New York has taken this incredibly seriously." Butorac also said that by the time of the Open, the USTA did not expect players to have to isolate themselves upon arrival in the United States before playing. "The idea of a 14-day quarantine is not something you need to be concerned about," he said.

Last week's call was often contentious, with one former US Open singles champion, Marin Cilic of Croatia, even clamouring for more prize money given the conditions players would face travelling to the tournament.

But the ATP board of directors, which governs the men's tour, ultimately supported the USTA's decision to go forward, according to an ATP official familiar with the board's decision.

The USTA does not require approval from the men's and women's tours to hold the US Open, but did prefer to secure it before proceeding.

The plan still includes moving the Western & Southern Open, a combined men's and women's tour event scheduled earlier in August, to the National Tennis Centre from Mason, Ohio, to create a tennis doubleheader. The Citi Open, a combined men's and women's event in Washington, could still be the comeback event for the tours earlier in the month.

The US Open singles qualifying tournaments are not expected to be played. That would reduce the number of people at the tournament site and the official hotel. But the USTA, which has committed to roughly US$52 million in prize money, is providing more than US$2 million apiece to the men's and women's tours to compensate lower-ranked players affected by the absence of qualifying.

The reluctance of some stars to commit and the absence of qualifying have led some players to argue that in the interest of fairness, the Open should offer reduced ranking points this year or even no ranking points.

The USTA has rejected that idea because it could compromise its existing contracts by turning the event into an exhibition.

In mid-April the USTA said its decision on whether to hold the Grand Slam this year will be made in June, and playing it without fans is on the table but highly unlikely.

The US Open is held annually in New York City, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre was even turned into temporary hospital to help in the battle against the virus.

Last year's edition drew an all-time attendance record of nearly 740,000 fans and the event is the engine that drives the governing USTA.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.