This year’s US Open is unquestionably different – without Israelis, fans or in-person coverage
Back in March, September’s US Open tennis event seemed like a pipe dream. Despite no-shows like Rafael Nadal, a recuperating Roger Federer, and such top women’s players as women’s No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, former French Open and reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, No. 5 Elina Svitotolina and current US Open champ Bianca Andreescu, the tournament is taking place as planned – and is entering round 4 with such top players as Novak Djokavic and Serena Williams still alive.
The United States Tennis Association has taken every precaution imaginable to work toward a safe tournament – including no fans, no media, and frequent COVID-19 tests for all players, who are essentially required to live in a bubble. At a press conference before the tournament, Michael Dowse, CEO and executive director of the USTA; Stacey Allaster, USTA chief executive of professional tennis, US Open tournament director; and Dr. Bernard Camins, medical director for infection prevention for the Mt. Sinai Health Systems, member of the USTA Medical Advisory Group, detailed the multi-tiered system in place for players and guests, tournament officials, broadcasters and event staff. The system was set up to limit interactions.
“We have worked through dozens of scenarios so we can anticipate situations that could arise during the tournaments, planned for them accordingly, and are ready and able to adapt,” said Dr. Camins. “We have been in close consultation with the USTA, the WTA, ATP and other tennis officials so that we could create the current version of our testing and mitigation strategy.”
Even with such precautions in place, it was clear from the outset that the system would be imperfect. As the tournament got underway last Monday, seven players were placed in a “bubble within the bubble” because they were in contact with Benoit Paire, a French player who tested positive and was forced to drop out of the tournament. This past Saturday, US Open Public Relations issued a statement on the women’s doubles team of Kristina Mladenovic and Timea Babos, forced to withdraw before their second-round match.
No Israelis qualified for this year’s US Open. In past years, such Israeli players as Andy Ram and Jonathan Erlich, Dudi Sela, Shahar Peer, Julia Glushko and juniors like Yshai Oliel generated a great deal of excitement among loyal Jewish and Israeli fans.
Andy Ram, whose illustrious career included three Grand Slam wins and multiple appearances on behalf of Israel at both the Davis Cup and Olympics, is keeping an eye on the US Open – even six years after retiring from professional tennis. In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, Ram noted that he is especially interested in seeing how the US Open pulls off this event in the age of coronavirus.
“It is such an operation. It is one of the biggest sports events in the world, next to the Olympics,” noted Ram. “It is two weeks and big money. It will be interesting to see how they get back and manage to pull it off and bring all of the players. If they can find a solution, maybe the rest of the sports world will follow. I am really looking forward!”
Julia Glushko, Israel’s recently retired tennis star, played in eight US Opens between 2011 and 2019. At last year’s US Open, she lost 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 in the first round of the qualifiers to Katarina Zavatska. Glushko, 29, admits to having some FOMO – fear of missing out – by not being at this year’s US Open.
“It’s actually a bit weird not being in NYC at this time of the year,” she told the Post. “Even though everything has stopped and I haven’t been feeling like I’m missing out on much, I do feel a bit left out seeing everyone posting about the bubble.”
Players are required to live at one of two Long Island hotels, and they are not permitted to venture out of the bubble into Manhattan. Masks are required while on the grounds of the US Open – even during massage and courtside physio sessions. And dining is essentially alone or socially distanced.
The US Open has been working hard to provide a meaningful player experience. And the players are appreciative.
A very large entertainment space usually used by Mercedes-Benz to host important clients, now houses treadmills and exercise bicycles in an open-air gym-type space. The South Plaza of Arthur Ashe Stadium is a make-shift entertainment center used to entice the athletes to stay outdoors as much as possible. It features cornhole sets, a temporary mini-golf course, a human-size chess board, billiards, white Adirondack chairs, umbrellas and beach balls. Hanging out in the locker room for long periods of time is not an option this year.
Organizers have converted 67 of the 80 suites inside of Arthur Ashe stadium. They feature furniture which can easily be cleaned, stocked refrigerators, Lavazza espresso machines and a physio table to each suite. The top 32 male and female are given luxury suites.
Kim Clijsters, a three-time champion in the main draw of the US Open, was lucky enough to receive one of the three unclaimed suites. The 37-year-old mother of three reported, “The suite has been great. Just the convenience for me, I wasn’t seeded, but to receive a suite was obviously a big bonus. We felt very thankful to be up there and to watch the tennis the last couple of days.”
Players are generally pleased to be here, though quite aware of the obvious contrast to past years.
Andy Murray, who came back from two sets down to win a thrilling first-round match, in his first time at the US Open since 2018, reported: “I’m pumped. It’s obviously slightly strange circumstances this year with no fans and stuff here. That’s one of the things I enjoy about competing.”
Murray does, however, appreciate how easy it is to walk the grounds without being stopped by fans.
“When you’re walking to and from practice, you have to get somewhere for a certain time, it’s nice. You know that there’s no one around, that you’re not going to get stopped. Yeah, it’s very quiet and very relaxed.”
But he conceded that “on the whole, I’d way rather this place was filled with people that are excited to come and watch tennis. Yeah, I miss that.”
Players continue to express their appreciation to the US Open at both media sessions and on social media. On Twitter, Sloane Stephens wrote: “Thank you to the @usopen for keeping us safe in our bubble for the next few weeks. Testing, social distancing, hand sanitizing, masks, and all of that goodness plus some tennis!!”
Kirsten Flipkens tweeted: “Impressed by the organization of the @usta Thumbs up! Have really done a good job to provide a safe environment for players and their teams.”
At the hotels, players can enjoy an outdoor lounge and dining area which have been set up on the hotel parking lot, and they can watch both tennis matches and musicians on a live screen – while not using the golf simulator, fitness center and arcade.
While the players are watching matches from the hotel, from the grounds of the US Open, or from luxury suites, the 1,300 people who usually cover the US Open for newspapers, magazines and networks around the world, are doing so from the comforts of their homes – from Auckland, London, Shanghai, Buenos Aires and New York. They are watching the event on their own television sets, and closely watching their hundred plus WhatsApp messages about players coming to the media center for interviews. We can ask questions in the chat, or on screen. Photos are made available from the few in-house tournament photographers.
While many members of the media spend most of their time each year inside the media center, watching monitors and writing, there is nothing like the excitement of wandering the grounds of the US Open, watching matches courtside, and interviewing players in person. This reporter, who has been covering the US Open courtside and from the media center for the past 15 years, shares Julia Glushko’s FOMO.
This year, there is no opportunity for chance or arranged meetings with Stan Smith, Jimmy Connors, or Chris Evert. There will be no one-on-ones after matches – win or lose – with Shahar, Julia or Dudi. There will be no spotting up-and-coming Israeli juniors. And of course, there is no seeing the true greats – Roger, Rafa or Serena – live, in action.
Despite this minor disappointment, we tip our tennis hats to the US Open for pulling of this absolutely unprecedented event. Praying to be back in Queens a year from now for next year’s US Open!