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A US Open in the times of covid-19

The US Open begins on 31 August. With many big names missing from action, be prepared for surprises and big upsets

US Open begins 31 August
US Open begins 31 August

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can." This quote by Arthur Ashe adorns the US Open’s centre court, named after him. This year, with the Grand Slam about to begin, that quote has acquired deeper resonance.

While the players have been in a bio-secure bubble in New York for the double-header—The Western & Southern Open, moved from Cincinnati in June, and the US Open—they are still wrapping their heads around the new reality of a multitude of protocols, put in place to protect them from the novel coronavirus.

There is an equal measure of excitement and anxiety as players prepare for the US Open, which begins on 31 August. The first Grand Slam since global lockdowns were put in place in March, it will be played behind closed doors.

“It’s positive that we are here," said World No.1 Novak Djokovic during an online press conference. “We are one of the few global sports that had not found a way to keep going. But it is understandable. Especially when you see things from a perspective of our sport being played worldwide, week after week, with every country and every continent going through different sort of restrictions and different regulations."

With the covid-19 pandemic forcing a suspension of tours for five months, almost all the players arrived in New York “cold".

“We kind of don’t know what to expect, because it’s not usual that there are 150 players that didn’t play a match for so long," said Daniil Medvedev, who reached the US Open final last year. The 24-year-old Russian believes that as a result, “we are going to almost 100% see some unbelievable results."

In addition, the field is wide open owing to a number of high-profile withdrawals. For the first time since 1999, neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal will feature in a Grand Slam draw. While defending champion Nadal withdrew owing to the pandemic, Federer is recovering from two knee surgeries and won’t play for the rest of the 2020 season. Since 2004, Federer and Nadal have won the US Open nine times between them.

Stan Wawrinka , the 2016 US Open champion, too has pulled out owing to health and safety concerns. That leaves only three of the active Grand Slam champions—Djokovic, Andy Murray and Marin Čilić—in the men’s draw.

It is possibly the best chance in years for younger players, who have been knocking on the door for a while, to win a major.

The absence of fans, said tennis’ resident Greek philosopher, Stefanos Tsitsipas, may also level the field for lower-ranked players. “There’s not much atmosphere without the fans," said the 22-year-old ATP Next Gen star, at the Media Day held before the Western & Southern Open in New York on 21 August. “Without the atmosphere, it does look and feel different. I think I last played a match with no spectators when I was (around) 12.It’s going to be challenging for most players,especially for the top players, who are used to having a big fan base. It’s going to create a more equal space for any player. It benefits a bit the lower-ranked players."

“I do feel there will be a lot of upsets," said 2012 US Open champion Andy Murray, whose last competitive match before the pandemic was in November. “Usually there’s a little bit more time to get used to the conditions. Normally you play a few more tournaments in the buildup to a major event like the US Open as well. Who knows really what’s going to happen."

Djokovic, however, is still likely to be the first among equals. He had an 18-0 start to the season before the lockdown began and claimed the only major played so far this season—the Australian Open. Djokovic is closing in on Federer and Nadal for the maximum number of major titles: While the Swiss currently leads the pack with 20, Nadal is on 19 and Djokovic two behind, with 17 wins.

“I did not make my decision because Rafa pulled out," said Djokovic, who had his reservations about travelling to the US Open given the protocols and possible quarantine required on his return to Europe. “While Federer and Nadal and Wawrinka have not come to the tournament, every other top player is here. There is a conversation that it should not be valued in the same way. I disagree with that. Anybody can take it, to be honest. We don’t really know how we are going to feel on the court… six months without competition, best of five (sets)."

The women’s field, meanwhile, is severely depleted: Six of the top 10 players have decided to skip the Grand Slam. Three of last year’s major winners—French Open champion Ashleigh Barty (World No.1), Wimbledon winner Simona Halep (No.2) and US Open champion Bianca Andreescu (No.6)—will be missing from the action.

It may leave the door open for Serena Williams to clinch that elusive 24th major. Williams, just one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 singles major titles, has not won a Slam since her return from pregnancy in 2017. Since then, she has made it to four major finals but hasn’t managed to even win a set in them. At the Media Day, Williams said she wasn’t too bothered about playing in front of empty stands at her home Slam.

“I love playing here," said the American, who turns 39 in September. “I am vintage, so, it’s like I don’t have that many years left at some point. It would be nice to try to keep winning."

“I think this whole year deserves an asterisk. We have never been through something like this, not this generation, not this lifetime. It’s just in history, period," she said, adding: “ And if you win, it was, like, ‘Wow, I was able to win in this crazy circumstance when there were no fans. It was just so sterile and weird. But I mentally came through.’ It might be a more mental test than anything."

Williams, who has had to deal with health issues like pulmonary embolism and a difficult childbirth, said she was very careful during the pandemic and has opted to stay in a private apartment during the Open. She said she carries around “50 masks" in her bag and has been wearing “Hazmat glasses" for extra precaution.

For athletes used to pushing their bodies to the physical limit, it may be a “safety first" approach this time.

“It is going to be an interesting US Open, I tell you that," said Tsitsipas.

An altered US Open

- Only three of the active Grand Slam champions (Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Marin Cilic) will feature in the men’s draw

- Six of the top 10 women’s players have pulled out of the Open

- Doubles draws have been reduced to 32 teams each; there will be no mixed doubles event this year

- There will be no line judges on the outside courts. Apart from the two show courts of US Open, HawkEye Live will make all line calls

- 40 ‘social distance ambassadors’ will monitor the US Open grounds to make sure everyone is following the health and safety protocols

- Locker rooms at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, which can hold up to 300 people, will be limited to 30 at a time, and only for players

- 64 suites in the stands will be assigned as personal lounges to the singles seeds (32 men and 32 women)

- For recreation, there are arcade games in the players’ hotel while outdoor games like mini-golf and basketball have been set up around the stadium complex

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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