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US Open returns with pullouts and restrictions at fanless Flushing Meadows

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Written by Debkalpa Banerjee
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Published: August 31, 2020 9:28:17 am


For both Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, history beckons at Flushing Meadows. (Source: Reuters/AP)

Ending a seven-month-long Grand Slam wait owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the US Open is set to start on Monday with no fans, no singles defending champions, and no mixed doubles, and a handful of restrictions.

After the French Open was postponed to late September and Wimbledon was cancelled amid the ongoing pandemic, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) decided to go forward with its marquee event in New York City in order to offset the loss of money from ticket sales and other onsite revenue during the summer.

Apart from spectators, former champions and notable players like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and others will also be missing from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre.

With two of the ‘Big Three’ missing from the tournament, Novak Djokovic has a strong chance of extending his Grand Slam record to 18 wins. Meanwhile, Serena Williams will resume her quest for a record-equalling 24th singles triumph at a major in a depleted competition — six of the WTA’s top-10 players are not in the draw.

With the pandemic still ruling large in what used to be the United States’ COVID-hotspot, tedious quarantine rules, and even the Black Lives Matter movement, the US Open is sure to make the headlines on a daily basis.

WHO’S IN AND WHO’S OUT?

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have nine US Open titles between them. (Source: File)

While players have claimed that they have felt safe in the bio-bubble put in place before the curtain-raising Western and Southern Open, several chose to bypass the US Open.

Nadal, the men’s singles defending champion, pulled out earlier this month due to pandemic concerns, saying, “The situation is very complicated worldwide, the COVID-19 cases are increasing, and it looks like we still don’t have control of it.”

Apart from him and the recovering Federer, other no-shows include defending women’s champion Bianca Andreescu, Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens, Belinda Bencic, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Stan Wawrinka, Juan Martin Del Potro, Nick Kyrgios, and Gael Monfils.

Because of the pullouts, the men’s singles seeds are — Novak Djokovic (1), Dominic Thiem (2), Daniil Medvedev (3), Stefanos Tsitsipas (4), Alexander Zverev (5), Matteo Berrettini (6), David Goffin (7), Roberto Bautista Agut (8).

As for the women’s singles, the seeds are — Karolina Pliskova (1), Sofia Kenin (2), Serena Williams (3), Naomi Osaka (4), Aryna Sabalenka (5), Petra Kvitova (6), Madison Keys (7), Petra Martic (8).

Since six of the top-10 women’s players are not competing in the Flushing Meadows, should there be an asterisk next to this year’s event?

“It still has to be tennis that’s played, asterisks or not,” said the 38-year-old Williams. “If you win, it will be like, ‘Wow, I was able to win in this crazy circumstance where there were no fans. It was just so sterile and weird, but I mentally came through.’”

TENNIS JOINS THE BIO-BUBBLE BUSINESS

Be it UEFA Champions League, NBA, or IPL, bubbles are the new normal in the sporting world. Masks, coronavirus tests, temperature checks, and self-isolation have become as important as a pre-match training session.

The US Open is also operating in a similar fashion with every person within the bubble being tested twice for coronavirus after their arrival. The players and their limited entourages are being shuttled to and from the allotted hotels to the tennis site in Queens, which has been altered to include activities like mini-golf and arcade games.

Owing to the shifted Western and Southern Open — a warm-up tournament usually held near Cincinnati — the players have gotten used to the new setup. At least, mostly.

“There are signboards everywhere… we aren’t even allowed in the hotel parking lot because that’s outside the bubble. Everywhere we go we have to have our mask and credentials on,” Rohan Bopanna, the 2017 French Open mixed doubles title winner, told The Indian Express.

On the court, line judges have been replaced by Hawk-Eye on all courts except for the Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong show-courts, while matches will have three ball kids instead of the usual six.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE LOOMS LARGE

There will be no fans at the US Open for this year’s tournament. (Source: File)

Without the presence of the raucous fans at the 23,771-capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium — the largest tennis facility in the world — the fabric of the event will be different.

From August 31 to September 13, players will be devoid of the welcome boost of energy, or conversely, the pressure of performing in front of thousands. As for coaches, they will find it easier to shout something to a player, and for chair umpires, they won’t feel the need delay starting the serve clock until after post-point noise dies down.

In tennis, players are on their own out there. More so, this time around.

“Tennis is such a mental sport, and I guess it makes it way more difficult without fans. They give you so much, all this atmosphere,” said the three-time Grand Slam runner-up Thiem. “And now, in an empty stadium, maybe your coach and your team are there. That makes it, I guess, very, very lonely.”

Andy Murray, who will be aiming for his fourth Grand Slam after a long break caused by injuries, believes while the tranquil atmosphere had its advantages, it was a sad situation. “It just feels a bit sad that there will be no fans watching the matches,” said the 2012 champion.

“It’s nice walking through to your practice courts, not getting stopped or anything, but then the atmosphere is just not the same without the people. Now it’s tennis players and their teams walking around with masks on. Fans give life to the tournaments.”

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