US Open on course; top guns a ‘worried’ lot


US Open 2020 without fans Image: US Open

In what will be music to the ears for tennis fans around the world, the United States Tennis Association announced recently that both the 2020 US Open and 2020 Western & Southern Open will be held at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (NTC) in Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York. However, the showpiece event will be held sans spectators.

The US Open will start on August 24, 2020, and will end on September 13, 2020. The tournament will be held on 14 Deco Turf hard courts. The Western & Southern Open dates are – from August 15, 2020 to August 23, 2020.

As strict social distancing rules will be in place, many leading players – including Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Nick Kyrgios, and Simona Halep – are a worried lot and have expressed serious reservations about the health risks of traveling to the United States amid the pandemic which has the US caught in its vortex. The numerous safety protocols the USTA is looking to impose in order to stage the event has not cut ice with the tennis giants with Djokovic describing the measures as “extreme”.

“Most of the players I have talked to were quite negative on whether they would go there,” Djokovic added.

These players also have another reason for being reluctant to head to Flushing Meadows – an indoor tennis facility was used as a temporary home for hundreds of hospital beds at the height of the city’s coronavirus crisis.

A significant number are reluctant to commit to taking part, which could seriously devalue the tournament.

Already ruled out is Roger Federer, who has won five of his men’s-record 20 Grand Slam singles titles at the US Open but announced recently that he is out for the rest of the year after needing a second arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.

Kyrgios tweeted, “People that live in the US of course are pushing the Open to go ahead. I’ll get my hazmat suit ready for when I travel from Australia and then have to quarantine for two weeks on my return.”

The Cincinnati Masters (currently sponsored by the Western & Southern Financial Group and called the Western & Southern Open) is an annual outdoor hard court tennis event. Normally, the event is held at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason, Ohio, US.

Hosting these tournaments marks an important moment for the sport of tennis, the New York market and the global sporting community as tennis returns to action.

The USTA was given the go-ahead to hold the sporting spectacle by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as part of the State’s reopening from shutdowns related to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Commented Cuomo, “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.”

“These two events are the summer’s biggest tennis blockbusters in the US, and we are thrilled for the players, our fans, and all of our partners, that we will be able to mark the return of tennis,” stated Mike Dowse, USTA Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director.

“These tournaments also serve as an inspiration to tennis players of all levels, encouraging them to get out and play, given the social-distancing nature of our sport,” he affirmed.

As part of the above decision, the USTA unveiled a comprehensive health and safety plan that has been approved by the New York State Government officials. The comprehensive plan was created by the USTA’s US Open team, with input from the WTA and ATP, and in conjunction with the USTA Medical Advisory Group, other medical experts, and noted security officials.

“First and foremost, our decision-making has been guided by ensuring the health and well-being of all who will take part in the 2020 US Open,” said USTA Chairman of the Board and President Patrick Galbraith.

“After educating ourselves through consultations with experts, and following near round-the-clock planning for three months, we are confident that we have a plan that is safe, viable, and the right thing to do for our sport. This historic undertaking will provide a tremendous boost to the entire tennis industry and community, a boost so needed in these trying times,” Galbraith added.

The USTA’s approach to all decisions surrounding the hosting of both the 2020 US Open and 2020 Western & Southern Open followed three guiding principles. In all three instances, the USTA ensured that the necessary criteria to fulfill the guiding principles were met, which included:

  • Ensuring the health and safety of all individuals associated with, or part of, the tournaments, and mitigating potential risk factors associated with COVID-19;
  • Balancing decisions on whether the events would not only be safe, but if holding the events would benefit the sport of tennis, including the fans, athletes and the global tennis industry; and
  • Determining whether the tournaments could take place in a financially-viable manner for the USTA and for the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) players.

The decision to stage the two events in one centralized location was taken to attenuate the risk factor and it also allows for one cohesive medical, training and competition environment, with safety measures to be put in place, including testing, mitigation measures, sanitization, and other protocols.

The USTA plan includes limited player entourages, assigned hotels, increased cleaning at the tournament grounds, extra locker room space, daily temperature checks and occasional testing for COVID-19.

Taking into account the severity of the coronavirus situation, the two events will be modified in a variety of ways. As both the events attract enormous crowd – one million visitors to the site over the duration of the two tournaments, a decision was arrived at to hold this year’s events without fans in attendance. The size and format of the events will also be modified with this same goal of limiting the number of individuals on site at one time. This includes players, their entourages, staff, broadcasters, and all others associated with the on-site workings.

“The decision to hold the 2020 US Open without fans was not an easy one, but ultimately it was the correct one,” remarked Stacey Allaster, Chief Executive, Professional Tennis, USTA and US Open Tournament Director.

“To mitigate risk, we must minimize numbers on-site. Though we will not have fans on our site, we will engage with tennis fans around the world in new and exciting ways with the help of our global broadcast partners, and all our US Open sponsors,” Allaster added.

The US Open will attribute for the Main Draw Men’s and Women’s Singles events, each with the traditional 128-player draw size, and Men’s and Women’s Doubles events, with 32 teams in each competition (down from 64 teams, but limited to Doubles-only players). Since the overall plan necessitates limiting the number of individuals on-site, the Mixed Doubles, Juniors and Wheelchair competitions will not be held in 2020.

The Western & Southern Open will feature its traditional format in Men’s and Women’s Singles, an increased draw of 48 for the Men’s and Women’s Qualifying Tournaments (up from 28 and 32, respectively), and an increased draw size of 32 teams for Men’s and Women’s Doubles (up from 28 teams).

Despite facing financial woes, the USTA has committed $60 million in total compensation to players for staging both the events. Apart from the prize money and other compensation to athletes participating in the two events, the USTA has also made the decision to provide approximately $6.6 million in additional relief grants and subsidies due to the decision to not hold the Qualifying Tournament and the reduction of the Doubles draws. These funds will be allotted to the WTA and ATP, which will then take the final call on how to distribute these funds and/or utilize them to provide replacement playing and ranking point opportunities. Previously in 2020, the USTA contributed $1 million to an international player relief fund.

The cash-strapped USTA have been determined to stage the event. The organization recently announced it will eliminate 110 jobs and close its national headquarters in White Plains, New York, as COVID-19 has almost made coffers go dry.

With the formal health and safety plan given the thumbs-up, the USTA will work with tournament broadcast rights-holders and partners to expand the way these events are delivered to the fans at home around the globe, in greater and more ingenious ways than ever before.

Like many sports leagues, the professional tennis tours have been suspended since March because of the COVID-19 outbreak, wiping out more than 40 events around the globe.

The US Open normally is each season’s fourth and final Grand Slam tournament but would be the second of 2020, following the Australian Open, which concluded in early February.

The French Open was postponed from May and currently is scheduled to start a week after the US Open ends. Wimbledon was canceled altogether for the first time since World War II in 1945.

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