US Open 2020: COVID-19 protocols, electronic line judges, faster courts, what's new at Flushing Meadows

US Open, played at Flushing Meadows in New York, will be different in multiple ways this time around as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

FP Sports August 29, 2020 20:50:45 IST
US Open 2020: COVID-19 protocols, electronic line judges, faster courts, what's new at Flushing Meadows

This US Open is unlike any other. A Billie Jean King National Tennis Center that witnessed 737,872 fans over the course of two weeks last year, including Arthur Ashe Stadium selling out 23 of 24 sessions. There will be none this in 2020. No banter with the crowd. No massive cries of support from the fans for the American players. The usual post-match celebrations from Novak Djokovic would look slightly absurd. As would the hope of being charged up after an incredible rally.

Beyond the fans, with the aim to control the number of people at the facility, the draws have been reduced, events have been cancelled and technology being used to ensure lesser officials. Additionally, there are COVID-19 protocols in place for players and their teams inside the bubble.

No fans

US Open 2020 COVID19 protocols electronic line judges faster courts whats new at Flushing Meadows

File image of the Arthur Ashe stadium. AP Photo

"It’s going to be really sad without the New York crowd,” said Daniil Medvedev this past week. “It’s going to be really strange, of course, for us.”

Medvedev knows the power of the crowd as he was the one, who taunted, chided and eventually won over the New York crowd last year. One could even say the fans rallied him to take final against Rafael Nadal into a five setter despite looking down and out at one point.

“I absolutely love playing for people. I absolutely love when people come and enjoy a performance that myself and my opponent are able to put on for them,” said Johanna Konta. “But obviously that’s not the reality we have right now.”

“Tennis is such a mental sport, and I guess it makes it way more difficult without fans, because I just imagine playing in the fifth set on Arthur Ashe, night session, way past midnight — and in a normal year, you get so much energy from the fans. They give you so much, all this atmosphere,” said Dominic Thiem.

“And now, in an empty stadium, maybe your coach and your team is there. These are the only people,” Thiem said. “That makes it, I guess, very, very lonely. Very, very tough. And that’s going to be a very interesting thing to experience,” he added.

Lack of fans can be a blessing for some. Like non-American players or those who go up against crowd favourites or just players who don't want the pressure of entertaining thousands while they're trying to win.

“You can hear yourself breathe,” said Kristina Mladenovic. “But this is better than nothing — than being home on the couch.”

COVID-19 protocols

US Open 2020 COVID19 protocols electronic line judges faster courts whats new at Flushing Meadows

Chair umpire and ball kids will wear protective masks during a match. AP

The biggest point in the COVID-19 protocol list shared with players by the USTA was: A player testing positive for COVID-19 will be dropped from the tournament. Somewhat harshly, if the person you're sharing facilities with tests positive, then also you will be withdrawn from the tournament.

Guido Pella, Hugo Dellien were removed from the draw at Western & Southern Open when their fitness trainer tested positive. However, that decision did not go down well with Pella and rest of the ATP Tour players.

"On a Zoom call a few weeks ago we got information from the chief medical doctor of the USTA that if a player is not sharing a room with his coach, or his physio, or anyone from his team that is infected, and his (own) results are negative, he can still compete in the tournament," ESPN quoted Djokovic as saying.

"Some of the players were saying, 'Well, I wouldn't have come with a trainer or a physio if I knew that was the case,'" said Andy Murray. "I'm not saying that it's not the right decision, but the players were not clear as to what the rules actually were."

All players were required to arrive four days before the start of the tournament for mandatory testing.

The player entourages have been reduced with singles players allowed to bring only three guests on site.

Players and guests must pass two COVID-19 nasal swab tests 48 hours apart when they arrive. Access to the tournament site will only be provided if the first test comes back negative. Once the second test comes back negative, too, the frequency of testing is every four days.

If a player exits the bubble without written consent from US Open chief medical officer or tournament director Stacey Allaster will be withdrawn and fined. Any guests or coaches who leave without permission will have their tournament access revoked.

US Open 2020 COVID19 protocols electronic line judges faster courts whats new at Flushing Meadows

Players are not allowed to go for the traditional handshake at the end of a match. AP

Locker rooms will be limited to 30 players at a time. The coaches will not be allowed inside the locker room.

There are limitations on where the players can stay. Two official hotels inside the site have been reserved for players and guests, but players are allowed to rent private houses. Those opting to stay at rental homes, need to pay for 24-hour security and individuals outside the approved group are not allowed.

For those who are availing the facilities of the official hotel, they will not be able to drive themselves from the hotel to the site but will have to make use of the shuttle service by the tournament. Players staying in private homes will need to arrange their own transportation.

Masks are mandatory at all times except when eating and drinking. The only other times when players need not wear a mask is when they are on-court for a match or practice.

At the conclusion of a match, there will be no traditional handshakes. Instead, players will tap rackets.

Hawk-Eye on all courts

All courts will use Hawk-Eye technology to cut out the number of line judges required. Earlier, six line judges were employed, per court, across the arena on a rotation basis. The Hawk-Eye technology has been in use since 2006 and Hawk-Eye Live has been used by World TeamTennis and ATP NextGen Finals in the last three years.

Only Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium will employ linespeople.

Already in use at the Western & Southern Open, the system emits a human-sounding "out" call when a player makes an error. The system also catches close foot faults.

But it must be noted that not all calls are correct. There is a 3-mm margin of error with Hawk-Eye decisions. There's also the possibility of humans inside the Hawk-Eye booth overruling the automatic call - as they did during a Venus Williams match.

And if nothing else, it just goes off when there is no reason to.

Different courts

US Open 2020 COVID19 protocols electronic line judges faster courts whats new at Flushing Meadows

Practice session at the Flushing Meadows. (AP)

After 41 years of DecoTurf, US Open moved to Laykold hard courts made by Advanced Polymer Technology in March. Laykold courts are already in use at the Miami Open, New York Open and for Fed Cup matches in the US.

Asked for his take on the new courts, Djokovic said they are a lot faster now at the USTA Tennis Center. “Not really slightly, it’s a lot quicker. I don’t know whether it’s the company that changed that makes the courts or something else. But it’s obviously quick and favours the servers obviously,” Djokovic said.

“If serve is huge, if you can serve well and hit your spots, you know, its tough. Guys like (Milos) Raonic, (John) Isner, my next opponent (Jan-Lennard) Struff. Hopefully I’ll be able to read his serves, return well, and have accuracy on my serves trying to hold my service games,” he added. “It happens very quickly. So you got to be alert. You got to bring the right intensity,” Djokovic concluded.

Stefanos Tsitsipas offered a different assessment on the courts. “The court conditions are great so far. Some of the courts I have practiced are faster than other ones. But that’s with every single tournament I played on the ATP circuit. Again, the speed of the court was medium to slow, and I think that benefited me kind of.”

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