USTA proposes staging two-tournament bubble, comprising US Open and Cincinnati Open, in New York starting late August
It is far from certain that either US Open or any other tournament in lead up can be played this year, but the maneuver is designed to help draw the needed support of government and public health officials as they manage the outbreak, travel and the economy.
In an unusual attempt to save two of the top events in US tennis during the coronavirus pandemic, the United States Tennis Association has proposed staging a doubleheader in New York by moving a tournament that leads into the US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
The move, under consideration by the men’s and women’s tours, could allow foreign players to remain in one place for the duration of their stay in the United States, and establish a safer bubble for competitors similar to proposals by the NBA and other sporting leagues.
The proposal would move the Western & Southern Open, a combined men’s and women’s event near Cincinnati, Ohio, to New York but keep its general window on the calendar, leading into the US Open at the same venue. The Western & Southern Open is currently scheduled for 17 to 23 August, while the main draw of the US Open is slated for 31 August to 13 September.
It is far from certain that either tournament can be played this year, but the maneuver is designed to help draw the needed support of government and public health officials as they manage the outbreak, travel and the economy. It is also unclear, especially given quarantine guidelines, whether enough players would be prepared to travel to New York, one of the disease’s epicenters. Many players have gone without income as both the men’s and women’s tours have been shut down since mid-March and scores of tournaments have been postponed or canceled.
Leaders of the men’s and women’s tours received the USTA proposal this week, according to officials at the USTA and the men’s and women’s tours, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not yet authorised to speak publicly about the potential move.
The tours would need to formally approve the moving of the Western & Southern Open from its home in Mason, Ohio. The USTA owns the men’s event staged there while Octagon, a sports and entertainment agency, owns the women’s event.
The tour officials said that there could still be insurmountable obstacles for the plan, including quarantine rules that could require some athletes to self-isolate after arriving in the United States and again in Europe after returning. But those requirements could be changed for athletes.
“I appreciate that everyone is going outside the box to think of solutions in these circumstances,” said Bethanie Mattek-Sands, an American once ranked No. 1 in women’s doubles, who has been on the WTA player council. “We don’t really have anything in the rule books for this situation. Putting two big tournaments in the same place is definitely on the right track because it definitely makes it a bit easier to control some things.”
If the tournaments can be held, there would most likely be no spectators on site — a major shift for the US Open, a Grand Slam tournament that attracted more than 850,000 fans last year over three weeks.
With the USTA set to make a decision later this month on its Grand Slam, here is a look at how officials are planning for an Open without fans.
Even without fans or most stadium workers, rigorous testing would still be required at the tennis center to monitor and protect players, support staff and officials.
Stacey Allaster, the USTA’s chief executive for professional tennis, said coronavirus testing would be required for athletes and members of their teams before they traveled to New York, perhaps on charter flights from different continents organized by the USTA.
“We will insist on a pretravel health questionnaire that they meet with local physicians and local doctors, and COVID-19 tests will be required for everyone,” she said. “They will have to have been symptom-free for a certain period of time before travel and have had no known contact with anyone with COVID-19.”
Once on site, there would be daily temperature checks and health questionnaires, as well as frequent follow-up testing for the virus.
Rules and Events
US Open leaders have pushed unsuccessfully in the past for in-match coaching to be allowed in the main draw — an issue that flared in 2018 when Serena Williams had a heated confrontation with a chair umpire for receiving coaching from the stands. They might finally get approval from both tours and their fellow Grand Slam tournaments in this special situation to add entertainment value for television audiences.
Wheelchair tennis is unlikely but has not been ruled out. The junior and legends events would be eliminated. There would be no ball kids, but adult ball persons would still be used to facilitate play; they would be required to wear gloves but not be allowed to handle player towels.
With players having been out of official competition since March, there has been discussion of changing the format of men’s singles matches at the US Open from best-of-five sets to best-of-three sets to reduce players’ injury risk. But Allaster said that was not part of the USTA’s current plan.
Both Arthur Ashe Stadium, the tournament’s main show court with nearly 24,000 seats, and the 14,000-seat Louis Armstrong Stadium would still be used even without fans. Both are fully wired for television and have retractable roofs that would allow for play to continue in case of rain.
With empty stands, ESPN, the tournament’s broadcaster, would need to innovate to create a compelling atmosphere, but the network has pushed hard for the Open to happen if it can be held safely.
“Out of crisis comes creativity. I’m not privy to any inside information, but I would imagine that there will be all sorts of new bells and whistles with no crowd,” said Patrick McEnroe, the former player and longtime ESPN analyst. “What about moving cameras? Or miking the players? If ever there were a time to try it, now would be it.”
The Bundesliga, the German football league that resumed last month without spectators on-site, has used artificial crowd noise in its broadcasts to combat the emptiness.
ESPN could do the same at the Open.
“Cheering can be piped in,” Allaster said. “We are learning from other sports as they go through this journey.”
The size of tennis entourages has ballooned since the 1990s, when it was considered unusual that Pete Sampras traveled with a personal trainer, Todd Snyder. The WTA already has indicated that if its circuit resumes this year, players will be asked to come to tournaments with just one person. The US Open would also reduce traveling parties.
“An athlete coming with four, five, six, seven people is obviously not going to be possible,” Allaster said.
That could make for some tough choices for players who thrive on routine and ample support.
“They will panic, I tell you,” said Sven Groeneveld, who previously coached Maria Sharapova and is now working with Taro Daniel. “Because all of the sudden, they will have to make a decision on should I take my agent or physiotherapist or coach?”
Donna Vekic, a Croat ranked 24th in women’s singles who was a US Open quarterfinalist last year, said that she would be “OK to play without fans” but that “really the worst thing is if we can only come with one team member.”
She added, “I just don’t see how that is going to be possible and how the top players are going to accept that.”
With fewer people accompanying them, players could spread out to avoid the close contact that is standard during Week 1 in the Open locker room and training room. Allaster said each seeded player could be offered one of Arthur Ashe Stadium’s unused hospitality suites. To avoid crowding, players will need to book times for locker room or practice court access, Allaster said. Outdoor cafes, usually reserved for spectators, could be converted into recreational areas for players.
“We see them chilling out and having a coffee and having some jazz musicians there,” Allaster said.
To protect their health, players could be restricted to an official hotel, probably outside Manhattan, where they would have access to treatment, training and testing, and be transported directly to the tennis center in Queens.
“Traditionally, we have not been involved in housing for the US Open,” Allaster said. “We need an effective centralized housing system in place.”
Despite speculation among players and their agents, Allaster said the USTA had not seriously considered reducing the size of the men’s and women’s singles draws from 128 competitors. Qualifying tournaments are likely to be scrapped, and doubles competitions to be included with reduced draws of 24 teams, but no final decisions have been made.
A majority of players on both the men’s and women’s tours come from Europe. A directive from the US government last month granted permission for foreign professional athletes, including tennis players, to travel to the United States for competition even if general travel bans exist. It remains unclear whether a quarantine period would be required after arrival. But it is unlikely that all of the stars would make the journey, even for the US Open. Roger Federer, a five-time US Open singles champion who will turn 39 in August and has four children, is a possible no-show and has expressed his lack of enthusiasm for playing without spectators. Others may be much more eager.
“I really think if we can pull this off in New York after all that has happened, it will totally be a big inspiration,” Mattek-Sands said.
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