This weekend sees the start of the US Open, historically the game’s climactic Grand Slam event and a calendar highlight.
Not this year, though!
Covid-19 has put paid to any semblance of normality in the sporting world, and tennis is not immune.
Following the cancellation of Wimbledon and the postponement of the French Open until late September, the US Open event is now going ahead with a depleted field, a radical overhaul of conditions and empty stands.
I have made the difficult decision not to return to New York this year,. The U.S. Open victory last year has been the high point of my career thus far and I will miss not being there. Bianca Andreescu
Television will capture the wonder moments, and mark out its eventual champions, but the roar of the crowds will be absent. Artificial crowd simulation may help to project the on-court effort and sweat around the world, but inside the stadium, silence will reign.
Predicting a champion from a depleted field of players is nigh on impossible. Serena Williams declared her participation early, but that hasn’t stopped a stream of top women players, including six of the world’s top ten, from withdrawing.
Indeed, Bianca Andreescu, who defeated Williams in last year’s final, is not defending her title.
“After many discussions with those closest to me, I have made the difficult decision not to return to New York this year,” said the 20-year-old Canadian. “The U.S. Open victory last year has been the high point of my career thus far and I will miss not being there.”
Andreescu is joined by World No 1 and reigning French Open champion, Ashleigh Barty, reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, former French Open champion Jelena Ostopenko, Swiss World No 8, Belinda Bencic, seven times Grand Slam quarter finalist Carla Suarez Navarro, and the Netherlands’ Kiki Bertens, and while this represents a major disappointment for the WTA Tour, the tournament and the fans, Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, another absentee, may well speak for many when she says, “I want to thank the USTA, organizers and WTA for giving players a chance to play and fans a chance to watch this great event. I understand and respect all the efforts they are putting in to make it happen in a safe environment, but I still don’t feel comfortable to travel to US without putting my team and myself at high risk.”
Whatever the reasons, so many player withdrawals does leave the likes of top seed, 28-year-old Karolina Pliskova, the world No 3 from the Czech Republic, Japan’s Naomi Osaka, who won the US title two years ago and who is currently ranked 10, and two Americans, former champion and world No 1, Serena Williams (ranked 9) and Australian Open champion, Sofia Kenin, seeded 2 this year, eyeing up golden opportunities.
Kenin, a 21-year-old Russian born American, is excited at the prospect of building on her unexpected success in Melbourne in January.
“We haven’t been able to play for a while and I’m just so happy that this Grand Slam is happening,” Kenin told Eurosport. “I really enjoy the US Open and want it to happen even if it is going to be very different. They are still real matches and you are still able to compete, and that is something that I have really missed since the Australian Open.”
I did say ‘two Americans’, not having the courage to suggest that a third, 16-year-old Coco Gauff, might step up to the plate ahead of expectations and become the youngest player to win the US Open title, but then…let’s wait and see.
From a withdrawal point of view, the men’s entry list has not fared much better. The absence of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer (the latter as a result of knee surgery) alongside box office draw Nick Kygrios, world No 9, Gael Monfils, Kei Nishikori and Juan Martin del Potro, who also had knee surgery earlier this week, will deplete the draw of star names. But it also opens up possibilities for the likes of hot favourite Novak Djokovic – who remains unbeaten in all of his 21 competitive matches played this year at time of writing.
Challenging the Serb will be the Austrian world No 3, Dominic Thiem, world No 6 and 4th seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas, from Greece, and Germany’s Alexander Zverev, ranked 7, who is long overdue a Grand Slam singles victory, though he wouldn’t have enjoyed coming second to Andy Murray, currently nursing a world ranking of 134, in the Western and Southern Open event earlier this week.
Unlike many of his professional colleagues, 32-year-old Murray has confirmed his attendance at Flushing Meadows but remains philosophical about those who have chosen not to attend.
“All of the players will have some reservations and it’s whether or not they feel comfortable taking that risk,” he said. “My feeling is once we are inside that bubble they created, we will be OK. It’s more the international travel and getting there which I will be a bit concerned about.”
As for his chances, Murray, who won in New York in 2012 is confident that his hip will withstand the rigours of New York’s hard courts.
“I really was not feeling good at all when I played it (the US Open) last. I fought as hard as I could, but it’s not that enjoyable when you’re feeling so uncomfortable on the court. At least I’m a lot more comfortable now, so I will be able to enjoy the experience more.”
Thiem, who has kept himself match fit by playing no fewer than 28 exhibition events in recent months, will feel confident of victory, despite never having got over the line in any of his three previous Grand Slam finals’ appearances. But he also knows that this year’s additional challenge, playing in an empty stadium, will be uniquely different for all of the players.
“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. And now, in an empty stadium….that makes it, I guess, very lonely, very tough, and that’s going to be interesting thing to experience. But it’s the same for everybody. The one who will manage these special circumstances the best will be the one who lifts the trophy at the end.”
World No 5, Daniel Medvedev, who also played the warm-up Western and Southern event this week, losing in a bruising, three set, two hours plus quarter final encounter to 32-year-old Spaniard, Roberto Bautista Agut, is also philosophical about playing in an empty stadium.
“Mentally I didn’t prepare at all to play with no fans,” said the Russian. “I would say it’s even easier to keep focused. But of course sometimes you can be down and the crowd starts supporting you so you can come back and maybe it’s tougher without the crowd in this way. But again, we have to get used to it. I think it’s going to be for some time that we’re not going to have crowds.”
The 33-year-old spent the whole of July practicing at the Puente Romano Tennis Club in Marbella before playing this week in New York where, at time of writing, he is in the semis.
He is adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach to playing in empty stadia, but he remains unmoved as to the impact that the absence of top players will have on the event, particularly his great rivals Nadal or Federer.
“We will miss them because they are tennis legends but it will still be a Grand Slam because the rest of the tennis players are all here,” he says. “I disagree with those who think the title will have less value due to their absence.”
As far as playing in front of empty stands, the Serbian is unsure how that will affect his performance. “I don’t know what I’ll do. I have to experience it to get a valid answer.”
Either way, he will now be strong favourite to win his 4th US Open singles title and his 18th career Grand Slam.