The ‘will they/won’t they’ speculation over whether the US Open goes ahead or not over the past months amid the coronavirus pandemic finally is put to bed as the hard court Grand Slam gets under way in New York today, Monday, albeit without spectators and within the USTA ‘bubble’.
The issue we have is that it’s not a full bubble and there are still some people who are working for the tournament, who are coming in and out, So, it’s as safe as we can get in terms of how many people are here to run this operation. But it was always going to take us by surprise and be a bit shocking and worrisome if a player tested positive. Obviously we have had a few. Johanna Konta
As news broke that Benoit Paire has tested positive for the virus from within the bubble, but is asymptomatic, Andy Murray has been speaking about how safe he feels with the protocols put in place by the USTA, while Jo Konta admits the situation is ‘worrisome’ but is going about her business in the same manner ahead of her first-round encounter with compatriot Heather Watson on Tuesday.
“The issue we have is that it’s not a full bubble and there are still some people who are working for the tournament, who are coming in and out,” said Konta. “So, it’s as safe as we can get in terms of how many people are here to run this operation.
“But it was always going to take us by surprise and be a bit shocking and worrisome if a player tested positive. Obviously we have had a few.”
That aside, organisers have decided to play matches from the top half of the women’s draw on Day 1, which includes No 4 seed Naomi Osaka, who pulled out of the Western & Southern Open final on Saturday with a left hamstring injury and the Japanese is unsure whether she will be fully fit in time for the second opening night-session match inside Arthur Ashe Stadium against compatriot Misaki Doi.
“I just hope I’m giving myself the opportunity and the chance to have enough time, because I feel like I would know the answer after I played my US Open match,” she said.
She put her injury down to the lack of ice baths in the bio-secure bubble and admits to feeling ‘stressed’.
“Honestly I’m a bit stressed, but at the same time I feel like I have to keep forcing into my brain that I made the choice to come here, so I shouldn’t be stressed about it, and I should just be happy to be playing in the first place.
“Of course I never want to lose in the first round, and I don’t even want to have that thought in my head, but I know that’s a possibility, so I’m just going to think about doing the best that I can.”
Osaka is just one of 4 of the women’s top 10 playing at Flushing Meadows after a host of withdrawals due to concerns over the coronavirus, with Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Bianca Andreescu, Belinda Bencic and Kiki Bertens all opting not to travel to New York.
The absences give Serena Williams, who turns 39 shortly after the US Open fortnight concludes, an increased chance of finally moving to 24 Grand Slam titles, which would equal Margaret Court’s record, but she has been stuck on 23 since winning the 2017 Australian Open and has lost her last four major finals, including two at the US Open.
“I’ve been definitely proudly stuck here, party of one. I’m pretty happy about it,” Serena said of her 23 Grand Slam wins. “Obviously I’m never satisfied. That’s been the story of my career. So it is what it is. I took a year and a half off for a baby. So I don’t know.
“It’s like I’ll never be satisfied until I retire. I’m never going to stop until I retire. It’s just my personality. That’s how I got to be here.”
Williams is seeded No 3 in New York, and opens her campaign on Tuesday against compatriot Kristie Ahn, who had a Cinderella run to the fourth round last year as a wild card.
In action on Monday is the top seed, World No 3 and 2016 Open finalist, Karolina Pliskova who heads the women’s field for the second time in her career, having also been the No 1 seed in 2017.
So far, a Grand Slam title has eluded the 28-year-old right-hander, despite her illustrious track record, and she opens against the 2014 US Open girls’ singles finalist, Anhelina Kalinina, one of 7 Ukrainians in the draw, all of whom landed in the top half.
Pliskova’s path is laden with potential pitfalls and the first seed in the Czech’s path, projected for the Round of 32, is No 28 Jennifer Brady, who won her first WTA singles title in Lexington in the second week of the restart earlier this month.
In the Czech’s section and potential 4th-round opponents are No 13 seed Alison Riske and former World No 1 and No 17 seed Angelique Kerber, who defeated Pliskova to hoist the 2016 Open trophy.
The German takes on Alja Tomljanovic in the first match on Louis Armstrong Stadium.
The second women’s match on Armstrong features 16-year old Coco Gauff, who squares off against No 31 seed Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia in one of the most intriguing opening-round matches in the whole draw.
Gauff is among a bunch of exciting young players in the draw, led by No 11 seed Elena Rybakina from Kazakhstan, who laid claim to being the most in-form player of the season’s first 8 weeks.
The 21-year-old is joined in the field by a host of rising stars, including 20-year-old Ukrainian Dayana Yastremska (seeded No 19), and a projected third-round match between the two talents is certainly one to watch.
Among those who have yet to turn 20 are 11 teenagers: Robin Montgomery (15), Gauff (16), Katrina Scott (16), Leylah Fernandez (17), Hailey Baptiste (18), Marta Kostyuk (18), Caty McNally (18), Whitney Osuigwe (18), Amanda Anisimova (19), Iga Swiatek (19) and Kaja Juvan (19).
In the bottom half action on Tuesday, reigning Australian Open champion and World No 4 Sofia Kenin, the most accomplished of the 21-and-unders, is drawn against 2009 US Open semi-finalist Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium in her opener.
“Obviously it’s something that I obviously think about, I remember,” Kenin said of winning in Melbourne. “It was such a great moment.
“It’s something I’ll never forget, but it’s a little bit hard given the circumstances, what happened.
“Taking it into this week, I’m obviously going to use whatever I can from January, think about it, hopefully build up when I play here.”
She could potentially face another player who has shined here in New York before, the 2010 US Open finalist Vera Zvonareva, now 35 and a mother of a daughter born in 2016, who is back in the main draw in Flushing for just the second time since 2011.
Zvonareva faces the fast-rising Canadian teenager Fernandez in a clash of decades, with the winner projected to face Kenin.
Kim Clijsters, another veteran who was Zvonareva’s conquerer in that final when she captured her third and final US Open title a decade ago, returns as a wild card and and is dreaming of another deep run at in her first Grand Slam since 2012.
“Trying to imagine how that would feel, I think it would feel incredible,” she said . “I think what I focus on the most is to try and play good tennis. I think that’s where it starts for me, playing good tennis.”
The 37-year-old Belgian was forced to withdraw from last week’s Western & Southern Open in the New York bubble due to an abdominal injury, but is on course to begin the third tournament of her comeback against No 21 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia.
With a staggering 31 women in the draw this year, the United States boasts the most participants of any country by far and nearly tripling that of Russia, which has 12, while Great Britain has just 2.
So much will be different about this year’s event, but even with no fans to raise the roof in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the action between the lines will be as gripping as ever.
It starts today with 128 women, and ends in glory for one champion after a fortnight of drama and world-class tennis at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York.
To view the action as it happens, tune in to Amazon Prime Video from 4pm BST.