U.S.T.A. Plans to Move Forward With U.S. Open Amid Pandemic

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U.S.T.A. Plans to Move Forward With U.S. Open Amid Pandemic

Christopher Clarey

Despite major challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic, the United States Tennis Association is set to announce this week that it will hold the 2020 United States Open with the support of the men’s and women’s tours.

The tournament is expected to run as originally scheduled from Aug. 31 to Sept. 13, but without spectators, at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Formal government approval still needs to be secured for the Open to take place, Chris Widmaier, a U.S.T.A. spokesman, said on Monday.

“From the beginning, we’ve built this plan in a very collaborative manner,” he said, adding that the U.S.T.A. had consulted regularly with medical and security experts. “We also recognize in order to move forward that we need government approval, approval from the state of New York and any other entity.”

Even if the tournament is soon confirmed, more than two months will remain before it begins, and outside forces, including the path of the virus and global travel restrictions, may still scuttle the U.S.T.A.’s plans. The field is also likely to be thinner than usual, with athletes making individual decisions about whether to compete.

Still, after lengthy meetings and negotiations with tennis’s other governing bodies, the U.S.T.A. intends to proceed with the U.S. Open in its traditional late-summer dates with the support of its primary sponsors and ESPN, which is paying more than $70 million annually in rights fees to the organization mainly to televise the tournament.

In a normal year, the U.S. Open would be the fourth and final Grand Slam tournament. But the men’s and women’s tours have been shut down since March because of the public health crisis. The start of the French Open, normally the second Grand Slam tournament of the year, has been postponed until late September. Wimbledon, the oldest of the major tournaments, was canceled for the first time since 1945.

“Our team has literally worked around the clock to figure out a way we can have the U.S. Open and do it in a safe way,” Patrick Galbraith, the president of the U.S.T.A., said in a conference call with more than 400 men’s players and coaches on Wednesday.

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Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

There has been considerable resistance from international players to the centralized U.S. Open plan.

Players will be subject to frequent coronavirus testing. Many will be lodged together at a hotel outside Manhattan, and some restrictions are expected to be placed on their movement to protect their health.

“Without having close social contact, we feel if one player gets it, it’s not going to spread,” Galbraith said in the conference call. “Our infectious disease specialists are confident on that. They are going to be pulled out of the environment, but you have to have close contact to get this.”

To reduce the number of people at the National Tennis Center, the U.S.T.A. also plans to reduce the amount of support staff that players may bring to New York, potentially to as few as one team member. That would represent quite a change for the game’s biggest stars, who typically travel with large entourages including family.

The men’s top-ranked player, Novak Djokovic, who is from Serbia and based in Monaco, has criticized the restrictions as “extreme.” As if to underscore the point, he organized a series of exhibition tournaments this month in the Balkans that began with an event last week in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, with fans in the stands, ball kids on the court and players hugging and high-fiving.

Several top women’s players have expressed uncertainty about playing in the Open, including top-ranked Ashleigh Barty and second-ranked Simona Halep.

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Credit…Noushad Thekkayil/EPA, via Shutterstock

“Not only because we’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” said Halep, who is from Romania. “But also because of the risk of travel, potential quarantine and then the changes around the tournament.”

But Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, the women’s No. 3 and a U.S. Open finalist in 2016, said she was confident the U.S.T.A. could keep players safe. “At some point it needs to start, the season,” she said by telephone. “Even if it’s next year, I’m sure there is still going to be some sick people, so it’s never going to be like super, super safe, so I think the earlier we start the better it’s going to be.”

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Pliskova, like others, lobbied for an increase in the size of her team so she could bring a coach and a physical therapist, which would not force her to rely on a busy tournament-supplied therapist for treatment. “I would appreciate if two people could go at least,” she said.

Widmaier said the number of team members could increase. “At its core, the plan is about mitigating risk,” he said. He added, “The absolute number of people who will be on site at any one time is not a fixed number here in mid-June.”

New York has had a steady decrease in new cases and deaths.

Eric Butorac, the U.S.T.A.’s director of player relations, said during Wednesday’s conference call that the U.S.T.A. did not expect players to have to isolate upon arrival in the United States before playing.

Last week’s call was often contentious, with one former U.S. Open singles champion, Marin Cilic of Croatia, even clamoring for more prize money given the conditions.

But the ATP board of directors, which governs the men’s tour, ultimately supported the decision to go forward, according to an ATP official familiar with the board’s decision who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans had not been announced.

The U.S.T.A. does not require approval from the tours to hold the U.S. Open, but it did want to secure it before proceeding.

The plan still includes moving the Western & Southern Open, a combined men’s and women’s tour event, to Queens from Mason, Ohio, to create a tennis doubleheader. It would be held primarily the week before the U.S. Open. The Citi Open, a combined men’s and women’s event in Washington, could still be the comeback event for the tours earlier in the month.

The U.S. Open singles qualifying tournaments are not expected to be played. But the U.S.T.A., which has committed to roughly $52 million in prize money, is providing more than $2 million apiece to the men’s and women’s tours to compensate lower-ranked players affected by the absence of qualifying.

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The reluctance of some stars to commit and the absence of qualifying have led some players to argue that in the interest of fairness, the Open should offer reduced ranking points this year or even none at all. The U.S.T.A. has rejected that idea because it could compromise its existing contracts by turning the event into an exhibition.

Despite internal disagreements in recent weeks, the ATP Player Council did not oppose the decision to stage the Open.

Djokovic is president of the 10-member council, which includes Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and leading American players like John Isner and Sam Querrey. Though Federer, a five-time U.S. Open singles champion, ultimately backed the Open being played this year, he announced that he would not compete again in 2020 after having surgery twice on his right knee this year.

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But his rivals could have difficult decisions to make as they manage their priorities and preserve their bodies. The schedule will be tightly packed if the tours are able to resume as planned.

Nadal, who just turned 34, is the reigning U.S. Open champion, but he is also the reigning champion at the French Open, where he has won a record 12 singles titles. If he were to play in New York, he would have to make a quick transition from American hardcourts to European clay with the French Open expected to start on Sept. 27 with lead-in events likely in Madrid and Rome.

That is a great deal of top-flight tennis to ask of a veteran superstar after a five-month layoff, particularly if the U.S. Open and French Open stick to their traditional format of best-of-five-set singles matches.

Another concern is whether European authorities will require players to quarantine upon arrival from the United States.

“That would be very tough,” Galbraith told the players in last week’s conference call. “But Europe is starting to open up, and by July 1 most of the countries are waiving their 14-day quarantine. So that makes me optimistic. The main thing is just watching the virus, to be honest with you, to see, does it increase in the U.S.? Is it increasing in Europe? Is it hard to travel?”

There is also concern about quarantine requirements in Asia, where the women’s tour and men’s tour have numerous events scheduled near the end of the season.

But for now, the plan is to proceed in New York.

“The constraints and policies will be a bit of an adjustment and are certainly not ideal,” Danielle Collins, an American player, said in an email last week. She added, “We want to be doing what we’re passionate about, and if that means making adjustments for the short time being, so be it.”