US Open Unlikely To Play Without Spectators

WASHINGTON, April 17, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

During a United States Tennis Association (USTA) news conference Thursday afternoon to announce a comprehensive suite of programs to support the tennis industry, which is battling the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, USTA chief executive Mike Dowse addressed the subject of the upcoming US Open head on. It is scheduled to begin at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., on August 31.

As of Thursday, more than 10,000 coronavirus deaths have occurred in New York City and lockdown measures have been extended to May 15.

“In one sense we’re very fortunately that we’re the fourth Grand Slam to go, so time is on our side at this point,” said Dowse. “Obviously, our ambition is to run the tournament. It’s the engine that drives our organization, our governing body.

“Having said that, that won’t be the driving factor. The driving factor will be the health and wellbeing of the players, the fans and our staff. To that we just don’t have enough information that we can run the tournament safely.

We’ve set a timeframe around June to make that decision. The way we’re approaching it is through a medical advisory group. We have five or six doctors that are consulting with us on a regular basis. Based off that information, we’ll ultimately make the decision if it’s safe to play the tournament or not. So stay tuned on that.” 

Already, the French Tennis Federation last month moved the dates for this year’s Roland Garros from its original dates of May 24 to June 7 out to a new start date of September 20 until October 4, and this year’s Wimbledon Championships have been cancelled by the All England Club. The earliest return date for the ATP and WTA Tours to start playing tournament tennis is July 13.

Currently, portions of the National Tennis Center are being used to house a temporary 450-bed hospital and Louis Armstrong Stadium, the second largest stadium on the grounds, is being used as a commissary to make food for patients, health care workers, volunteers and underprivileged city schoolchildren.

Dowse was asked if the US Open could be played without spectators. He said: “Playing without spectators, we’re not taking anything off the table right now, but to be honest and open, I think that’s highly unlikely. That’s not really in the spirit of the celebration of tennis. It also goes back to the health and wellbeing of not just the spectators but of our players and support staff that help run the tournament.”

Last year, the US Open drew nearly three quarters of a million spectators to the National Tennis Center complex during its late-summer fortnight. Even without spectators, it would still take an infrastructure of several thousand people to put on the Grand Slam tournament. Although, the USTA would be able to fulfill its commitment to worldwide broadcasters (including ESPN and Tennis Channel in the U.S.), it would still require paying the players minus an expansive revenue generated by day and night session ticket sales, sales of food and drink and merchandise.

“Unless the medical industry or medical experts come up with a solution that truly is foolproof and safe, we don’t see that as an option,” said Dowse.

“Having said that, things are fluid. If the medical experts come back and say here is a foolproof way of running a very safe tournament, unfortunately it has to be without fans, we may reconsider and look at it at this point. Today it’s just too early to kind of speculate on what the exact specifics will be at that time.”