WASHINGTON, August 31, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)
A Grand Slam has never been held in the midst of a global pandemic until now. As one of tennis’s biggest events, the US Open, begins Monday – without fans or on-site media aside from broadcast partners – on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., this will be the culmination of the U.S. Tennis Association’s “controlled environment,” which was announced earlier this summer.
While last week’s Western & Southern Open put players in the right mindset for what it will be like playing without fans, when the first match commences at noon, we will see what an empty 23,771-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium looks like as the deafening roar of silence settles in for the major fortnight.
What happens over the next 14 days is anyone’s guess. Already, there’s been one casualty before Day 1. On Sunday, L’Equipe broke the news that Benoit Paire, the men’s 17th seed, had tested positive for COVID-19 after already testing negative twice since arriving in New York and being placed in the “tennis bubble.” He was immediately withdrawn from the 128-player men’s singles draw and replaced by Spain’s Marcel Granollers. Many of Paire’s French teammates such as Richard Gasquet were told to stay in their hotel rooms until further notice so that contact tracing could determine whether there were any further outbreaks.
Aside from health and safety concerns, which are Priority No. 1, there are other talking points that are likely to be of more wide interest, namely: This is the first major since the 1999 US Open that both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have missed. Imagine that! Federer previously cut his 2020 season short due to having surgery on his right knee, while Nadal withdrew earlier this month citing his concern for international travel. So, without Federer and Nadal, who have won 20 and 19 majors, respectively, it creates an opportunity for World No. 1 Novak Djokovic to win his 18th Grand Slam title and move up on the others. The Serbian comes in undefeated this year at 23-0 and two days ago won his 35th Masters 1000 title at the Western & Southern Open.
While Djokovic appears on paper at least to be the favorite to win his four US Open and second since 2018, there are other contenders, too. Among them are second seed Dominic Thiem and third seed and 2019 finalist Daniil Medvedev. Thiem lost this year’s Australian Open final to Djokovic and has also reached the finals of three Grand Slams. Anyone who can put together a good run over two weeks’ time will be justly rewarded.
Worth asking, is this the year for someone like fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, fifth seed Alexander Zverev or sixth seed Matteo Berrettini to go all the way? There are dark horses who will emerge. One player who will draw a lot of attention is Andy Murray, the 2012 US Open champion and three-time major winner. He’s missed eight of the past 10 Grand Slams going back to 2017 but is finally healthy thanks to having a metal hip.
“I always love playing in New York,” Djokovic said during his virtual press conference on Saturday. “I think I’m not the only one who shares the opinion that this is probably the most exciting, energetic, dynamic, explosive tennis court that we have in the sport with the fans and 22,000 people that fit in on that court. So I really am grateful that I got to experience so many times in my career the wonderful feelings on that court.
“It is strange to see empty stands. The circumstances are very unusual. But we have to accept that, we have to deal with it and try to embrace it. I think see also some positives, I mean, something that we have not experienced so much and obviously pressure is there when you are facing a breakpoint or you have to win a match. And, of course, for me the last couple of days, it was a great fantastic two tests that I had prior to the US Open.”
Novak’s perfect season and Serena’s bid for #24 are among the top stories of the 2020 #USOpen
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 30, 2020
Meanwhile, the biggest story of the women’s draw is this: Can Serena Williams finally win her 24th major? Williams, 38, hasn’t won a Grand Slam since returning from maternity leave in 2018. She’s reached the finals of the past two US Opens, but lost to Naomi Osaka in a controversial finish in 2018 and last year was beaten soundly by Bianca Andreescu, who is not back to defend her title due lingering injuries. Williams is in pursuit of tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
With World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and No. 2 Simona Halep not playing this year due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, fourth seed Osaka will be a threat to Williams if she’s healthy enough to play after withdrawing Saturday from the Western & Southern Open final with a hamstring injury. If Osaka gets the green light and can play, she could face teen American sensation Coco Gauff in the third round on Friday.
“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,” said Osaka on Saturday. “So that’s what I have been trying to think. 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, like, doing the best that I can.”
Also, worth pondering, the winner of the last Grand Slam, second seed Sofia Kenin at the Australian Open, could get hot, again, and make an extended run. The only other Top 10 player in the women’s draw is World No. 3 and top seed Karolina Pliskova.
A sentimental favorite is three-time U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters, 37, who came out of retirement for the second time earlier this year. Another would be two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka, who just won the Western & Southern Open title on Saturday – her first since giving birth to her son Leo four years ago – and comes in having won her last five matches all convincingly.
“It’s a good feeling going into the tournament, knowing that you’ve been playing well,” Azarenka said during a virtual press conference on Saturday. “We all know two weeks are long. Three weeks to hold the form is also long. So, I need to kind of stay a little bit grounded and focus on what to do.
“I’m excited to go out there and play. You know, my confidence level, I don’t think it changed just based on the result that I won here. I felt pretty confident in my work that I have been doing.
“So, the result is just confirmation that what I have been doing is right, but going on the court, I have been pretty confident in my abilities. It’s just putting those things together now. It shows that it’s the right work that I have been doing.”
Around the US Open
Highlighting Monday’s order of play, women’s No. 1 seed Karolina Pliskova opens play on Arthur Ashe Stadium at noon against No. 145 Anhelina Kalinina followed by fifth seed Alexander Zverev versus Kevin Anderson. Highlighting the night session will be matches involving men’s No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic and women’s fourth seed Naomi Osaka.
First match on Arthur Ashe Stadium begins at Noon Eastern Time (5 p.m. London, 6 p.m. Central European). All other courts begin at 11 a.m. (4 p.m. London, 5 p.m. Central European).