US Open: Experimental Grand Slam Begins In New York

WASHINGTON, September 1, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

The US Open – the experimental Grand Slam – began in New York began Monday. From no spectators to players arriving on court for their matches wearing masks to automated linesmen – “Hawk-Eye Live”  using a variety of cameras and voice technology to make line calls – on all courts except on Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium, to ball persons who are adult in age (18 and older) and none of them handling any player’s towels. Instead, there are receptacles placed behind the baseline and it’s up to the players to retrieve their sweat-soaked towels and tote them back to their bench during changeovers.

This is not your usual US Open – certainly not your parents’ US Open – and it’s been around for 140 years through wars and famine.

Despite all of this, there was tennis played – 64 matches worth stretched out over more than 12 hours – and some of it was quite good. No. 76 Cameron Norrie and ninth seed Diego Schwartzman battled for three hours and 59 minutes before the Briton prevailed, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 7-5. The match featured 58 break points and Norrie saved two match points en route to his triumph.

“I think it had a lot to do with how he returns,” Norrie said. “It was tough to get free points out there. It’s nice to be part of that and it shows that it was just two dogs out there battling with no serves really. It was a good match.”

Later, in an all-American match on Louis Armstrong Stadium, Steve Johnson withstood 52 aces fired by his close friend John Isner and beat the 16th seed, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (3), to advance against Ricardas Berankis, who defeated Federico Gaio, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.

The World No. 64 Johnson was the only player to break serve during the three hour and 50-minute match. He also hit 22 aces and won 85 percent of his first serve points.

“It always comes down to one or two points. It’s kind of a shame it was played in front of no one,” Johnson said during an on-court interview. “It would have been a pretty amazing atmosphere in front of a full-house between two Americans. It was a little dull out there but we’re trying to do our best to make the most of it.”

Controlled environment 

When the U.S. Tennis Association announced in June that the US Open would go on in a “controlled environment,” where players and teams would receive regular COVID-19 testing throughout the two-week event that is taking place in its usual location, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, one could only imagine what it might be like.

Now, we know.

Undoubtedly, with the French Open scheduled next month – just two weeks after the US Open wraps up on September 13 – the French Tennis Federation is busy taking notes. Ditto for Craig Tiley and Tennis Australia, wondering if there’s going to be an Australian Open next January. Too early to tell, but hopefully, the show goes on. The actual matches might be the easiest part of the equation. After all, most players are staying at one hotel in Long Island while some are at another hotel and eight players coughed up the cash to stay in private homes, which includes paying for security and monitoring.

With no fans or on-site media except for broadcast partners (such as ESPN, which is broadcasting the US Open throughout North America and making all matches available through its ESPN app), there’s considerably fewer persons on location. This year, fans will have to rely upon watching matches on TV and online, and media press conferences will be handled virtually – and that means it’s bound to be a lot less noisy around the grounds. All on-court interviews are being conducted using long boom microphones to keep interviewers and players socially distant from each other.

Usually, there’s about 30,000 fans coming through the turnstiles of the NTC, and the hustle and bustle of fans flocking from the nearby Willets Point subway station, getting off the No. 7 subway train from midtown Manhattan and beyond, is absent. Gone is the usual atmosphere of the night sessions, where the New York crowds often can be rowdy.

More than 12 hours of action 

Play commenced on Louis Armstrong Stadium with 2016 US Open champion and No. 17 seed Angelique Kerber facing Ajla Tomljanovic (won by Kerber 6-4, 6-4 in an hour and 28 minutes) and around 11 other courts at 11 a.m., and an hour later on Arthur Ashe Stadium, featuring women’s World No. 1 and top seed Karolina Pliskova opposing 145th-ranked Anhelina Kalinina.

With women’s World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, No. 2 Simona Halep and defending champion Bianca Andreescu not participating this year – Barty and Halep opted to not travel due to pandemic concerns and Andreescu has been out all year with injuries – it’s Pliskova’s turn to try to stretch the streak of first-time US Open champions to six despite having never won a major. She easily defeated Kalinina 6-4, 6-0 in 63 minutes.

Pliskova fired seven aces, hit 26 winners and converted six of 10 break points against Kalinina to move into the second round against 50th-ranked Caroline Garcia, who was a 6-3, 6-2 winner over No. 97 Jasmine Paolini.

“In the beginning it was tough because I was not finding my serve, but I did much better after that,” Pliskova said. “I think my game was quite good for the first round, and I have great memories here, even though the fans aren’t here, I still enjoy this court.”

• Fifth seed Alexander Zverev drew one of the most difficult and challenging first-round matchups of anyone in the men’s singles draw in 117th-ranked Kevin Anderson, the 2017 runner-up and a former World No. 5. It’s been a long road back for Anderson as he recovers from two knee surgeries, one last September which sidelined him from the 2019 US Open and the other in February. However, Zverev pulled out a 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-3, 7-5 win in just over three hours on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Zverev has never lost to Anderson in their six meetings.

“I am actually quite happy with a first round like that,” said Zverev during his on-court interview after the match. “Kevin isn’t a guy you usually play in the first round. This is normally a fourth-round, quarterfinal, or semifinal match against him. I am extremely happy to be through.”

Following his victory, Zverev celebrated his win by having a video conversation with his older brother Mischa via an LED video board behind his bench. It’s something innovative the USTA is providing players with an opportunity for real time interaction.

During the match, Zverev served 18 aces and committed six double faults. He won 86 percent of his first-serve points, and finished with 52 winners and 33 unforced errors. The six-foot-eight Anderson boomed 20 aces and 47 winners but also committed 42 unforced errors. Zverev outpointed his opponent 140-126, and next will take on American Brandon Nakashima in the second round.

• Twelfth seed Denis Shapovalov broke 20-year-old American wild card Sebastian Korda four times en route to an entertaining 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 win in Louis Armstrong Stadium.

“I just have to find it within myself,” Shapovalov, 21, said in describing the lack of on-court energy that he usually draws inspiration from. “Obviously it’s a little bit weird when you’re ‘come-oning’ and you’re pretty much playing alone. But I feel like when I’m pumped up like that, I play my best tennis. So [I’m] really trying to focus on that, and I think I did a really good job today.”

• Coco-mania returned on Opening Day – albeit without cheering fans and autograph seekers hoping to connect with American 16-year-old teen sensation Coco Gauff – and some in the media were already looking forward to a possible third-round clash with 2018 US Open champion Naomi Osaka on Friday. A year ago, Gauff lost to Osaka, but in the Australian Open in January, it was Gauff who beat Osaka en route to reaching the fourth round.

A year after Coco’s main-draw debut in the US Open, she’s won a WTA title and reached a career-high ranking of No. 49 in February. Currently, she’s ranked No. 51. On Monday, she drew a plum Louis Armstrong Stadium assignment against 31st seed Anastasija Sevastova, who has been a quarterfinalist or better in three of her last four US Opens. As it happened, Sevastova converted on her fourth match point to break Gauff and seal the win, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. It was the first time Gauff, playing in her fourth Grand Slam, had gone out in the first two rounds of a major – and it represented an early and big blow to a women’s draw that is already short of star power.

Sevastova hadn’t won a tour-level match this season prior to Monday, going 0-7, although she beat Serena Williams in the Fed Cup in February. However, Gauff double faulted 13 times and had her service broken seven times by the Latvian. Although Gauff avoided any double faults in the final game of the match, a series of forehand errors did her in.

“I wish I would play like this when I was 16 years old,” Sevastova said in praise of Gauff. “Great player. Nothing more to say. I think she maybe started a bit slower than me, but she was getting better as the match went on. That’s so important I think in tennis.”

• Men’s World No. 1 Novak Djokovic came into his US Open first-round match against Damir Dzumhur looking to win his 24th straight match in 2020 in the featured evening match on Arthur Ashe Stadium. He’s been “the” dominating player on the court having won the Western & Southern Open two days before the start of the US Open – and lately, has been grabbing headlines off the court, too, with his player rebellion against the ATP. Meanwhile, Dzumhur had never won more than two games in a set against Djokovic. This time, the Bosnian won four games in the middle set, but Djokovic bookended his win nicely, 6-1, 6-4, 6-1, in one hour and 58 minutes to advance to the second round against Kyle Edmund, who defeated Alexander Bublik, 2-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-0.

The demonstrative Serbian hit a nifty forehand passing shot for his 31st winner of the night on match point. He finished with 29 unforced errors.

“I thought I started very well, a set and a break,” said Djokovic during an on-court post-match interview. “Then, things got complicated. I lost my focus … and it was anybody’s game midway through the second set. I was pleased to close out the second set 6-4 and, obviously stepped it up a level or two in the third set.

You care about winning a tennis match. Obviously, you’re a professional. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be here. I play with a lot of intensity and try to bring a lot of energy onto the court. … The important thing is to come (and win).”

Djokovic has won 24 straight in 2020 and he’s won a remarkable five of the last seven majors going back to Wimbledon 2018. Now he’s one step closer to his fourth US Open title.

• Opening Day turned Opening Night and it wrapped up inside Arthur Ashe Stadium with Osaka facing Misaki Doi of Japan, the first time in three years Osaka has faced a countrywoman. Coming off of a very emotional week, in which she garnered worldwide attention for standing in solidarity with other Black athletes in other sports who are striving to achieve racial justice, Osaka came in hopeful her left hamstring that she tweaked last week, which forced her to withdraw before playing the Southern & Western Open final, would hold up over the next two weeks as she chases after her second US Open title and third major.

Although Osaka didn’t play her best tennis, it was good enough to beat Doi, 6-2, 5-7, 6-2, in two hours and two minutes. She hit 25 winners and outpointed Doi 95-80. Next, Osaka will face 75th-ranked Camila Giorgi.

Around the US Open

• After being exposed to a player, Benoit Paire of France, who tested positive for the coronavirus, several athletes – including 30th seed Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic – were asked to sign a revised agreement to remain at the US Open. Mladenovic won her first-match Monday afternoon against unseeded American Haley Baptiste, 7-5, 6-2.

“Let’s make it simple, I’m allowed to play my match, I’m literally allowed to do nothing else,” she said. “I don’t know how we are going to keep going.”

• No. 6 seed Petra Kvitova beat Irina-Camelia Begu for the fifth time in five matches with a 6-3, 6-2 win on Court 17. It was a familiar result for the two-time Grand Slam champion from the Czech Republic – and it took her only 63 minutes. Kvitova hit 23 winners, lost just one break point and in her last four service games dropped just four points. She ended her victory with a service winner.

“I knew I had to be aggressive against her and always trying to push her from the first point,” Kvitova said during an on-court interview. “I was ready to go.” She gave a shout-out to her mother Paula, who was at home celebrating her birthday. “I sent her a perfect present from New York.”

• Men’s fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas thrashed Albert Ramos Viñolas, 6-2, 6-1, 6-1, on Court 17 to move into the second round. Tsitsipas broke his opponent seven times during the one hour and 38-minute contest – three of them on break-point double faults – and never faced a break point on his own serve.

“I had a clear picture of what I was doing, where I was pressing. The depth on my ball was good,” said Tsitsipas, who was a semifinalist during last week’s Western & Southern Open.

• First on and first off: The award for the first match of the tournament to be completed goes to Marketa Vondrousova-Greet Minnen on Court 7. The 12th seed Vondrousova from the Czech Republic beat Minnen of Belgium, 6-1, 6-4, in just 63 minutes to advance to the second round. The first men’s winner of the 2020 US Open was Juan Ignacio Londero, who defeated Evgeny Donskoy, 6-3, 6-3, 7-5.

• It was a busy day for German players. Besides Angelique Kerber and Alexander Zverev, Anna-Lena Friedsam, Tatjiana Maria, Tamara Korpatsch, Dominik Koepfer, Jan-Lennard Struff, and Peter Gojowczyk were all in action on Monday. The Germans finished 4-4 with wins by Kerber, Zverev, Friedsam and Struff. One more German player will be in action on Tuesday, Laura Siegemund.

Monday’s first round results

Tuesday’s order of play

Andy Murray, Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Daniil Medvedev are all in action on Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday.