Right now, the night before the US Open is due to begin, it feels as though the US Open bubble could be about to burst.
Sunday morning – almost exactly 24 hours before play is to begin at this most unique US Open – the tournament made an announcement.
A player had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, and would be sent to isolation as contract tracing begins.
The thing about these announcements, though, is that they don’t name the people involved.
Contact tracing begins
So the journalists, typically from a player’s country, have to get to work – a task made more challenging by the fact that almost no media has been allowed on site save for the 600-plus people working for ESPN.
But it quickly emerged that the player was French bon vivant Benoit Paire.
Now is when it gets complex – and we see how the USTA’s contingency plans for what was considered to be an eventuality, not a possibility, work.
Trying to keep a lid on it
The other unfortunate trend over the last week, as the media attended virtual Zoom press conferences with players inside the US Open bubble, is that moderators on the WTA side are trying to exercise a heavy hand in terms of … topics that can be discussed.
French journalists report it happened with both Caroline Garcia and Alizé Cornet during their pre-tournament press availability (re l’affaire Paire) although they went ahead and quizzed Cornet about it anyway.
(Let’s just point out that these are grown women, and quite capable of shutting down a question, on the off-chance they don’t want to answer. So infantilizing them does them a disservice).
Paire out, doubles alternate in
The problem here, which the USTA experienced in the Guido Pella/Hugo Dellien case, is this: what if it was a false positive? Apparently they learned from that because, according to one of my ever increasing number of inside-the-bubble sources (they’re pretty bored in there), Paire was tested three times and was positive – three times.
The first thing is that Paire was withdrawn from the tournament. He was due to face Kamil Majchrzak of Poland in the first round.
Paire must isolate in his hotel room for 10 days – with security outside to make sure he doesn’t get the urge to flee. It’s reasonable to expect a lot of Instagram Live – and a fairly regular refilling of his mini-bar.
Because of the USTA protocols, no more players who would have been next in on the entry lists are allowed into the bubble. And so any available spaces are to be taken up by players who are already on site for doubles.
In this case, first up is Marcel Granollers, a former highly-ranked singles player who is currently ranked No. 149. That puts him about a dozen deep into the entry list, but at least he’s a viable singles player even if he hasn’t played an official match since last October in Shanghai. And has to play best-of-five sets.
Paire would still pocket half of the first-round prize money, over $30,000 US.
Paire asymptomatic? Debatable
But the dodgy part of that press release is that Paire, who arrived in the U.S. on Aug. 18 – just making the minimum four-day advance arrival for his first-round match in the “Cincy” event – had to retire from his match against Borna Coric after losing the first seven games, because of illness.
Whether that illness was completely unrelated to the COVID, it could be a bit disingenuous to portray him as “asymptomatic”, as the release did.
The Frenchman would have had a test Aug. 18, and another 24 hours later on the 20th. And another four days later (per the protocol) on the 24th. But it’s not known which test was the positive one even if you can deduce it wasn’t one of the first two.
Otherwise he’d not have been allowed on the court for his match against Coric.
(As an aside: Coric has already had the virus – a notorious casualty of the ill-fated Adria Tour. And, it turns out, Granollers tested positive for antibodies, and according to Marca had it all the way back in March).
The second part is figuring out who might need to isolate for 14 days. That’s tricky.
Several French players quarantined
Depending on how the USTA and the New York health authorities decide to play this, the French contingent at this year’s tournament could be decimated.
Already, top-ranked Gaël Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga took a pass on the bubble experience.
From what we’ve heard from boots on the ground and what the French sports newspaper L’Équipe published, players Adrian Mannarino, Grégoire Barrere and Richard Gasquet are among the group, along with doubles player Edouard Roger-Vasselin and coach Nicolas Copin.
We also heard Sunday night that Mannarino and Gasquet would be allowed out to practice – late in the day, alone with their coaches.
The case of Roger-Vasselin isn’t as pressing as he’s only in the doubles draw.
Gasquet is scheduled to pay Ivo Karlovic Tuesday; Mannarino is drawn against Lorenzo Sonego Monday.
Many more may have had contact
But it appears the very social Paire’s net was cast wider than that. In fact, we were told that he named … 30 people when asked so they could begin contact tracing.
According to American Noah Rubin, they’ve determined that 11 people came into close contact with Paire – but are still in the tournament.
Notably, he practiced with No. 3 seed and 2019 finalist Daniil Medvedev.
As well, observers noted card games involving as many as a half-dozen players and Paire. Notable among them were French WTA player Kristina Mladenovic and her brother Luca, who is credentialed as her coach.
We’re told that the WTA Tour had an emergency meeting late Sunday afternoon, and may have been contacting some of the women who may have had exposure.
We’ve learned that Mladenovic is still in the tournament, but she has to take special precautions such as going to the venue for her match in separate transport, and is prohibited from side trips such as going to the stringers’ area.
It would be a stroke of major good fortune if there were no more positive tests to come out of this.
And in the meantime, we’re told that the USTA has added an amendment to the waiver the players had to sign coming in – that their access to certain areas would be further restricted – such as the above-mentioned limitations to Mladenovic.
Roger-Vasselin spoke to l’Équipe Monday about being in a “bubble within a bubble”, not allowed to leave his room, even to eat, and being escorted to practice only after 4 p.m. – and not even being allowed to practice with his doubles partner, Jürgen Melzer.
And the tournament hasn’t even started yet.