July 10, 2020

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(Photo credit: Jen Pottheiser/USTA_

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With word leaking out a few days ahead of time, the various governing bodies of tennis scrambled Wednesday to all get their messages out.

Following the confirmation from New York State governor Andrew Cuomo Tuesday, the US Open held a Zoom video conference with the media Wednesday morning to officially announce it was going ahead with this year’s edition.

A special guest dropped in via pre-taped video: Serena Williams announced that she will take part, in her quest to win that elusive 24th major title.

“This announcement has been on my mind all day. I really cannot wait to return to New York and play the US Open 2020. I feel like the USTA is going to do a really good job that everything is amazing and everyone is safe,” Williams said. “It’s going to be exciting. I’ll certainly miss the fans, don’t get me wrong. I’ll really miss that, and getting me through some of those tough matches. But this is crazy. I’m excited.”

The USTA executives took to the court at empty Arthur Ashe Stadium for the conference, with all the right things about sport and society and the health of the players being said.

“Mike (new USTA CEO Mike Dowse) talked about how this is good for tennis. Well, it’s also good for society because sport is an essential aspect of who we are as human beings. Sport does bring us health and well-being. Even to watch sport, it brings us so much pleasure.” USTA chief medical officer Brian Hainline said.

The USTA held its press conference – properly socially distanced – on court, inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. (Photo credit: Jen Pottheiser/USTA)

“THE 2020 US OPEN WILL BE PLAYED on its regularly scheduled date here at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, right here in New York City! (emphasis ours) In this trying year, that’s not just good news, that’s remarkable news,” said former president Katrina Adams, who was subbing for her successor, Patrick Galbraith, and elaborated on the USTA’s efforts both with the pandemic and regarding racial equality.

The details of what the USTA has been planning as far as creating a safe bubble have already been out there for awhile.

There are a few modifications.

Private team housing available

The main one is that the players will be allowed, if they choose, to opt for private housing over the rooms that would be allocated for them at the designated player hotels – including the TWA Hotel, which was confirmed as a host venue Wednesday.

The players will be given two rooms at the hotel – one comped, the other on their own dime. They can bring up to three additional guests (assuming they want to share their own room, like the old days). But there was no confirmation that all of those guests would be allowed on the tournament site.

Another is that the original plan for 24-team draws for doubles at the Open itself has been expanded to 32 teams. And that the doubles rankings will get priority; typically, at majors, players can use either their singles or doubles rankings to sign up.

It’s an easy concession to make; with so much tennis potentially in store, after such a long layoff, some of the better singles players on the women’s side may well take a pass on doubles. On the men’s side, the top singles players rarely play doubles at majors anyway, with the best-of-five set format in singles.

The corporate suites, which will go unused, will be repurposed as lounges for the seeded players.

The qualifying draws for the relocated Cincinnati tournament will also be expanded – from 32 to 48. The doubles draw for the men, which usually is 28, has been expanded to 32 to match the women’s draw.

Those charter flights from various cities, to ferry the players into New York? That went by the boards. You’d have to think they quickly realized it wasn’t a game-changer for the top-ranked players they want to take part in the tournament. So the expense wasn’t really justified for the rank and file.

This and that

*New York State, as of Wednesday, is the fifth-lowest in the U.S. in terms of RT value (the effective reproduction number, or a gauge to determine how fast the virus is spreading).

*There will be more food on site than previously thought, with outdoor cafés for the players and a takeaway service, so that the players can bring food back to their hotel. There will be movie threatres, gaming, a football field and basketball court.

The USTA plans to turn the site into a tennis players’s fantasy land with a soccer field, outdoor cafés and lots of other perks.

*The seeded players in the singles draws will get a corporate suite in which to relax, prepare, social distance. With no fans on site, those loges would not be used.

*The players will be tested directly at the hotel when they arrive. And it will be the swab test.

*The deadlines for the Cincinnati tournament will remain as normal – six weeks before the tournament. For the US Open, the players will be automatically entered by ranking (as usual, the top 200 would be signed on). But new US Open tournament director Stacey Allaster said they “are going through a process where we will work with both tours.” Final details on flexibility – say, if a player didn’t want to take part at the deadline, but improving conditions made them change their mind – to come.

*There was no concrete admission that the top players may not play.

“We are going to have incredible star power for the Western & Southern Open and US Open. We know and we respect that all athletes are going to need to make this decision on their own,” Allaster said. “There are a lot of questions. We have 59 days when we will open the tournament hotel. There will be ongoing conversations with athletes to help them understand the plan and then some ultimately will make their own decision, just as they always do. We are confident that we do have a lot of players and interest who want to compete.”

Allaster said she was conscious of the fact that “most athletes will most likely decide 2-3 weeks before”. So that withdrawal list is going to be a bear. It would be irresponsible of the players to not at least keep their options open and remain on the entry list until the last possible minute.

You wonder if those who do pull out late, and claim an injury, will still be able to take advantage of the “half the first-round prize money” option that was instituted preciously.

Policing the rebels

The notion that a tennis tournament can police hundreds of grown adults into not leaving their hotels for weeks is a fairly ludicrous one. Especially now that many of the top players could opt for the more expensive off-site accommodations.

The US Open is relying on their … maturity? Respect for humankind?

“I think as we are all returning to work, we all have a responsibility to ourselves, to our fellow co-workers. I have a lot of confidence in these professional athletes, together with the tours,” Allaster said. “It’ll be on all of us to do our part to be able to stage this event in the safest and healthiest way. I’m confident that the athletes who do decide to join us will share that responsibility.”

Dr. Hainline said that the bubble concept and the contact tracing makes them confident that if someone does come up positive, it won’t spread.

Wild cards will remain

With no qualifying, the initial cutoff for the singles main draws will be at 120 players – with the eight remaining spots going to wild cards.

The USTA is maintaining those, and confirmed on the call Wednesday that the winners of the U.S. 18s nationals would each receive one.

Will they need them for last-minute converts? Will they hand them all out to Americans and perhaps a player like Kim Clijsters? To be determined.

*There will be full complements of line umpires on Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums. The outer courts will use Hawkeye Live technology instead. All of the courts will have chair umpires. That’s a pretty significant expense.

On the two big courts, there will be six-ballperson crews; on the outer courts, it will be three per court.

Coronovavirus care … in Corona Park

Open Court asked if the players would be required to sign a waiver (à la President Trump’s rally in Tulsa next week) attesting that they will not hold the USTA responsible if they come up positive on a test, with the potential loss of earnings that would result from being pulled out of the tournament (not to mention the cost of isolation and/or medical care).

The answer was … part answer, and part non-answer.

Dr. Hainline said that while it was “highly unlikely” a player would catch the virus at the US Open, the notion of a waiver has not been discussed at the USTA board level. “And it really doesn’t make a lot of sense to sign that,” Dr. Hainline said.

As for the second part of our question, on whether the tournament would foot the bill if a player – or a team members – came up positive and had to self-isolate in an expensive New York hotel room for weeks (never mind have to be hospitalized), Allaster indicated that “our medical professionals would care for them, in the hotel or alternative location”.

But she did not expressly confirm the tournament would pay. Nor did she address the question of what happens if a team member comes up positive. We have spoken to several players who don’t plan to bring a coach to the US Open for precisely that reason – the potential cost to them could be significant.

How many positives = shutdown?

Dr. Hainline said that decisions on shutting down an event are made by the local health departments, not the events themselves (no doubt that also helps get the events off the hook with their insurance companies, as we’ve seen earlier during this pandemic).

He said that those decisions were not based on a specific number, but on modelling. “If you have a sense that there’s a contagion within your microcosm of society, yes, that would lead to a shutdown,” he said.

The minimum number of tests for the players and teams will be once upon arrival at the team hotel, and once weekly thereafter.

If a player puts himself or herself at risk – and therefore others – that paradigm can change. The testing would be ramped up significantly. It could be as often as every other day.

The testing will be the dreaded swab – the Polymerase Chain Reaction test (PCR), the nasopharyngeal swab procedure which Dr. Hainline said “approaches 100 per cent sensitive”. The point of care tests, he said, had less sensitivity – about 80 per cent – so the potential for false negatives (or positives) was increased.

It’s … unpleasant. Especially every other day.

Allaster pointed out that a rarely-used clause in the Grand Slam rulebook allows the chief medical officer of a tournament to make a decision that an athlete is not eligible to compete for “health reasons”.

That would be tough to challenge in court, as it’s already established in the rule book. So even if a player tested positive and was asymptomatic, they might not have an argument.

What would happen if a player were withdrawn because of a positive test – which then was revealed to be a false positive – is a possibility we don’t even want to think about yet.