The ghostly US Open: a tournament with almost no human contact and a ban on entering Manhattan

On a typical day, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center hosts 50,000 people including players, spectators, organizers and journalists. This time the picture will be totally different (Uli Seit / The New York Times)
On a typical day, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center hosts 50,000 people including players, spectators, organizers and journalists. This time the picture will be totally different (Uli Seit / The New York Times)

There is something very positive in the United States Tennis Open that will begin in a few days: the decision to carry it forward through thick and thin, to do the impossible to remain the Grand slam that never ever stopped playing, not even during the First and Second World Wars. And there are other disturbing, disturbing details amid the dystopian world stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic: the US Open will be a ghostly tournament, with minimal human contact, extreme security, and your back to Manhattan.

"What is being done seems heroic to me", said to Infobae the venezuelan Nicolas Pereira, voice very authorized to analyze what is coming: he played the US Open as a youth, then as a professional and continues to frequent it as a television commentator. “Whoever wins this tournament will have great credit, because it will be played in very difficult conditions. The players are so used to a way of experiencing the circuit that it will be interesting to see it ”.

Pereira is right with one word: see it. It is very important to ask who and how will see the tournament, who will be able to see the men and women fighting for the various US Open titles. And the answer is few, very, very few.

The looming US Open is amazing. On a typical day, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center hosts 50,000 people including players, spectators, organizers and journalists. This time, at most, there will be 3,000, and inevitably everyone will feel in a prison. The situation goes back to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, when journalists and athletes lived in a bubble, a "loop" of accommodation, buses and sports venues from which it was intended that they did not leave. If they did, they could meet the real China. Better to avoid it, was the reasoning of the Beijing government.

It is not exactly the Communist Party that is in command in the United States, but 12 years later the pandemic turned the US Open into a renewed and sophisticated version of that.

The tennis players will play in front of empty stadiums, without spectators, they will not be able to get close to each other during training sessions and games and will live in a bubble which will take them from the tournament to a couple of hotels on Long Island. Anyone who tries to circumvent the system will be expelled and punished. Going out one night in Manhattan, the main extra-tennis attraction of the tournament, before starting the contest? Relax for a couple of hours in the Big Apple after a tough loss or a good victory? Don't even dream of it.

"I don't know how they are going to control that, but it seems that they are going to have secret agents," believes Pereira. Days ago, the Spanish Pedro Hernández, journalist and tennis historian, marked some points of contact between the 2020 US Open and the 1917 one, in the middle of the First World War.

“A war is not a pandemic, but there are similarities between that and this tournament, the only Grand Slam tournament that was held in 1917. Given the enormous number of notable player absences, the tournament was dubbed the National Patriotic Championships. prizes were handed out and the winners' names were not inscribed on the trophies. The benefits went to the Military Red Cross and the results did not influence the national ranking ”.

The hyper-professionalized tennis of these days would make it impossible to repeat what happened 103 years ago. Before that, the tournament would be canceled, but it is true that tennis players and their few companions will experience the 2020 edition in a kind of Big Brother “reloaded” or reloaded. A large part of the food will be delivered to the hotels and the tournament, the linesmen will only exist in the two main stadiums, because in the rest an electronic system will be used, and the players will not be able to have more than one companion. Accustomed to a much more important infrastructure and services, the reality of today's tennis circuit, which is held up with pins, will undoubtedly disconcert more than one player. There are things that they will have to take care of themselves, something that has not happened to them since their youth years.

And although it is known that there will be no spectators at the tournament, what not many are clear about is that there will not be journalists either, with very few exceptions. Those responsible for the tournament held tough discussions with the authorities of the city and the State of New York to enable access to the press, but the end result is that the contest will only be ESPN, producer of the television signal, and a handful of US media, in addition to three international news agencies: the US Associated Press, the british Reuters and the french AFP. They are the three largest agencies in the world and guarantee the arrival to the entire planet. The German dpa, the Spanish efe, the Chinese Xinhua, the Japanese Kyodo, the Italian Ansa or the Russian Sputnik and Itar-Tass will stay at home.

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The newspapers will be all American and almost all New Yorkers: The New York Times, New York Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, and Wall Street Journal. They are joined by USA Today. Two websites, Espn.com and Tennis.com, may also enter the US Open press room. Each of these media will be able to send a single journalist to the tournament, and once there, those journalists will not be able to watch games on the courts or speak in person with the players: everything will be virtual, everything will run through screens.

It will not be the case for the handful of accredited photographers, who will be able to be on the fields taking photos, although with great precautions. It is expected that a journalist from the USTA website, the American Tennis Federation, will have access, although it is something that the tournament negotiates with the local authorities, who do not want more than 11 journalists on the scene. There will be no radio reporters, but ESPN, as the holder of the television rights, he will be with a reduced team in the cement of Queens.

And the rest? How will journalists and major media from around the world who regularly tour the circuit cover the tournament? From their countries and using accreditations and special codes to access a platform where they will hold interviews and press conferences with the players. Without the possibility of seeing in person or on monitors all the matches they need, as is usually the case.

All the restrictions aim to keep all those who circulate through the tournament as far as possible and thus avoid possible contagion, he explained to Infobae Chris Widmaier, USTA Director of Communications: “There will be a number of food outlets in temporary facilities at the tournament, as well as delivery. Everything will be organized to maintain social distance. The players will be able to use the usual changing rooms and some new ones that are being built, new warm-up areas were also created ”.

“The United States Open will be held in controlled environment conditions, both in the tournament and in the transportation and hotel, and that will allow a kind of quarantine for those who arrive in New York. No one will be able to get out of that controlled environment "Widmaier added. "Manhattan is prohibited," he stressed.

Nadal, last champion, and Roger Federer will be absent (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports / File Photo)
Nadal, last champion, and Roger Federer will be absent (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports / File Photo)

Another of the fundamental decisions to make the US Open a tournament as "safe" as possible was that the Masters 1000 in Cincinnati be played in those same facilities two weeks before the Grand Slam. As the organizers ask the players to arrive at this tournament a week before, the stay in the inviolable New York bubble will have a minimum of 15 days and, in many cases, between three weeks and a month. Chilean Sebastián Garín plans to travel to New York this weekend with Andrés Schneiter, his Argentine coach. The same happens with the British Kyle Edmund, trained by the Argentine Franco Davin. All four are based in Miami, and Davin caught and recovered from Covid weeks ago.

The tournament is exceptional wherever you look at it. So much so that It will be the first Grand Slam since 1999 in which neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal are present. The Spaniard's former coach, his uncle Toni, has certain qualms and hopes that not going to New York will not complicate Nadal's goal for this year, winning Roland Garros for the thirteenth time.

Pereira understands Nadal's bet, because he believes that Paris, to be played between September and October, in the French autumn, will pose unprecedented difficulties for Nadal: “If it were Nadal, I would have done exactly the same, I would not risk coming to the United States without a clear outlook of what the rules will be to return. Winning Roland Garros in October is not the same as doing it in June. Conditions are going to be much worse for Nadal, it will not be easy for him to win this year in Paris ”.

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