You must isolate in your room immediately following a test, agree to stay within a certain location or risk expulsion and pay for 24-hour security if you wish to rent private housing. These are just some of the extreme measures that have been implemented at the US Open.
The New York Grand Slam is taking place during unprecedented times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. America knows all too well the severity of the disease with the country recording more than 5 million cases and a record death toll of over 174,000. The fact the US Open and its lead-up tournaments are taking place at all is an achievement in itself. Although for some players such as Ash Barty, Rafael Nadal and Simona Halep they have opted not to play amid health-related concerns.
Those who have travelled to New York find themselves in unfamiliar territory at an event they attend each year. Although it is not just the players who have been affected.
In Adam Lownsbrough, the coach of world No.72 doubles player Miyu Kato, and Garry Cahill, mentor to Russia’s Vitalia Diatchenko, UbiTennis spoke to two tennis coaches about what life is really like currently on Tour amid the COVID-19 restrictions.
“Flying for the first time for six months everyone would be slightly nervous, especially long distance, but we also know the risks,” Lownsbrough told UbiTennis about his decision to go to New York.
“Upon arrival at the hotel and the (US Open) site everything was very smooth and the rules clear. You can tell the staff want the event to go smoothly so they have done their best to make everyone feel comfortable and have clarity on the rules.
“On site it’s different, but there is plenty of space to walk around so social distancing is easy. In the restaurant they are using QR codes to order so once you’ve sat down you only stand up again to leave.”
Cahill, who is also known for his collaboration with former player and compatriot Connor Niland, admits that he too was apprehensive upon arrival. Unlike other areas of America, New York has managed to maintain their infection rate and prevent a sudden spike in recent weeks.
“I guess nobody knew what to expect but in some ways it’s easier! Less people, easier to get around and no cues in restaurants,” he said.
“I have not seen anyone breaking these rules, it seems to be really well adhered to. Guess people all want the same thing, safe competition,” Cahill added.
Due to the pandemic, the Western and Southern Open is also being held at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center. Upon arrival, everybody undergoes a test and is told to self-isolate until they learn their result which usually takes 24 hours. Even if their result is negative, they will still be tested throughout their stay. So far the only positive result concerned a worker at the event. Guido Pella and Hugo Dellien are in quarantine after being exposed to somebody who has the virus.
Cahill’s experience of his first test saw him waiting slightly longer than usual. After undergoing the procedure last Sunday, his team wasn’t given the all-clear until Tuesday morning. It is unclear what the delay was but officials have already conducted more than 13,000 tests. For Lownsbrough, his impression of the process was positive.
“The testing process is well organised and quick. The nose swabs are performed by each individual under clear instructions. From the medical staff we receive the results sent by email/text. Again, it’s very clear and the staff have been excellent.”
‘If people can’t do that then it’s a bit of a joke’
The USTA, who runs the US Open, has put a lot of emphasis on the rules in the year of a global pandemic but how well are they being followed?
Even in recent days at least one of these policies has been adjusted. The insistence of wearing a mask on site has been relaxed due to the humid conditions but social distancing remains a must. This year the USTA have even hired a group of `social distance ambassadors‘ to ensure everyone is keeping a distance from others.
It seems like protocols are being followed but there were always going to be incidents like any other tournament no matter how minor.
For Lownsbrough, one of his practice sessions started with him seeing litter left on the court from the team prior. Something that is not a new issue for the sport with a debate over plastic bottles erupting during the 2018 Wimbledon Championships following a similar situation.
“The bubble, it is strict but the stricter it is the safer it is in theory. From what I have seen, everyone is respecting it. Some players before our practice left rubbish on the court (used towels, grips, bottles) that could contaminate and can be avoided but sometimes that’s too much to ask of people….” He said.
“At the end of the day we are in the middle of a pandemic so we need to protect ourselves and the people around. There are harder things to do in life than wearing masks, washing hands, keeping your distance etc. If people can’t do that then it’s a bit of a joke.”
Lownsbrough, 36, and Cahill, 47, are no newcomers when it comes to life on the Tour. They have previously travelled to an array of Grand Slam tournaments but like their fellow colleagues this is the first time during the pandemic. Undoubtedly the ‘bubble’ will be a new experience for all but are there also some advantages?
“The obvious on-site benefits are more space to walk around so it feels more relaxed and less intense but it seems pretty much the same as previous events from that side,” Lownsbrough commented.
“Practice courts will have exactly the same access as no fans won’t make any difference to this. It’s easier to move around, less waiting in general, more available seats, and a crazy one but you can charge your phone easily!” Cahill added.
The final verdict
Now both have experienced life inside the bubble, has it lived up to all the hype? The USTA will be under close scrutiny over the coming weeks by many, including rival Grand Slams who are currently working on their own plans related to COVID-19. The French Open starts two weeks after the tournament concludes.
In the view of Lownsbrough, expectations have been met with him saying the responsibility now lies on those attending and not those organising the events.
“I think the USTA so far is doing a good job. They have everything in place from what I have seen. It’s down to us as coaches, players, physios to follow the rules,” he said.
Although his fellow coach on the Tour points out some minor improvements he would have liked to see.
“Maybe have one or two more hotels as the Marriott is completely full of tennis players. I also feel that it would make it easier if players had access to one or two outside restaurants just to get out of hotels but I understand this would be difficult to police,” Cahill says.
As for the impact on the players themselves, some are wondering if the absence of fans could create a more level-playing ground in the draws? The likes of Serena Williams thrive on the adrenaline created by a packed New York crowd. When that is taken away, what may happen?
“I don’t think so, I think the lack of matches may help lower ranked players,” Cahill commented on this theory.
“To be honest, at most WTA events, there aren’t that many with big crowds so we are used to it. Obviously, if it was busy it would be nice and more fun. The players are all professional regardless of ranking and number of spectators so will focus on the job in hand.” Lownsbrough weighed in.
Whatever happens over the coming weeks the US Open will be one that will forever be installed in the history of tennis for an array of reasons. Some have gone as far as suggesting that the event will have an asterisk next to it due to the absence of some top names. Drawing parallels to Wimbledon 1973 when a series of top male players boycotted the event in support of another player after their national federation banned them from playing.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the 2020 US Open is through Cahill’s one-sentence observation.
“It doesn’t feel like New York, it just feels like a tennis club that happens to be in New York.”
Outlook Positive For French Open But Rules Could Change Again, Warns Government
There is growing hope that a significant number of spectators could be allowed to attend but it can’t be guaranteed.
A recent announcement concerning the number of spectators allowed to attend this year’s French Open should be met with caution, according to a senior government official.
Recently the French government outlined their plan for lifting the national lockdown which includes allowing fans back to sporting events. Under their current guidelines, the Grand Slam is set to welcome 1000 spectators per day initially with that number increasing to 5000 in the last five days. The reason for the increase is because the tournament takes place during the same time the country enters ‘phrase three’ of their plans which allows bigger public events providing attendees have been vaccinated or can provide a negative COVID-19 test.
The decision has brought delight to the French Tennis Federation (FFT) who delayed the start of the tournament by a week in hope they would be able to welcome more fans. Furthermore, L’Equipe has reported that up to 12,500 people could be allowed to attend the tournament should it get a ‘test event’ status.
“I am delighted that the discussions with the public authorities, the governing bodies of international tennis, our partners and broadcasters, and the ongoing work with the WTA and ATP, have made it possible for us to postpone the 2021 Roland-Garros tournament by a week. I thank them for this,” Gilles Moretton, president of the FFT said in a statement on the Roland-Garros website.
However, the FFT are not celebrating just yet amid a warning that it is still possible that rules relating to spectators could still change in the coming weeks depending on the COVID-19 pandemic. Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu has told Reuters it is possible that the latest roadmap out of lockdown could be adjusted.
“Something that may be decided today may change a week before the event, or two days before the event, depending on the evolution of the health crisis,” she said.
“If we offer this visibility to the participants and organizers today, they know that this visibility can be modified according to the evolution of the transmission of the virus.”
“I hope that there are no last-minute changes (in the health situation) and that we can work on these protocols sufficiently in advance to know where we stand,” Maracineanu added.
As for players attending the Grand Slam they have been ‘strongly advised’ not to visit any ‘Bright Red’ countries leading up to the event. In a recent email sent to players from the ATP, anybody arriving from India, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and South Africa will be required to go into a 10-day quarantine.
France’s daily Covid infection fell to an almost two-month low on average on Monday but hospitalizations increased by 132.
The French Open will start on 30 May and run until 13 June.
Ash Barty Ready To Embrace Wimbledon Bubble But Konta Hopes For Rule Change
The two top 20 players speak out about the rules that will be enforced at the grass-court major this year.
Women’s world No.1 Ash Barty says the new restrictions being implemented at this year’s Wimbledon Championships are worth it if she gets to play at the Grand Slam again.
The grass-court major is set to take place this year with players facing the strictest rules in the tournament’s history due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All participants will be required to stay within a biosecure bubble at approved hotels. Private housing will not be allowed and even those who may have a house in the city will not be allowed to stay there during their time at Wimbledon. Anybody who breaks the rules faced being disqualified from the event, as well as a fine of up to £14,000.
“It will be strange, without a doubt. But to be a little bit strange, to still be able to play Wimbledon, is certainly my preference,” Barty said following her first round win at the Madrid Open on Wednesday. “It would be a shame to not be able to play that incredible tournament.”
Last year’s Wimbledon Championships got cancelled for the first time in the Open Era due to the pandemic. Unlike the other majors it had the luxury of a pandemic insurance which helped cover the costs. Chairman Ian Hewitt said the total insurance payout amounted to £180 million.
This year there is no pandemic insurance available and officials are planning for a 25% capacity. The tournament is set to start a week after the UK is scheduled to end all of their national restrictions related to the pandemic. Although the timeline could change in the coming weeks depending on case numbers.
“We’re still a couple months away yet. Hopefully in the UK things can settle down, and some sort of normality outside would be brilliant for everyone,” Barty commented.
Konta holding on to hope
Britain’s top player Johanna Konta is less enthusiastic about the prospect of entering another bubble at her home Grand Slam. The world No.18 reached the semi-finals back in 2017 when she became the first British woman to do so since 1978.
“I’m still very hopeful that that might shift and change. As of now I’m just holding onto that hope,” she said about the prospect of having to stay in a hotel instead of her home.
Another blow to the grass season this year is the fact it’s duration has been cut by a week due to the French Open. The French Tennis Federation announced a seven-day delay in a move to maximise their chances of opening their event up to the public. France is currently in a national lockdown.
“I definitely don’t think it’s ideal for the build-up. Wimbledon has obviously lost that week, hopefully just for this year,” Konta admits. “However, I think everyone is just trying to do what’s best for themselves but overall best for the events being put on.”
Earlier this week Wimbledon conducted their annual spring press conference where they revealed plans to introduce play on the middle Sunday. AELTC chief executive Sally Bolton also played down the chances of their bubble plans being changed.
“The minimised risk environment we created for the players is a requirement from the government to bring athletes without them going into quarantine upon entry into the UK,” Bolton told reporters.
The Wimbledon Championships will start on June 28th.
Wimbledon Abolishes Middle Sunday From 2022, Update On 2021 Championships
Wimbledon will become a 14 day tournament from 2022 as a minimum 25% capacity is expected at the Championships this year.
Wimbledon has announced that there will be no more Middle Sunday from 2022 as they look to have spectators for 2021 Championships.
One of Wimbledon’s main traditions will be gone from 2022 onwards as Middle Sunday will be eliminated therefore expanding the tournament to 14 days.
Middle Sunday has been a tradition which has allowed a day’s rest for competitors allowing the grass courts some time to recover for the second week.
However in 2022 there will be play on Middle Sunday as Chairman Ian Hewitt hinted that new technology was the reason for this, “Thanks to improved grass court technology and maintenance over the past five years or so and other measures, we are comfortable that we are able to look after the courts, most particularly Centre Court, without a full day of rest,” Hewitt said.
“This provides us with the opportunity, at an important time, to enhance the accessibility, reach and fanbase of Wimbledon, and tennis, both in the UK and globally. It will also ensure greater resilience and fairness of the tournament programme for our competitors, and enable us to create a different kind of atmosphere on the Middle Sunday, with a strong focus on the local community in particular.”
Moving onto this year’s tournament there is speculation about what capacity will be present in 2021, with all of the UK’s lockdown restrictions being eased a week before the Championships begin.
Chief Executive Sally Bolton has hinted at a 25% capacity to begin with but there is hope that could be increased if Britain’s roadmap out of lockdown is executed successfully, “We very much hope 25% is a minimum position from which we can build – it is our absolute desire to enable as many people as possible to safely attend The Championships this year,” Bolton said.
“At the heart of our thinking is the intention to create the mix of spectators for which Wimbledon is known, while also working hard to protect the financial performance of The Championships, including the surplus that we deliver for the benefit of British tennis.”
Other announcements in the press conference included that Wimbledon had received 180 million pounds due to pandemic insurance, ticket prices will stay at the 2020 level, prize money will be announced in June nearer to the Championships and that each player can only bring a maximum of three members of their entourage.
Despite some restrictions still being in place excitement is building ahead of Wimbledon’s return to the tour, “I would like to say how excited we are that Wimbledon will be back this summer, with the best tennis players in the world competing on our grass courts, in front of our passionate spectators,” Hewitt added.
“While it will, necessarily, be different from Wimbledon as we know it, we are full of enthusiasm and totally committed to our return following last year’s cancellation.”
Wimbledon will take place from the 28th of June until the 11th of July with the defending champions being Novak Djokovic and Simona Halep.
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