EXCLUSIVE: What Is It Really Like Being A Coach Working Inside The US Open Bubble - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE: What Is It Really Like Being A Coach Working Inside The US Open Bubble

UbiTennis speaks to two tennis professionals in New York about their experiences amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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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.

https://twitter.com/usopen/status/1296916103264952320

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.”

Grand Slam

Fanless Wimbledon Still On The Cards For Next Year, Says Organisers

The grass-court Grand Slam, which was first held in 1877, has outlined it’s plans for the coming months.

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The All England Lawn Tennis Club has vowed to hold next year’s Wimbledon Championships even if it means the tournament taking place behind closed doors.

 

This year’s grass-court major was axed for the first time since World War Two due to the COVID-19 pandemic and was the only Grand Slam to be cancelled. Although unlike the other three premier events, Wimbledon had the luxury of a pandemic insurance to cover some of its costs. The policy cost in the region of £1.5 million per year and was paid for more than 15 years in a row. Although full details of the payout has not been made public.

However, it will be a different scenario next year with the tournament being unable to be insured by the same policy due to the ongoing pandemic. Now organizers are looking at three options regarding hosting the event with the possibility of a full capacity, reduced capacity or no fans at all. The US Open was held behind closed doors earlier this year but the French Open did allow a limited number of fans. Any decision will be influenced by government policy around the time the event will take place.

Staging The Championships in 2021 is our number one priority and we are actively engaged in scenario planning in order to deliver on that priority,” AELTC Chief Executive Sally Bolton said in a statement.
“I would like to thank the government and public health authorities for their ongoing advice which will continue to be invaluable as The Championships 2021 draws closer. At the same time, we are delighted to demonstrate confidence in Wimbledon with the renewal of several partnerships across our commercial programme which play a significant contribution to the successful staging of The Championships both in 2021 and in the future.”

Amid the uncertainty, Wimbledon is still managing to maintain a strong corporate portfolio with Rolex recently agreeing to extend their partnership. The Swiss luxury watch manufacturer has been working with the Grand Slam since 1978 when it was named the official timekeeper. The AELTC have also renewed deals with Jaguar, IBM, Robinsons and Pimm’s. Meanwhile, Sipsmith has been named the first official gin of the Championships.

As well as planning for next year, Wimbledon has also reiterated their commitment to support those during the pandemic via its charitable foundation. The Wimbledon Foundation has set up a £1.2m Coronavirus Fund to help people living across Merton and Wandsworth, London, as well as other parts of the country. £750,000 has already been donated to local charities and organisations. Furthermore, 30,000 towels meant to be used at this year’s tournament has been redistributed for alternative use by the Foundation. For example 4000 towels were given to the homeless charity Crises.

“Since the cancellation of The Championships 2020, we have worked hard to make a difference to those in our local community and beyond as the coronavirus continues to have a significant impact on people’s lives,” said AELTC chairman Ian Hewitt.
“As the winter period begins, we are pleased to be extending our hot meals programme to continue to help those in need locally for the challenging months ahead. We are committed to using the collective strength of Wimbledon – all the many facets of the Club, The Championships and our Foundation – to play our part.”

The 2021 Wimbledon Championships is set to take place between Monday, 28th June and Sunday, 11th July.

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Grand Slam

Crunch Time Beckons For 2021 Australian Tennis Season, Warns Tiley

The tennis chief speaks out about the challenges he faces in the coming weeks ahead of the start of the new tennis season.

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The head of Tennis Australia admits that plans for tournaments at the start of next year are still up in the air as he waits to hear back from local government officials.

 

Craig Tiley will be overseeing the string of events which also include the premier Australian Open. Prior to the Grand Slam officials are hoping to stage a series of tournaments around the country like it has done in previous years. Although due to the COVID-19 pandemic some states still have border restrictions which makes travelling more challenging.

The ongoing restrictions will be the most troublesome for the ATP Cup which is a multi-team men’s event that took place across three cities this year with Novak Djokovic guiding Serbia to the title. Tiley remains optimistic that everything can go ahead as planned but admits the decision is out of his hands.

“We’re getting to crunch time now. We need commitments from the governments and the health officers,” he told the Australian Associated Press (AAP).
“We need to kind of know in the next two weeks, maybe a month, that this is what can happen: borders are going to open and then we can have a multi-city event.
“If we cannot have a multi-city event, we’ve got to reconsider everything.”

Another key issue will be the 14-day quarantine process players will have to go through. Something they didn’t have at either the US Open or French Open. The hope is local authorities will relax their rules and allow players to train during this period. Enabling Tennis Australia to create a ‘bubble’ for them to live within.

“Right now the challenge we have is the borders are still closed,” he said.
“So we’ve got a plan on the basis that there will be all open borders.
“So we’re working with all state governments. We completely accept that everyone coming from overseas has got to have two weeks in quarantine.
“What we are negotiating, or what we’re trying to have an agreement on, is that we set up a quarantine environment where they can train and go between the hotel and the courts in those two weeks.
“That’s similar to the AFL.
“The difference we have with the AFL is we are bringing in players from overseas so the stakes are higher.”

If players are not allowed to train during this period, Tiley has reportedly ruled out staging the event all together.

“If a player has to quarantine and be stuck in a hotel for two weeks just before their season, that won’t happen,” he stated on Thursday.
“You can’t ask players to quarantine for two weeks and then step out and be ready to play a grand slam.”

According to the AAP, the Melbourne major is set to take place with 25% of its usual crowd capacity and players will be allowed to travel with three members of their team.

The Australian Open is set to get underway on January 18th. Djokovic and Sofia Kenin are the reigning champions.

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Grand Slam

A Solitary Stroll Through Roland Garros

The small number of spectators reveals glimpses of the Parisian system that are often hidden

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PARIS – Seeing the avenues that connect the various fields of a relatively deserted Slam tournament is an experience that rarely happens during the course of the tournament, and is normally limited to the days or periods in which access is allowed only to staff members. During the 2020 French Open, however, it was quite common to see the areas in front of the various courts almost completely empty.

 

What you see below is the area between the southern Grandstand of the Philippe Chatrier court and the various commercial stands that border the area reserved to camera crews. When a match has just finished on the main court, that area becomes very crowded and going from the beginning to the end of that stretch, more or less 50 meters long, could take up to ten minutes.

The South Side of Court Philippe Chatrier


At the bottom of this passage is the new “Musketeers Square”, an open space that was enlarged for the 2020 edition thanks to the demolition of the old Court 1, the famous “bullring”, which was inaugurated in 1980 but has now been replaced by the Court Simonne Mathieu as the third most important court of the Roland Garros.

Musketeers Square
Court Philippe Chatrier seen from Musketeers Square

A giant screen has been placed in this area (to mimic Wimbledon’s notorious “Henman hill” and the US Open’s “main plaza” opposite the main entrance of Arthur Ashe Stadium), as well at tables for spectators and the main commercial stands for the sponsors of the tournament.

The Roland Garros Boutique
The East side of Musketeers Square

In the background of the Musketeers Square, to the left of this image is the tournament’s official Boutique, where the official Roland Garros merchandise is sold, while the gateway leading to the Serre d’Auteuil and the Court Simonne Mathieu is at the bottom, after the commercial stands and courts 2 and 4.

The Court Simonne Mathieu, inaugurated in 2019, was built as a compromise between the expansion of Roland Garros and the conservation of the Auteuil greenhouses. The court is surrounded by greenhouses, one on each side, which symbolize the ecosystem of four continents of the earth with plants typical of each of these habitats.

Returning to Philippe Chatrier, courts 2 and 4 can be seen – they are among those that have the smallest stands and are typically used for training during “standard” editions of the tournament. This year, however, players were not allowed to enter the facility on the days when they were not supposed to compete, and therefore these courts were used almost exclusively for matches.

Looking beyond the Philippe Chatrier court, you can see the unmistakable profile of the Court Suzanne Lenglen, in front of which there is a high relief dedicated to the unforgettable champion of the 1920’s.

Court Suzanne Lenglen

Part of the area in front of the second main court is currently a construction site, as two of the courts are being rebuilt as part of the project that will see a mobile roof built over the Suzanne Lenglen to allow the tournament to have a second court with a retractable roof and to prepare the facility to host boxing matches during the 2024 Paris Olympics.

During this year’s tournament, all the refreshment stands around the Suzanne Lenglen court were not opened due to the particularly low number of spectators (only 1000 per session allowed by the French authorities), including one that allowed order through the tournament’s app and to collect it without having to queue like in traditional stores.

Behind the Suzanne Lenglen, the newest area of ​​the facility is to be found, with courts numbered from 12 to 14, plus two training courts, number 15 and 16. All of these courts have been equipped with artificial lighting mounted on telescopic pylons so that they can be lowered during the day and thus not cause the characteristic shadows on the court that can disturb the players.

As a gift to the authorised press members, and to try to increase the turnover of the present bar, journalists were given the opportunity to access the catwalk on the sixth floor of the Philippe Chatrier, usually reserved for stand-up TV sports shows. A rather peculiar view of the matches on the main court is to be had up here – the area has some tables to the work as well as a fully functional air conditioning system.

Translated by Andrea Ferrero; edited by Tommaso Villa

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