The final step was getting approval from state and local officials regarding the public-safety implications, and Cuomo shared the endorsement via social media Tuesday, tweeting: “The @usopen will be held in Queens, NY, without fans from August 31 to September 13. The USTA will take extraordinary precautions to protect players and staff, including robust testing, additional cleaning, extra locker room space, and dedicated housing & transportation.”
No spectators will be permitted, and players will be required to follow rules and precautions that world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, a three-time U.S. Open champion, called “extreme” and hinted are a possible dealbreaker for his participation.
The men’s and women’s pro tours have been shut down since March because of the highly contagious virus.
“At the end of the day, whatever plan we put forward will be guided by our first principles of health and safety for everyone involved,” U.S. Tennis Association spokesman Chris Widmaier said in a telephone interview before Tuesday’s announcement.
Under a revamping of the North American hard-court calendar, the U.S. Open will be preceded at the same site for the first time — and under the same restrictions — by the Western & Southern Open, a week-long hard-court tuneup that’s traditionally held near Cincinnati.
“Being able to hold these events in 2020 is a boost for the City of New York and the entire tennis landscape,” USTA chief executive officer Mike Dowse said in a statement, promising further details Wednesday.
Also Wednesday, Washington’s Citi Open is expected to announce its plans, according to a person familiar with deliberations over the tennis calendar, with an Aug. 16 start the most likely option.
The U.S. Open will mark the second major of the year and the first since February, when Djokovic and American Sofia Kenin won the singles titles at the Australian Open. Wimbledon canceled its 2020 edition because of the virus. The French Open, which was scheduled to begin in late May, announced it would postpone its start until Sept. 20, just a week after the U.S. Open is scheduled to end.
It is far from clear how many top-ranked players will travel to New York to compete in the U.S. Open. Like Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep are among those who have acknowledged concerns in recent weeks about the health risks of participating.
“Well, [it] is not the ideal situation, honestly. If you ask me today if I want to travel today to New York to play [a] tennis tournament, I will say, ‘No, I will not,’ ” Nadal told reporters during a June 4 conference call. “In a couple of months, I don’t know how the situation [is] going to improve. Hopefully [it is] going to improve the right way.”
Barty voiced concerns in an email to the Associated Press, writing, “I understand the tournaments are eager to run but keeping everyone safe has to be the priority.” Djokovic told Serbia’s state broadcaster, RTS, that his season probably would resume on clay, with an eye toward the French Open in September.
Under the protocols, players will be subjected to numerous restrictions to guard against contracting and spreading the coronavirus.
Among them: Players could be accompanied by only one person (whether coach, physical therapist or spouse); must stay en masse in a designated hotel near the tournament site in Queens (rather than in Manhattan, where players routinely spend the fortnight); show evidence that they do not have the virus; be tested frequently during the tournament and be ousted if they test positive at any point.
Djokovic called the restriction on traveling parties “really impossible,” saying, “You need your coach, then a fitness trainer, then a physiotherapist.”
Nonetheless, U.S. Open officials are pushing forward largely because of the revenue the tournament generates and the fact that the USTA failed to secure insurance against cancellation as Wimbledon officials did, which made the decision to cancel less financially impactful.
The fact that no spectators would be allowed at the U.S. Open will drastically curtail the USTA’s annual revenue, depriving it of ticket receipts, concession and merchandise sales and on-site sponsorship deals over the two-week event, which holds separately ticketed day and night sessions that in 2019 brought nearly 800,000 fans to the grounds.
But there is financial incentive to hold even a radically retooled event to fulfill obligations to the sport’s broadcast partners, ESPN and Tennis Channel, and to showcase tennis as live sporting events gradually return to the global landscape.
“The U.S. Open is obviously a touchstone cultural moment for the world, as is each one of the majors,” Ken Solomon, chief executive of Tennis Channel, said in a telephone interview. “It’s important not only to the Tennis Channel but to New York and the country. If we can do it, and do it in a way that’s responsible, it will show the inventiveness, the ability, and serve as a societal teaching moment to help people see that there are different ways to do what we do in our lives and still get it done.”
It will also underscore the profound impact the virus has had — and will likely have — on spectator sports.
On a macro level, tennis going forward must confront the question of whether a virtually year-round, global calendar is practical in a post-pandemic world. And on an individual level, the havoc wreaked by the virus stands to alter the legacies of champions who are nearing the end of their careers.
With Roger Federer announcing this month that he won’t compete again until 2021 after undergoing a second surgical procedure on his right knee, the Swiss master will hit pause on his record 20 majors while his top challengers will have two opportunities, in theory, to close the gap (Djokovic has 17 majors) or equal or surpass him (Nadal has 19).
Serena Williams, who on Sept. 26 will join Federer in turning 39, is also racing against history. Her place as the game’s greatest female player is assured, but there is one mark she hasn’t achieved: equaling and surpassing Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slam titles (most of them compiled before the Open era, when the women’s game lacked the depth of the modern era). Williams has 23 major singles titles.
For many players, the biggest barrier is “getting there.”
To that end, U.S. Open officials have explored the possibility of providing charter flights to New York from a handful of locations around the world that would enable players and their traveling companions to stay in a tennis “bubble” en route. Still, players would have to find ways to reach the charters’ departure cities, requiring additional commercial flights by some.
But from the USTA’s perspective, the complex machinations are worth it because the U.S. Open accounts for the bulk of its annual revenue. The organization announced June 8 that it was eliminating 110 jobs (roughly 20 percent of its workforce) and reducing salaries as an upshot of a reexamination of its priorities that was already underway but sped up as a result of the virus.