The grandest stage in all of tennis is a 24,000-seat coliseum that usually teems with life during the U.S. Open.

Arthur Ashe Stadium, the jewel of Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York, isn’t just a monument to the sport, it’s the perfect emblem for the United States’ lone Grand Slam. Breathtakingly massive and usually packed tight during the first two weeks of September, fans looking for affordable seats have plenty of options toward the top of the arena, while celebrities and those willing to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars sit closer to the action.

Then there are the stadium’s 80 luxury suites, afforded to the event’s corporate sponsors for an average of $500,000 for the fortnight, where crisply dressed elites flock and champagne flows. Except for this year.

With no fans allowed at the 2020 U.S. Open because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the players have taken over.

The U.S. Tennis Association converted 67 suites for personal use by the 32 seeded players (and their teams) in the men’s and women’s events and three past champions — Andy Murray, Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters. And they are getting heavy use. When Murray battled Yoshitiho Nishioka on Tuesday for his first match at a major since January 2019, just about the only people watching in person were his peers. Sofia Kenin came out, as did Dominic Thiem. Grigor Dimitrov and Felix Auger-Aliassime were there. Naomi Osaka stopped by, apparently stressed out watching two of her favorites play each other, and Arthur Ashe Stadium suddenly looked more like the locker room than tennis’s largest venue.

“I just enjoy watching tennis,” said Clijsters, who took in matches before she lost her first-round match Tuesday. “I enjoy the sport. Obviously, it’s fun when you get to go to a stadium and watch Serena play, you get to go to a stadium and it’s empty and Novak Djokovic is playing.”

Aside from tapping into players’ inner fandom, the converted suites have a practical purpose. The stadium’s locker rooms, which usually hold up to 300 people, have been limited to 30 at a time, and there’s a time limit on access. The capacity of the player dining room was also reduced from 300 to 50, with rented tables and chairs outdoors making up the difference.

In the meantime, suites have become a popular hangout spot to eat or relax.

“They have, like, normal water, protective gear, all of the hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes, sanitizing stuff, masks, everything you could possibly think of,” Sloane Stephens said. “Then, obviously, we can order food from there. We just have our little QR code. You press what you want. It comes in like five minutes. You can order whatever you want.”

If a seeded player loses, their suite is handed down to the next highest-ranked player remaining in the draw. Players have added personalized touches — Clijsters hung a mini basketball hoop in hers. Former player-turned-coach Janko Tipsarevic spruced up fellow Serbians Novak Djokovic’s and Filip Krajinovic’s suites with a bit of red carpet and greenery he ordered online.

Some players are simply passing time and taking in the tennis with little else to do at this year’s U.S. Open, with travel to Manhattan prohibited. Other players like to support their friends or countrymen, such as the group of Britons who went out to cheer on Cameron Norrie when he upset Diego Schwartzman in the first round.

Without a real crowd to provide a lift, even a few scattered players can make a difference.

“I had my father-in-law there. He was up in the suite watching me,” Murray said after his first-round win. “I had my brother there with his coach watching. There was a few of the British players that came out to watch and support, as well. Although the atmosphere was very flat overall, at the end of the match and as I was starting to turn it around, I could at least look up and see some faces in different points of the court to give me a little bit of encouragement, which definitely, definitely helped.”

But Murray also admitted there is added pressure with other players looking on. Asked whether there was anyone he wouldn’t want watching a match of his, he laughed and recalled a time when Roger Federer watched him face Stan Wawrinka, another Swiss player, at the Olympics.

“It was just a bit weird looking up and seeing him sitting in the players’ box when usually you look up and see kind of coaches and family and whatnot. He was there in his Swiss track suit and stuff,” Murray said. “I don’t know. He’s obviously one of the best players of all time, and he was, yeah, just sitting in the box. I played well in that match, so I don’t want to say he put me off.

“I mean, there’s not anyone I wouldn’t want to watch me, but definitely you feel certain player’s presence more than others.”

For others, having access to the suites is a simple joy because it unlocked a previously unexplored — an undeniably swanky — area of the tennis center.

Fourth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas has been to the U.S. Open many times now but still remembers the first time he saw a match in Arthur Ashe Stadium. He was 15, playing the juniors tournament and got to watch Federer play Wawrinka, a day he said he remembers because a photo he snapped of the match later sold for thousands of euros online.

Being in a suite is a whole new level.

“No, never. In that suite? I couldn’t afford it,” Tsitsipas said with a laugh when asked if he’d ever been in one before. “ … I have plenty of clothes in the suite and all of my belongings and stuff. I wish they had a picture of me, but they only have pictures of Serena, Rafa and Roger. I’ll have to wait for that.”

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