Tennis fans in the United States had more than one reason to celebrate July 4. It was the day that marked the beginning of the All-American Tennis Team Cup, the first exhibition tennis event in the country to allow spectators in the stands at the venue in Atlanta, Georgia since the pandemic broke out.
But the tournament – which featured the top eight American men’s singles players – came with the harsh reminder as to why social distancing protocols are of utmost need in present times, as one of the players, Frances Tiafoe, tested positive for Coronavirus after playing his first match at the event.
The world no 81 became the fifth active player to be infected by the virus after taking part in an exhibition event. The other four – Novak Djokovic, Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki – tested positive after competing at Djokovic’s ill-fated charity event, the Adria Tour.
Djokovic’s charity, started on June 13 and played in four cities across the Balkans, had been organised without any safety or social distancing measures in place. The US exhibition meanwhile did pay heed to some protocol, but the event was taking place at a time when COVID-19 has been on a rapid rise in the country.
Crucially, while the Adria Tour was called off before the end of the second leg in Croatia, organisers at the Atlanta-event decided to simply replace Tiafoe with Christopher Eubanks and continue with the three-day event.
But with a player now testing positive as a result of a tennis event in the US, and with the growing rate of cases in the United States, the country’s most prestigious tennis tournament, the US Open may suffer. “Right now, I’m not even sure it’s going to happen,” says former India Davis Cup captain Anand Amritraj, a Los Angeles resident. “In my opinion, I think the US Open is hanging by a thread right now.”
What is the COVID-19 situation in the US at the moment?
The organisers of the US Open, the USTA, had confirmed on June 16 that the Grand Slam would take place. Since then, however, there has been a drastic rise in cases all across the country.
As of data recorded on July 4, in 18 days, the total number of cases in the US has risen from 2,211,406 to 2,935,770, which is an increase of 724,364 cases. In terms of active cases, June 16 had a total of 1,163,750 cases, which rose by 379,297 cases to the 1,543,047 active cases on July 4. However, New York – the host city for the US Open, which was considered the epicentre for the virus in the US – has been on a declining trend with fewer active cases now than on June 16.
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To tackle the pandemic, the USTA had opened up its Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre – the 42-acre complex that hosts the US Open – for relief work. The 14,000-seater Louis Armstrong Stadium, the second biggest show-court in the venue, had been converted into a commissary that would prepare meal packages for up to 25,000.
Were there any protocols in place at the All-American Team Tennis Cup and Adria Tour?
According to the Atlanta-event’s website, a limited number of fans (450 attended on Saturday) would be allowed. Each spectator’s temperature would be checked and only those with a temperature of and below 100.4 degree Fahrenheit (38 degree Celsius) will be allowed inside. Masks were not compulsory, but would be provided upon request. Spectators were also made to sit at least six-feet apart.
Meanwhile, the Adria Tour had seemingly no protocols. Players were seen hugging and high-fiving. They were also invited to play in exhibition football and basketball matches, and had attended parties. Spectators were not made to wear masks, nor maintain a safe distance.
So far, the most expansive event to have taken place was a 16-player women’s exhibition event – that included two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens and reigning Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin – in Charleston, South Carolina starting from June 23.
“In a 10,000-seater stadium, only 50 people were allowed as spectators, and that was basically family members,” says Amritraj, who watched his daughter-in-law Alison Riske from the sidelines. “One umpire, one ball-person on either side, you call your own lines. It looked like a junior event. You didn’t touch the same balls, once you left court you wore a mask and kept safe distance, you don’t shake hands, you just tap racquets after a match. Everyone was extremely careful, so you know it can be done safely. The US Open though is a massive event by comparison.”
What are the safety protocols presented by the US Open?
The US Open is expected to start on August 31. No fans will be allowed inside the venue at all. Players, and the one person accompanying them if coming from abroad, will need to pass a COVID-19 test before they are allowed to board a plane to come to New York. Upon arrival, they will be tested again and transported to the designated hotel. Players’ movement will be restricted between the hotel and stadium only.
There will be no qualification round in singles, and the doubles draw will be reduced to 24 teams from the usual 64.
At the moment, the city’s government has imposed a 14-day quarantine period for all domestic and international travellers coming to New York.
Will the French Open also be held behind closed doors?
As of now, no. The French Tennis Federation is expected to host the French Open from September 27 with 50 to 60 per cent capacity — around 20,000 fans on site per day.
“The number of spectators allowed inside the stadium will be 50% to 60% of its usual capacity, allowing us to ensure the barrier measures are respected,” read a statement by the association. “This means that on the three show courts, the tiered seating will follow a precise protocol: on every row, one seat will be left empty between every group of purchasers (a maximum of 4 people who wish to sit in adjacent seats). On the outside courts, every other seat will be out of bounds, and spectators may sit in any of the available seats.”
Is there a fear within organisers that players may break protocol?
After competing at the Adria Tour, world no 7 Alexander Zverev tested negative, but put a statement on his social media account that he would be self-isolating. However, a few days later, videos emerged showing the German breaking quarantine protocol to attend at a party at Eze, France.
Subsequently, Amritraj asserts the fear of players breaking protocol will be a factor among organisers.
“That will definitely come into the picture because you have to look after 300 odd people. The players and people hanging around them,” Amritraj explains. “Then you’re going to need another 300 people minding them. It’ll be like babysitting. Unless you have somebody watching over them the whole time, somebody is going to break the rules for sure, in my opinion. You have to have somebody watching over them constantly, I don’t know if USTA is ready for that.”
Why is the USTA pushing to have the US Open?
In one word, money.
When the Wimbledon Championships decided to cancel the edition this year, the LTA reportedly received GBP 250 million since their insurance policy had protection against a pandemic. Neither the US Open nor the French Open are known to have such an insurance plan.
“The US Open is where most of the money comes in for the USTA’s budget for the whole year,” Amritraj adds. “If they cancel the US Open, they stand to lose something like USD 350 million. That’s why they’re pushing for it.”
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