Kristie Ahn tried to block out the din.
It was Saturday afternoon of Labor Day weekend last year, and Ahn, a 27-year-old Stanford graduate from New Jersey, was on the United States Open’s Grandstand court upsetting the former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko to reach the round of 16 at a major for the first time.
After she served an ace to close out the 6-3, 7-5 win, Ahn burst into tears and finally allowed herself time to soak in the adoration that comes with being a local hero at the U.S. Open.
“The crowd was crazy,” said Ahn as she prepared to return to the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for this year’s vastly altered Open. “Sad that it won’t be the same, but I’ll always have that awesome memory.”
The 2020 Open, starting on Monday, is proceeding on time this year, though with drastic alterations because of the pandemic. With no spectators, far fewer players competing, smaller support staffs and no smell of hamburgers and waffle fries coming from the food court, the tournament may seem more closed than open.
“One of my favorite things to do was to stand by the East Gate at 9:30 in the morning on Opening Day and watch tens of thousands of people stream in,” said Danny Zausner, chief operating officer of the National Tennis Center, which was turned into a field hospital in the spring for coronavirus patients. “There’s a vast difference in hearing sirens and seeing ambulances to watching fans excited about tennis.”
Since its inception in 1881, the United States Nationals, now the U.S. Open, unlike the other three majors, has never been canceled. Wimbledon, the oldest of the Grand Slam tournaments, as well as what are now known as the French and Australian Opens, were all halted during both world wars.
But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decreed that organized sports like baseball, tennis and college football games would serve as morale boosters for Americans. So, the U.S. Nationals played on.
Even when the coronavirus roared through New York City, and especially Queens, in March, United States Tennis Association officials were optimistic about hosting this year’s Open.
“I never lost faith that we would have the Open,” said Zausner, although he admitted that the changes had left him uneasy, including allowing only adults to serve as ball persons.
“I can’t help thinking about the 14-year-old kid who last year just missed out on making the cut but grew a couple of inches over the winter and couldn’t wait to try out again,” he said. “A lot of people are missing out.”
The most notable omission will be the nearly 750,000 spectators from all over the world who race through the grounds in search of the best matches, their favorite players or a souvenir T-shirt.
Gone will be the crush of fans with their noses pressed against the fence, waiting for Novak Djokovic, Naomi Osaka or 16-year-old Coco Gauff to exit the practice courts, pose for a selfie or sign their giant yellow tennis ball. There will be no bellowing as a favorite player emerges onto Arthur Ashe Stadium for a night match that could extend into the early morning.
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Also missing from this year’s Open will be several of the game’s best women: No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, No. 2 Simona Halep, the defending champion Bianca Andreescu, Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens and Belinda Bencic.
Many of the top men will also not be playing, including the defending champion Rafael Nadal, the five-time winner Roger Federer, Gael Monfils and the 2016 champion Stan Wawrinka. Federer and Andreescu are rehabbing knee injuries, but the others have declined over travel concerns. The Bryan brothers, 42-year-old twins Mike and Bob, abandoned their plan to end their careers at the Open and announced their retirement on Thursday.
With no defending champions playing, that creates opportunity for others, like for Karolina Pliskova and Dominic Thiem to grab their first Grand Slam title. Or for Djokovic and Sofia Kenin to win their second straight. (They won the Australian Open in February.) Or for Serena Williams to finally tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 majors.
The players who are in New York went through a Covid-19 testing program before they entered the tightly controlled area between the Tennis Center and player housing that is designed to mitigate the chance for infection. Testing will continue throughout the tournament, and anyone infected will be forced to withdraw.
Most competitors are staying at one of two Long Island hotels, though a handful of players, like Djokovic and Williams, have opted for private housing where they must pay for a U.S.T.A.-approved security guard to monitor their comings and goings. No player is allowed to travel anywhere other than between housing and the tournament.
This Open will look and feel different for everyone. Gone are the qualifying, mixed doubles, juniors and legends competitions. Wheelchair tennis was also briefly scrapped but, after an outcry, was reinstated. Instead of winning players smacking signed tennis balls to fans on the upper deck of the stadium, they will try to hit targets, with sponsor money going to Rally to Rebuild, a U.S.T.A. charity. There will also be a virtual opening-night event and pre-match virtual coin tosses featuring past U.S. Open champions honoring health care workers.
With fewer players, the tournament will use only 13 of the traditional 18 courts, leaving out the Grandstand. Each of those courts, except for Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong Stadiums, will be devoid of linespeople, replaced by Hawk-Eye Live, an automated system that uses technology to call lines.
To enforce social distancing among the players and their now-limited teams, competitors are allowed minimal time in the locker rooms, training facilities and on-site gym. The top 32 seeds have each been given one of the luxury suites that encircle Arthur Ashe Stadium to use as a private lounge. And the South Plaza, with its fountain that is lit at night, has been turned into a playground, with basketball hoops and mini-golf, all with an eye toward keeping people outside and away from each other.
“A monumental amount of work has gone into establishing this protocol,” said Micky Lawler, the president of the Women’s Tennis Association, who has been negotiating for months on behalf of her players. “They had to build out a system from scratch involving everybody from food-service providers and drivers to the players and security guards. So far, they’ve beaten the odds.”
To compensate for the lack of live spectators, a sound system will provide background noise and cheering derived from matches played in 2019. Courtside seats have been covered in canvas tarps adorned by artwork painted by Black artists in celebration of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“With an empty stadium, we have a tremendous opportunity to show the game from a different perspective,” said Jamie Reynolds, ESPN’s vice president of production. “Tennis is a geometric sport. By bringing cameras lower in the bowl, we can deconstruct the play from many different angles.
“The challenge for ESPN is how close can we get to the players to convey what the experience of Grand Slam tennis in 2020 is like,” added Reynolds, who plans to give cellphones to players to allow them to use Skype for interviews.
“I’m not worried about the action.” he said. “I’m worried about the entertainment value.”
“As Billie Jean King once said, ‘Champions adjust,’” said 40-year-old Venus Williams, a two-time champ competing in her 22nd US. Open. “I’m just grateful to play professional sports at this time. I’m grateful for the fans and I’ll miss them desperately. I don’t think anyone will ever take fans for granted again.”