Mailbag: The 2020 U.S. Open Is On, But Questions Still Linger

The 2020 U.S. Open will be held without fans as planned in late August in New York, but what will the tournament look like amid the pandemic?
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Let’s start with the 2020 U.S. Open, which will be held in—wait for it—Corona Park at its appointed dates, August 24 through September 13. A lot of you have written in and your opinions are—literally—all over the map. From “this is insanity” to “shame on anyone who doesn’t play.”

Herewith 10 thoughts:

1) I start by ladling abundant praise on the USTA. While socially distanced, of course. This organization, not often accused of being nimble, went to great lengths and showed great creativity to make this event happen. Yet this was not a rogue exercise. This was done while consulting data and science (I know, right?) and working with, not at odds, local and state government. Boater hats off, here. And may this persist, this spirit of enterprise and willingness to embrace change.

2) Me? I’m guardedly optimistic here. Happy for tennis, but not naïve to the risks. I also want to reserve judgment, v/v the COVID-19 status updates over the next 60 days. A friend wrote: “The PGA tour field at their first regular event back has the strongest field since last year’s mandatory tour playoffs. They are setting the right example.” That’s more or less where I land. Provided, of course, there is no second wave. Or change in the New York trendlines that make this worse.

3) I hear Serena played a big role here. She is likely to play, pursuing that elusive 24th major, and that imbued both the USTA and ESPN with confidence to continue on.

4) As for the field…. I had heard that up to half of the ATP top 20 are either “no’s” or on the fence. Pressed to name players we can expect to see, the USTA has offered up Daniil Medvedev and John Isner. But in full disclosure: I have been by a consummate insider that I have been exceedingly negative with my projections about diluted fields. “You are underestimating how desperate players are to play; and how many will see [the absence of Federer, Nadal and potentially Djokovic] as an opportunity.” I guess we’ll see here. Speaking of….

5) It’s hard to imagine Djokovic does not play. He simply has too much to lose—on many dimensions.

6) How does ESPN feel ponying up north of $80 million and getting a sub-optimal field? Irrelevant, I’m told. They’re in. And there’s no backing out now.

7) There will be no fans, of course. It’s also likely there will be no media. The post-match press conferences via Zoom rates high in the Unintentional Comedy Department.

8) The summer schedule right now. Washington D.C.—sans women—will be held the original Cincinnati week. Cincy will move to New York and will be held immediately prior to the U.S. Open. (Goodbye, Winston Salem.) Then the U.S. Open. Then we go to Europe. It’s like Escape the Room, tennis style. (And credit plucky Washington D.C. for fighting to become the first U.S. event to return.)

9) Jumping ahead to the French Open….I heard there was a meeting last week which discussed the possibility to having limited fans. There was no discussion of limiting entourages, or of consigning the players to one hotel. (Remember too: in terms of land mass, Roland Garros is far smaller than the other venues.)

10) Overall, I give tennis high marks here. In a perfect world, there is no COVID-19 and we’re dissecting the French and talking about Wimbledon this week. In a perfect world, everyone has pandemic insurance and is sitting pretty. But, as Eric Butorac put it nicely, “The 2019 Open was amazing. I wish we could run it back the same way. However, this is the world we are living in.” No solution was going to be ideal. But the sport innovated and communicated (imperfectly but in good faith) and tried its best to be charitable. And here we are….

Some housekeeping....Hope everyone is well.

• Our most recent podcast guest, Patrick Mouratoglou, talks about jazzing up tennis and the Ultimate Tennis Showdown.

• Next up: Sameer Pandya The Department of Asian American Studies at UCSB author of a forthcoming tennis-themed book Members Only.

• This week’s Tennis Watch:

• A Chris Evert, BJK, Martina film? Yes please.

Onward….

Mailbag

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Jon, I saw you wished Steffi Graf a happy birthday. She was always one of my favorites. What do you think of her tennis legacy?
Robin, New York

• I wished her a happy 50th birthday when, in fact, she is 51. My unforced error. I also noted that her career prize money was roughly the same as the earnings accumulated thus far by 23-year-old Alexander Zverev++ . My point: tennis—like many sports— has really made some gains in the “athlete wages” department. Thank Venus Williams. Thank the players’ side of the WTA and ATP boards. Thank labor economics. But when—with two only two decades elapsing—a 23-year-old who’s never been to a major can earn as much as an 18-time major champion, labor has made gain. This is tennis’ equivalent to, say, Gilbert Arenas out-earning Michael Jordan.

As for her tennis legacy, she is obviously a Mt. Rushmore figure. (Along with Chrissy, Martina and Serena—with BJK grafted on as well.) If her legacy suffers at all, it’s from her lack of exposure. As I’ve said before, in tennis we sometimes conflate a players’ profile post-tennis with their achievements. (How many casual fans would know that John McEnroe isn’t top 10 on all-time majors won?) But I find something really principled about Steffi Graf. When she left the sport, she announced that she was done being a celebrity, done with promotional crap and interviews and being dissected by the public. And, Lord, she’s stuck to that.

++ Aside: I hear Zverev discuss the distinction between “Sascha and Alexander” and my mind goes here:

Hi Jon. It’s too bad that the French Open decided to change its date without consulting with the other Grand Slam tournaments. Now, it appears that players have to choose between playing, the U.S. Open or the French Open. One tournament will definitely be watered down when it comes to the draw. Of course, with most of the players residing in Europe, the French Open if played would be the obvious beneficiary. This will possibly mean that an asterisk will be placed by the U.S. Open no matter who wins the tournament. Of course, none of this will matter if only one or neither tournament is played. What is your take on this?
A.H., Queens, N.Y.

• I think you pretty much nailed it. The French Open jumped the line. It’s almost like they had Rick Singer helping them with their scheduling and admissions packet. I expect the French to be less restrictive than the U.S. Open. And I suspect there might even be fans in the stands.

Do you think Federer now pulling out of the U.S. Open and both Nadal and Djokovic having strong reservations about playing will influence the USTA to either change their planning to be more player friendly or more likely cancel?
Alice Hume

• In keeping with our game theory exercise….Nadal and Djokovic ought to make a pact either to play or not to play. If one goes and the other stays home neither will benefit. I had this (paraphrased) conversation with a former topflight player recently.

Player: think Djokovic plays?

Me: 40-60.

Player: I say he goes. He wants that all-time record more than anything. In a few years people won’t remember if the field was thin. It will be like Margaret Court’s Australian Open.

Me: But he also wants to be liked so badly. If other players stay home for health and safety reasons and he goes, it will not serve him well in the court of public opinion.

Player: But if there are no fans in the stands, who cares?

If the French and the U.S. Open do go ahead I'm guessing many players may not attend and it may be a compromised field. Is there any precedent for asterisks next to the winners' names for tournaments like that? It would be an awful shame if, for example, Rafa wins his 20th Slam and Serena picks up number 24 in New York only to be told that the results won't be officially listed as Grand Slam wins?
Mark

• If a player doped, he gets an asterisk. If there was flagrant cheating? Asterisk. If there is an apples-and-oranges statistic? Asterisk. (This Billy Crystal film makes the case that Roger Maris’ single-season home run record was tainted because he had more games than Micky Mantle.)

I think we’re on an oleaginous slope if we start devaluing events because of draws. We say it again: you can beat only the players placed before you. Roger Federer won the 2017 Australian Open by beating Nadal in five sets. He won the following year by beating no player inside the top 20 until he got Marin Cilic in the final. So it goes.

In terms of precedent….a lot of people mention Margaret Court’s Australian Open titles. I think it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, likening the 128-draw global-field majors with a draw like this.

Want an asterisk? What about this? Here’s are the first two sentences of Petr Korda’s Wikipedia bio: “He reached a career-high Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) world No. 2 singles ranking on February 2, 1998 and won the 1998 Australian Open. He tested positive for doping in June 1998 at Wimbledon, was subsequently banned from September 1999 for 12 months, although he retired shortly before the ban.”

Don’t know about you, but if I had lost in the 1998 Australian Open final, I would be retaining counsel.

If any of your other readers miss Mailbag fave Amy Frazier as much as I do, then happy early birthday.
Caleb, Neutral Bay, Australia

• We stop at nothing to promote Amy Frazier. Trivia: name the last player to beat Steffi Graf?

Shots, Miscellany

• The ITF has today finalized a comprehensive package of measures to support stakeholders impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing suspension of professional tennis. The package was approved by the ITF Board last week and represents a total relief fund of more than US$2.6million.

The new measures include $1.449 million in funding for National Associations to help facilitate the return to tennis through national and junior tournament grants, top ranked junior player grants, and a $350,000 fund for players ranked 501-700. There will also be development support available for officials, as well as provisions for the return of Beach Tennis.

• The USTA today announced that Stacey Allaster, its Chief Executive, Professional Tennis, has been named Tournament Director of the US Open, effective immediately. Allaster becomes the first female Tournament Director in the US Open’s 140-year history. As Tournament Director, Allaster will be responsible for all competitive aspects of the US Open tournament, including player relations, officiating, and match scheduling, among other duties.