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Re-Open Season: The pandemic halted tennis as an up-close experience—but is now giving way to pandemonium among crowds
As the pro game reopens this summer and fans gather again, we’re realizing what we’ve been missing for so long.
Published Aug 07, 2021
HIGHLIGHTS: In front of a capacity crowd, Rafael Nadal edges Jack Sock in an electric night session at the Citi Open.
For a year and a half, the sports world mostly lived within the limitations that the coronavirus imposed. The Olympics were postponed, Wimbledon was canceled, baseball games were played in front of cardboard cut-outs.
Finally, in June, tennis produced a match that was too good not to have an audience. Over four hours at Roland Garros, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal used every inch of the clay canvas inside Court Philippe Chatrier to paint a tennis masterpiece.
The only problem was, their brutal and beautiful artistry lasted too long; by the time they reached the end of the third set, France’s 11 p.m. Covid curfew was set to kick in.
As a tournament official rose to address the crowd, boos rained down from spectators who thought they were being told to leave. But as he spoke, those boos turned to cheers.
“Due to the exceptional nature of the match,” he said, as Chatrier erupted, “public authorities have allowed this match to go on with fans.”
This might not have been the most prudent solution, but you had to hand it to the French: They understand the importance of great art, and great tennis.
Americans understand it, too. During the pandemic, millions of us found refuge on tennis courts. This summer, we’ve started to go see the pros in person again. There’s still plenty of uncertainty, but the chance to gather with fellow fans and experience the sport up close should make life feel a little more normal, and exhilarating, to those of us who love the game’s sights and sounds.
“We want to inspire people around the world, to say that we’re back, New York is back,” says US Open tournament director Stacey Allaster.
As tennis was set to reopen across the country, we asked six people involved in the sport what they loved most about experiencing it live.
People start to play, they follow on TV, they see it in person, and they’re inspired to go back out and play. Mark Ein, CEO of the Citi Open
Perhaps no one in the game yearned for the return of the Before Times as much as Mark Ein. By 2019, the tournament he manages, the Citi Open, was on a roll. That year, the Washington, D.C., event offered a week-long sneak peak at the pro game’s future: Stefanos Tsitsipas reached the semifinals; Daniil Medvedev made the final; Jessica Pegula won her first title; and Nick Kyrgios, mostly on his best behavior, packed the stands, went viral on a near-daily basis, and lifted the men’s trophy.
“There was a spirit around the grounds that week, everyone felt like something special was happening,” Ein says.
The Citi Open has been a lifelong labor of love for the venture capitalist. As a tennis-obsessed D.C. kid, he served as a ball boy, and when the tournament’s owner, the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, was seeking someone to run it, Ein was there. He already owned the Washington Kastles of World TeamTennis and had a stake in that league. WTEF said it had bigger offers, but Ein’s was a “no-brainer” because he understood the tradition of a tournament that Arthur Ashe helped start in 1969, in order to get “black faces to come out and watch the tennis.”
Continuing that D.C. tradition is important for Ein, and so is reviving the tradition of pro tennis in the U.S.
“When I was a kid, we had 40 tour events, now there are about 11,” says Ein, who believes professional tournaments are key to grass-roots growth.
“People start to play, they follow on TV, they see it in person, and they’re inspired to go back out and play,” he says. “It’s a virtuous cycle, but we’ve been in a vicious cycle.”
After being canceled in 2020, the Citi Open returned at full capacity in August, with Rafael Nadal as a headliner.
“This tournament has deep roots in this community,” Ein says. “We want to help people get back to doing what they loved.”
What Ein loves most of all is what he remembers about the tournament from his youth.
“My most indelible memories are seeing people gathering for something they love, and creating this shared experience,” Ein says. “That’s what I’m looking forward to being part of again.”
My fourth-row ticket has me on rice and beans for a month, but I don’t want to give it up. LaWanda Watts, tennis super-fan
What did LaWanda Watts miss most about the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells when it was canceled in 2020, and again this spring? The Los Angeles resident and super-fan, who traditionally spends 12 days watching tennis in the California desert each March, missed seeing her favorite players—“Rafa, Vika, Delpo, Serena, etc.” But she also missed not being seen by them.
“I loved that I was guaranteed to see the players once a year, and many would recognize me,” Watts says with a laugh. “I’m everywhere when I’m there.”
“Everywhere” starts with her prime seat in the tournament’s main stadium.
“My fourth-row-from-the-court ticket has me on rice and beans for a month,” she says, “but I don’t want to give it up.”
Watts is also a regular presence around the practice courts and the soccer lawn, where fans line up five deep to watch the players frolic with friends and pets. Watts has a vivid memory of her first encounter with Andre Agassi on site in 1995.
“I was tongue-tied, but I got his autograph,” she says. “He smiled at me and I almost passed out.”
Two years ago, Watts crossed paths again with Agassi.
“I was braver and asked for a photo, and I said, ‘I’ve loved you all my life!’ He said, ‘Well, since you said all your life, let’s take it. If you had said half your life, that would be different,’ and we laughed.”
Watts’ years at Indian Wells have coincided with the tournament’s renaissance under Larry Ellison’s spare-no-expense ownership. A decade ago, the event nearly moved overseas; now it’s the prototype for what a modern tennis tournament is supposed to be. There’s Hawk-Eye on every court, the stars play doubles, there are newly upgraded facilities, and—most important—fans have Instagram-ready accessibility to the players.
When she’s asked what she likes most, Watts says echoes many other Indian Wells devotees: “There’s the quality of the tennis being played, and there’s the excitement of being there.”
This year, the BNP Paribas Open will welcome players back in an October edition. Watts wasn’t sure if she could make it, but there’s always next March. Either way, she’ll be ready to see and be seen.
I was eager just to sit next to court. Christopher Clarey, tennis journalist
For three decades, the road was Chris Clarey’s home. Tennis, golf, soccer, skiing, swimming, skating, the Olympics: you name an international sport, the veteran New York Times reporter has covered it.
You name a city, he can probably tell you where to stay and eat.
“I was on a 30-year adrenaline rush,” Clarey says. “I don’t think I was home for more than three months at one time.”
When the sports world stopped spinning last spring, Clarey’s world did, too.
He settled in at his Massachusetts home with his wife and family, as well as two of his middle daughter’s classmates from Vassar, who spent their final semester at his house. Watching them graduate in the backyard was a highlight of his year. So was the chance to see the seasons pass.
Work-wise, though, Clarey didn’t miss a beat.
“It was a bad reason to be off the road, but I found it reinvigorating,” he says. “I still had my contacts and my phone, and we had a chance to get inside the fault lines of the game. People were more open to talking about the issues.”
Clarey said he tried to “recreate the vibe” of tournament sites in his head. But there’s still no substitute for being there, a fact he was reminded of when he rejoined the tour at Roland Garros in May.
“I was eager just to sit next to a court,” he says. “I’ve always loved tennis, and being able to use your senses helps you bring more value to readers.”
This summer he’ll also bring fans of Roger Federer closer to their hero. Clarey spent much of the pandemic finishing The Master, his biography of the Swiss great, due out in August. While Clarey has been writing about Federer for 20 years, he’s ready for whatever comes next.
“I still love watching the ball,” he says.
Am I really hearing four different languages in Mason, Ohio? Katie Haas, COO of the Western & Southern Open
By this spring, Stephanie Neppl needed to go somewhere, anywhere, to see tennis.
“I haven’t flown in 15 months,” she said, sounding slightly amazed by the statement. Now she wanted to make up for lost time.
“I want to go to Linz [Austria], to the new tournament in San Jose, to the Open,” she said, “but it’s hard to make plans these days.”
Neppl lives in Iowa, where she learned the game with her three brothers at “the courts down the road.”
More recently, she has converted her mom to the game, and traveled with her as far as Rome to watch it. But they’re also regulars closer to home, at the Western & Southern Open. The Midwest mini-major in Mason, Ohio—population 33,224—tends to attract diehards. They’re happy that, unlike last year, the tournament won’t be played at Flushing Meadows. Not having to go to New York to see the pros is kind of the point.
“There’s a friendly vibe,” Neppl says of the event. She has given rides to fellow fans on the drive to Mason, and roomed with them at the local Red Roof Inn. The tournament is also a place where you can see the power of social media to help the tennis wonks of the world unite.
“You can put a lot of faces to names from Twitter,” Neppl says. “One of my favorite memories is seeing Li Na with just a few other people, when everyone was watching Federer. In 2012, the Bryan brothers brought out their Olympic gold medals and let fans hold them.”
“There is something real about Midwestern hospitality, and the intimacy you get on site,” says Katie Haas, the tournament’s COO. “We try to make it easy for fans.”
Having previously worked in baseball for the Boston Red Sox, Haas was amazed by the global reach of this landlocked event.
“I walked around the food court in 2019 and heard four languages,” she said.
“I thought, ‘Am I really hearing four languages in Mason, Ohio?’”
Fans won’t have it quite as easy in 2021, when contact with players will be more limited due to Covid. But it beats 2020.
“We had our best year in 2019,” Haas says. “To go from that to last year was tough. The fans are ready.”
We want to inspire people around the world, to say we’re back, New York is back. Stacey Allaster, US Open tournament director
One day in June, Stacey Allaster was asked how she was feeling. The US Open tournament director didn’t hesitate.
“I’m feeling outstanding!” she said.
It wasn’t a surprising answer. Last year was Allaster’s first year at the helm of the Open. Which meant that she was responsible for staging the first Grand Slam in a century to be held during a pandemic; the first to keep players and personnel in a virus-free bubble; the first with a comprehensive Covid-testing regimen; the first with no fans or extensive media. Just a few months earlier, Flushing Meadows had been the site of an overflow Covid hospital; now one positive test could derail the event.
“It was a monumental effort, with no roadmap, and a lot of headwinds,” the former WTA chief says.
“But I’m proud of what we accomplished.”
What a difference a year, and a healthy vaccination rate in New York, makes.
Or hopefully makes. Starting August 30, the Open plans to welcome spectators back at full capacity, with some restrictions. Fans won’t be allowed on site for the qualifying tournament, and sponsor booths won’t be open. While the staff will be vaccinated, some players won’t, which means mitigation efforts—masking and distancing—will be in place indoors. The pros won’t be kept in a bubble, but there will be a central player hotel in Manhattan.
“It should feel more like 2019 than 2020 for everyone,” Allaster says.
That doesn’t mean Allaster is letting anyone take their guard down until the job is done.
“We feel good, but we know we need to stay diligent,” she says. “It’s always a relief when that last ball is struck.”
It was like a prize fight in there. Jeff Carpenter, US Open attendee since 1978
For Jeff Carpenter, the US Open is about traditions. He has developed a few of them in the 40-plus years that he has been attending: He watches the players practice the Sunday before the tournament starts; he goes with his family on opening day; he goes with his wife and another couple over Labor Day weekend; he goes to the women’s final with his daughter Caitlyn; he goes with colleagues from work, and enjoys introducing them to the joys of the outer courts as the sun sets at Flushing Meadows.
“They’re amazed by how much is going on out there,” Carpenter says.
Last year was the first time that Carpenter, an executive director at J.P. Morgan, USTA league player and cancer survivor, missed the Open since it moved to Flushing Meadows in 1978. Recreating the Queens atmosphere in his Mamaroneck, N.Y. living room proved to be a tall order.
“My family doesn’t watch TV,” Carpenter says. “I tried sitting down to watch some of the matches by myself, but it was hard.”
From the start, the Open has been a family affair.
“I came down from Connecticut with my mom and dad when I was a kid,” he says. “I remember looking through the fence at the Unisphere. Sometimes it feels like that’s what led me to move to New York.”
Carpenter’s personal highlights include seeing Pete Sampras come back to beat Greg Rusedski in five sets in 2002, and watching John McEnroe electrify the old Grandstand in a doubles match with Michael Stich.
“It was like a prize fight in there,” Carpenter says.
He also remembers the last time he attended the tournament with his parents, in 2008, at a time when he was undergoing cancer treatments.
“I took a wrong turn getting to the tournament, and did a terrible job driving,” he says, “and there wasn’t much on the schedule that day.”
But it didn’t matter. As it is for many fans, the US Open is less about the matches Carpenter sees than it is about the time he gets to spend with family and friends.
“As we were leaving, my dad looked at me and said, ‘That was a really great day.’”