We often speak of tennis players existing in a metaphorical bubble, their skills with a racquet creating opportunities for unwavering focus and relative immunity from life’s realities.
Now, with confirmation that the 2020 US Open will go on, the bubble will be literal—and life’s realities massively vivid, even inside an environment like none other.
One can only imagine the thousands of hours the USTA and others have put in to map out and handle every possible contingency—most of all on the health front—to create a safe environment for players and what promises to be the smallest on-site staff in recent tennis history. In the two months leading up to the tournament, dozens of questions will be raised, the USTA likely creating a briefing document as thick as a phone book. I hope there’s a documentary crew afoot, chronicling how this has come to be and what is also certain to be the most unusual tennis tournament ever played.
Consider August the new March. There will be tennis, complete with ranking points, prize money and the chance to make history. There will also be rust, but perhaps more freshness than usually seen in late summer. Still, if I’m a player, in the two months leading up to the tournament, I’m investing as much energy as possible in flexibility, agility, strength—every possible physical attribute. Addressing the likely stipulation that a player can only bring a one-person entourage, I tweeted this yesterday: leave the coach, take the physio. Only a sound chassis can run this race.
Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic, who played in the Adria Tour last weekend, have made comments suggesting they'll be question marks for the US Open. (Getty Images)
Several players have expressed ambivalence about the trek to New York. As time continues, we shall see how this shakes out and who decides not to attend. From 1968-’78, that first decade of Open tennis, a number of majors featured somewhat shallow fields. The most notable instance of this came at Wimbledon in 1973, when the ATP boycotted the event, leading to 79 withdrawals.
Yet none of those political machinations was triggered by a global pandemic. None of those events was bracketed by hundreds of thousands of deaths in all corners of the planet. If a player chooses not to play the 2020 US Open, so be it. Certainly, it will be more complicated for those from other continents to make the trip than North Americans. Perhaps a great many Europeans, keen to gear up for Roland Garros, will skip the US Open and stay on the continent to train on clay. After all, the potential physical toll of playing the US Open and then heading to Roland Garros so quickly is staggering. And that doesn’t even take into account the emotional dimension of stress that every human being has felt these last few months.
So amid all that has taken place in 2020, it’s small-minded to discount the efforts of those who will be participating at this year’s US Open. Here, a polite request for those players so inclined: Keep a journal of how it feels to occupy the bubble—not just the matches with no spectators, but the whole experience, from practice to food, to travel and connecting with others.
On a bigger-picture basis, this announcement represents a massive shift in the tennis plot line during a year of unprecedented global agony and attendant dread. “Now this is not the end,” said Winston Churchill, following a turning point in World War II. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”