It’s an unprecedented time in tennis. The Western & Southern and US Opens are being held in a bubble with no fans or linespeople, while players like Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic are on the verge of history. There are so many incredible storylines overlapping in Flushing Meadows this year, with those just the tip of the iceberg.
On Monday afternoon, Martina Navratilova, one of the most decorated players in tennis history, met the press on a dial-in media conference to discuss it all.
“I think tennis at the US Open will be high quality, but it will be unpredictable, just like the Australian Open is unpredictable,” she said. “It’s really unpredictable with players coming in after such a long lay-off. It will just be interesting to see how everybody looks physically, then also mentally.
“They’ve had a long break, nobody is match tough, but they also had a great opportunity to get in amazing physical shape, right? There’s no reason not to be unbelievably fit right now. You had time to experiment and try different training techniques, maybe do some yoga and pilates that you didn’t have time to do before, really balance out your body, find the extra tenth of a second getting to the ball through better footwork or stronger legs, et cetera. Physically everybody should be amazingly fit.
“But the matches, there is no substitute for that. So it’s kind of a mixed bag.”
According to Navratilova, there’s one missing element that could level the playing field: the fans.
“It’s a bit of an equalizer because the top players are used to playing in front of a big crowd on the big stadiums when it’s really buzzing, whereas the lesser-ranked players, maybe it’s a once-a-year experience. It’s more difficult for them. Now that’s not there. It’s still a big stadium, but it’s empty.
“It’s better for the lower-ranked players than the top players—for them it’s tricky, particularly when they know they’re going to have the crowd on their side, and now they won’t be there.
“Novak Djokovic may be happy he doesn’t have to deal with the crowd. Then neither [Roger] Federer nor [Rafael] Nadal are playing, so there’s that. For Serena Williams, may be a bit of a handicap in that she thrives on the crowd getting on her side, as they have been so vocal the last few years. Now she won’t have that. She’s such a self-starter anyway, she motivates herself. And all the champions are very self-motivated, but the crowd definitely helps, especially when things aren’t going their way.”
World No. 1 Djokovic is the only member of the Big 3 playing the 2020 US Open, and he’s going for his 18th career Grand Slam title, which would put him right behind Federer’s 20 and Nadal’s 19.
“He would be the favorite anyway, as the No. 1 player in the world, and now with both Rafa and Roger not being there, he would be a big favorite, I would think,” Navratilova said. “His preparation is so meticulous. He leaves no stone unturned. With the new situation, I’m sure he would have had his team put their heads together and really try to find the best way to prepare under the circumstances.
“He would get into it with the crowd. Now there’s nothing to concern him there so he can concentrate on just playing, not get upset that the crowd’s not on his side. I agree with him, he doesn’t deserve the level of non-support he gets. Anyway, it will be a little bit easier for him to stay focused in a way.”
Another player chasing history is Serena, who’s going for her 24th major, which would tie Margaret Court’s all-time record for most career majors. Williams has been to the final of four of the last seven majors, but came up one win short every time, including last year in New York, to Bianca Andreescu.
“I think Serena just wants that record regardless of any G.O.A.T. status,” Navratilova said. “For her it’s about that number. Now she’s got a great chance with the US Open with a smaller field obviously. At the same time, she likes to feed off the energy from the crowd—and that won’t be there.”
The No. 1 seed at the US Open will be No. 3-ranked Karolina Pliskova, who’s still chasing her first major—she’s one of only three players in WTA history to reach No. 1 on the rankings but not yet win a major, alongside Jelena Jankovic and the now-retired Dinara Safina. Can she do it in New York?
“I don’t know,” Navratilova said. “She is the most unpredictable of the top players. She hasn’t come through in the majors and she knows it. The longer that goes on, the more the pressure goes.
“In every interview she does, she’s getting that question. It’s hard not to get down on yourself. Even if you have the belief, when you have to kind of refute that with every interview, it keeps getting into your head. It doesn’t get easier. The only way to stop those questions is to win, and you know that.
“When I played a major, I never cared if I was No. 1, No. 2. It just meant I was on top of the draw or at the bottom. You still need to beat seven players to win. I’m sure her coaches will keep that under control and not let the pressure get in the way. That being said, because of how she plays, very hard and very flat strokes, she doesn’t have much margin for error. If you get nervous, it makes it more difficult. I think that’s why she’s been a bit unpredictable or inconsistent, especially at the majors.”
Last but not least, there’s another name in the women’s draw Navratilova will be keeping her eye on: Coco Gauff.
“What I see is outstanding both on and off the court,” she said. “We know what she’s done on the court. She’s just getting started really. It’s astonishing. But at her age, to have the awareness to see what’s going on in the real world, and the guts to actually speak out about it on social issues, is just phenomenal at this age. She has an amazing platform, she knows that. She’s used it so well already.
“On the court, I’m looking forward to her evolution as a tennis player… It’s going to be fun to watch.”