NEW YORK—There will be higher-profile matches at the 2020 US Open where the absence of an audience is deeply felt. But it’s the marathon early-rounders, played outside of the arenas and usually forgotten by the second week, where the silence is starkest.
I use the plural because, on late Wednesday afternoon at the sparsely attended event, a pair of marathons were taking place simultaneously. On Court 12, Grigor Dimitrov was into his fifth hour of play against Marton Fucsovics; about 20 feet away, on Court 11, another war of attrition was unfolding between Frances Tiafoe and John Millman. There were 31 people watching the American and Australian—I counted—plus player Hailey Baptiste’s Shar Pei-pug mix, Tsonga.
That was almost triple the attendance of the Dimitrov-Fucsovics match; at one point there were as many dogs watching tennis as there were humans in Court 12’s giant rafters:
That each of these matches went the distance speaks to a larger point about this tournament. Though everything is different right now besides the tennis itself, the quality of that tennis has remained high, even after the sports’ extended layoff. We saw that during last week’s Western & Southern Open, where the singles finalists had won a combined 21 Grand Slam titles, and whose only Slam-less participant had a Wimbledon runner-up to his name. And despite a number of early-round upsets at the US Open, the level of competition hasn’t dipped.
As such, there is perhaps more tension on the airwaves than in the air at Flushing Meadows. But there was drama nonetheless. At 2-2 in the fifth set on Court 11, Millman struck a lob that Tiafoe, planted in the mid-court, opted to let drop behind him. When the yellow sphere landed on the white baseline, Tiafoe yelled in horror—“OH MY...”—then stopped, realizing that he was speaking at two people sitting on a largely vacant bleacher.
Later, three hours and 49 minutes into the match at 3-3, Tiafoe earned a break point. An explosive exchange of crosscourt forehands from two of the fittest players on tour followed, with Millman finally blinking and sending a shot wide. But with no linespersons to signal that the ball landed out, and no fans on the intimate court erupting in applause, Tiafoe’s celebration of a well-earned break was oddly delayed.
“Obviously I'm a guy who kind of feeds off the crowd,” said Tiafoe. “So it's not easy, for sure, because especially you're out there putting it all on the line and you can't get that energy from the crowd. It's tough to also sense big moments, because everything is the same throughout the whole match. You can hit like a between-the-legs winner or a horrendous shot to the fence, and it's the same reaction you're going to get.”
There were equally strange sights on Court 12 when Fucsovics, who saved four set points in a second set he’d win, and twice rallied from a break deficit in the fourth set, was slowly but surely securing victory against Dimitrov. The Bulgarian’s positive COVID-19 test during this summer’s Adira Tour set off a ripple effect in tennis, and he since spoken regularly to the seriousness of the coronavirus. But Dimitrov didn’t wilt physically, and he didn’t play badly in a fifth set he’d lose 6-1. Fucsovics was simply too solid, a brick wall that hardened as the decider went on.
Four hours and 50 minutes after his second-rounder began, Fucsovics emerged the winner in complete silence, aside from a few claps from his coach. It was fitting that the Hungarian celebrated in his own quiet way, with a muscle flex back at his solitary supporter.
There was no such understatement for Tiafoe, the eventual winner on Court 11, 7-6 (6), 3-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3. Able to derive some energy from a modest assembly—ball kids cheered him on, along with former USTA Katrina Adams—he reached match point. Once again, Millman tried to lob Tiafoe; once again, the ball was left to land where it may. When it landed out, Tiafoe yelled in joy—“YEAHHHHHHHH!”
“John’s tough, one of the best competitors in our sport, if you ask me,” said Tiafoe. “He really puts guys to the brink. I knew he was going to be tough today
“ ... Somehow lose both my serves in the breaker, and then played a loose couple loose games in the second [set], played a horrible third set. It like, kind of ended up working for me better because I saved the energy ... Then I gave my all in [the last] two sets.”
Like Dimitrov, Tiafoe also contracted COVID-19 this summer, and was forced out of an exhibition in Atlanta because of it. But the 22-year-old had a month’s worth of post-virus time to prepare for the US Open, where he’s into the third round for the first time.
“I'm cool. Obviously, you know, some of the other players had it pretty bad,” said Tiafoe of his condition. “Losing taste, losing smell. Physically when they were coming back they were struggling a lot.
“Actually my virus was pretty mild, thankfully, me and my brother. My brother had no symptoms at all. I just had diarrhea and headaches for three days. So I was okay. During those three days I would be like make conversation and I'd fall asleep, like randomly. I was getting real tired out of nowhere.
“When I got back, when I started practicing, got my EKG test done, docs and everybody told me I was cool. They said my heart is normal where it should be.”
Which player is playing better in this hushed environment? We’ll learn in the very next round, when Tiafoe and Fucsovics meet. At a normal US Open, that match-up has Court 17 or Grandstand written all over it, with a pro-Tiafoe crowd filling the seats. But at this edition, any court will do. I suggest Court 11 and ½.