NEW YORK—A full five minutes after her three-set loss to Iga Swiatek on Friday, Sachia Vickery remained seated in her chair on Court 8, in no rush to leave on a warm afternoon when the American appeared to be struggling physically. Perhaps decompressing from the sting of losing the second-rounder she had led by a set, the 25-year-old calmly scrolled on her phone.
At a bizarre US Open, with doubles draws diminished in size and without mixed or junior events, no other matches were scheduled on Court 8, where the Vickery-Swiatek match began on Thursday and, after being postponed overnight by rain, where tournament officials opted to conclude it on Friday. (Eventually, a doubles match featuring Victoria Azarenka and Sofia Kenin was moved to the side court.) There were so few matches in the tournament queue that, at 2:30 p.m. on this first Friday—normally a frenetic day of action from late morning to the wee hours—there were only six matches taking place in the entire USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
It was also at that time when Louis Armstrong Stadium should have buzzing, even at this fan-less Slam. Angelique Kerber had just defeated Ann Li, and the third match scheduled on the US Open’s second-biggest court, Adrian Mannarino vs. Alexander Zverev, was in the offing. But the only sight of either player was Zverev, scrolling on his own phone from his player suite in Arthur Ashe Stadium—a clear signal that something was up.
Zverev scrolling through twitter for an update on his match with Mannarino. pic.twitter.com/HdgX8aWuKq— Michael Gallo (@Galloots) September 4, 2020
The tennis world joined Zverev, rapidly refreshing Twitter for updates about a strange and unclear situation. Mannarino was one of 11 players placed under stricter coronavirus protocols after contact tracing found the Frenchman to be in close contact with Benoit Paire, who tested positive for COVID-19 and was withdrawn from the tournament a day before it began.
Commentating the US Open for ESPN, Chris Fowler called the delay “political,” suggesting that national and/or state officials may have been involved.
“If you were one of the 11 people, things might be different,” said Naomi Osaka after her match, when asked about the mood of the event amidst the uncertainty.
For whatever it's worth, Mannarino has been flanked by security both times I've seen him off court, at the tournament site: during a bathroom break in his second-round match with Jack Sock on Wednesday, and while walking into the venue on Thursday morning. Not that a security presence in those situations is abnormal, but it stuck out at a US Open without fans.
Adrian Mannarino, during his second-round match against Jack Sock. (Rhea Nall/USTA)
TENNIS.com inquired to tournament officials about the status of the match at 4:00 p.m.; at 4:30 p.m., there was still no response. Ten minutes later, the tournament gave word that the match would begin on Armstrong, not before 5 p.m. The players finally walked onto the court just before 5:15.
At 5:43 p.m., the tournament issued a statement about the delay:
“The Zverev-Mannarino match was delayed while a collaborative dialogue with health officials was conducted today. Communication with the players was ongoing during the afternoon to keep them updated at all times. Given the sensitivity of the medical issues involved, the USTA is not able to provide further details.”
Zverev provided plenty of details after he wrapped up a four-set win over Mannarino, dropping the first set in a tiebreaker before shifting into cruise control, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.
"I was told that there was very little chance we were going to play," Zverev told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi on the court. "They said, yeah, there is a chance at 5 o'clock, but I was just kind of waiting around and seeing, I was very relaxed.
"Obviously for me, as a player, and for a fellow player, I was happy that he was able to play. At the beginning I was a little bit cold."
Alexander Zverev appeared close to receiving a third-round walkover because his opponent was exposed to Benoit Paire, who tested positive for COVID-19. (Getty Images)
Pressed for the rationale behind the delay, Zverev wavered slightly before confirming what many had suspected—that Mannarino's association with Paire put his tournament life in jeopardy—along with Fowler's earlier comment.
"I don't know if you guys know, but he was around Benoit Paire, so I guess New York State called and said that he shouldn't play. So it was back and forth, back and forth, it was political. It was not us players, we were just sitting around."
In his post-match press conference, Zverev added that 5 p.m. was the last time the match would be played, and that the chances of it happening were "very slim."
Mannarino echoed Zverev's comments, adding that Zverev had to agree to push the match back:
Adrian Mannarino on the delay ???? pic.twitter.com/cbzoLXCEcD— George Bellshaw (@BellshawGeorge) September 5, 2020
Following his third-round win, Novak Djokovic was asked about the situation. The Serb revealed that not only was he involved in the discussion, but that he tried to reach New York state governor Andrew Cuomo.
"Yes, I was aware of what was happening with Adrian Mannarino," said the world No. 1. "I was actually contacted by his coach during that process. I was communicating with his coach for a few hours actually, trying to help. I was speaking with ATP, trying to get more information from the tour managers.
"I was also trying to get to the people that are in the highest positions in New York state through some of the contacts, trying to get to the governor of New York. I understood that he was the only one that could actually make the decision to revert the decision that Mannarino was withdrawn from the tournament."
Though perturbed with the communication process and sympathetic to player complaints about this issue, Djokovic also acknowledged the bigger picture—the tournament itself.
"But at the same time I also understand that the ATP and USTA don't hold the decision-making process in their hands. Sometimes they have to just execute what the health department of New York and the City of New York orders them to do, otherwise the tournament might be compromised and canceled."
Zverev's connection to COVID-19 has been a recurring topic in tennis this summer. He participated in the Adria Tour, the multi-nation event marred by positive coronavirus tests from Djokovic, Grigor Dimitrov and Borna Coric. Zverev has publicly stated that he has tested negative every time. The German was also filmed at a crowded event after the Adria Tour shut down, with partygoers not wearing masks.