In year like no other, New York prepares for U.S. Open unlike any other
5 Canadians set to play in field minus 2019 singles champions, 6 of top 8 women
In a year unlike any other, get ready for a U.S. Open unlike any other.
"There was definitely a point where, in the beginning, I was like: There is no way these tournaments can even happen," Serena Williams said about playing amid a pandemic.
Professional tennis returned recently from a hiatus of nearly six months caused by the coronavirus outbreak -- and it will be back on one of its biggest stages Monday, when Flushing Meadows begins hosting the first Grand Slam matches since the Australian Open ended in February.
"There are going to be a lot of people around the world who think we should not play tennis; that no public gathering should happen. I understand that fully. I really do," said No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who caught COVID-19 in June during an exhibition tour he organized in Serbia and Croatia that did not mandate mask-wearing or social distancing.
"But, you know," he continued, "I think there also is going to be quite a lot of people that are going to be happy to see tennis keep going."
Two weeks ago, Bianca Andreescu decided she wouldn't play after shocking the tennis world last September with an upset win over American legend Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final to become the first Canadian to win a singles Grand Slam.
The 20-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., who is ranked sixth in the world, cited the inability to properly prepare because of COVID crisis after not playing a match since suffering a knee injury last October.
Montreal teenager Leylah Fernandez, the world No. 118, is the only other Canadian on the women's list. The 17-year-old from Laval, Que., recently upended 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in the first round of the Top Seed Open in Kentucky to climb to a career-high 110th in the WTA rankings.
Federer recovering from 2 knee operations
Williams renews her bid for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title. The woman who beat her in the final two years ago, Naomi Osaka, is also entered.
World No. 1 Ash Barty of Australia, No. 5 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine and No. 7 Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands will also skip the event as six of the top eight women withdrew.
On the men's side, 2019 champion Rafael Nadal is sitting out the event, scheduled for Aug. 31-Sept. 13.
Roger Federer is skipping the tournament, too, after two knee operations.
"The field's a little weaker than normal," Taylor Fritz, a Californian ranked 24th, said, "so there's always an opportunity for a couple of people to step up."
That's not to say all of the star power is gone.
Djokovic didn't make up his mind about going until about a week before flying to New York. He's won five of the past seven Grand Slam trophies to get to 17, gaining on Federer's men's-record total of 20 and Nadal's count of 19.
"It is definitely strange not to have Federer and Nadal – at least one of them," Djokovic said. "They will be missed, without a doubt, because they are who they are, legends of our sport."
3 Canadian men among 32 seeded players
Felix Auger-Aliassime of Montreal is staying in his own private player suite located inside Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., where you can spot the venue's main court out the window. The suites originally were for distinguished royal guests, but they've since been configured for each of the seeded players at this year's U.S. Open.
Fellow Canadians Milos Raonic and Denis Shapovalov will be among the 32 seeded players. Vasek Pospisil of Vernon, B.C., the 2014 Wimbledon doubles champion, is also on the list for Thursday's singles draw.
Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and Raonic are competing at this week's Western & Southern Open in New York, with the latter playing a quarter-final match on Wednesday night.
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Auger-Aliassime reached the round of 16 of the Mexican Open in February while world No. 16 Shapovalov is competing on the ATP Tour for the first time since Feb. 21 when he lost to Alexander Bublik in the quarter-finals of the Open 13 Provence tournament in Marseille, France.
Something else absent at this year's U.S. Open: a strong sense of where anyone's game stands.
That's because of the lack of competition, even if there were various unsanctioned exhibition matches around the world (No. 2 Dominic Thiem, took that to an extreme, playing 28).
The loss of ticket sales and hospitality suites -- which were turned over to seeded players -- along with revenue sources such as merchandise or food and beverage contributed to a 6.7% decline in overall player compensation.
The singles champions will take home $3 million each, down from $3.85 million last year.
Frequent COVID-19 testing
The U.S. Tennis Association set up what it calls a "controlled environment." Nearly all players and their limited-to-three entourages are staying in two hotels on Long Island (eight players opted for private housing at a cost of $40,000 US). They're barred from going to Manhattan.
There's frequent testing for the coronavirus. One player said she got a nose swab at 7 a.m., four hours before a match at the Western & Southern Open, the hard-court tournament being held the week beforehand at the same site used for the U.S. Open -- it's usually played in Ohio.
There are dozens of "social distance ambassadors" tasked with making sure players and others are covering their mouths and noses and staying far enough apart.
"The protocols that they have are so intense," said Williams, who has dealt with blood clots and lung issues. "It definitely helps me to feel safe."
The U.S. Open traditionally ends the Grand Slam season but goes second in 2020, because the French Open was postponed from May until late September, and Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since World War II.
"It's been so long," said Fritz. "Everyone is pumped up to be back out there."
Well, not quite everyone will be back out there.
For one thing, there will be no spectators; more than 700,000 attended last year. That will change things, especially at 23,771-capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium.
With files from CBC Sports