Gov. Cuomo gives go-ahead for U.S. Open in August minus fans amid pandemic

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday that the U.S. Open tennis tournament will held in late August as part of the state's reopening from shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Top players have expressed concerns about playing New York because of COVID-19 outbreak

Canada's Bianca Andreescu won the women's tourney at the U.S. Open last year. On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it would be held in late August as part of the state's reopening from shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images/File)

If Bianca Andreescu gets a chance to defend her U.S. Open championship, the Canadian tennis star will have to do it in front of empty stands.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo confirmed Tuesday the tournament would be held in late August as part of the state's reopening from shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

"We're excited about the U.S. Open, [which] is going to be held in Queens, Aug. 31 through Sept. 13. It will be held without fans, but you can watch it on TV — and I'll take that," Cuomo said at his daily briefing in Albany. "The tennis authorities are going to be taking extraordinary precautions, but that's going to take place."

On Monday, the United States Tennis Association said it will host the Grand Slam without fans this year, even though some top players have expressed concerns about attending the tournament due to the virus.

Soon after Cuomo's appearance, USTA CEO Mike Dowse released a statement confirming that the hard-court tuneup tournament normally held in Cincinnati in August would move to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows before the U.S. Open.

"We recognize the tremendous responsibility of hosting one of the first global sporting events in these challenging times," Dowse said, "and we will do so in the safest manner possible, mitigating all potential risks."

The U.S. Open normally is each season's fourth and final Grand Slam tournament but would be the second of 2020, following the Australian Open, which concluded in early February.

Andreescu, who turned 20 on Tuesday, became the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title when she defeated Serena Williams last September. The MIssissauga, Ont., native had been sidelined with a shoulder injury when sports were shut down in March.

Limited player entourages, centralized housing

Like many sports leagues, the professional tennis tours have been suspended since March because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The French Open was postponed from May and currently is scheduled to start a week after the U.S. Open ends. Wimbledon was cancelled altogether for the first time since World War II in 1945.

The operational plan to hold the event amid concerns about the coronavirus includes limited player entourages, centralized housing, increased cleaning at the tournament grounds in Flushing Meadows and testing for COVID-19.

Also part of the plan:

  • There would be no qualifying for singles.
  • Players whose rankings would have put them in that field will get money that the USTA will pass along to the ATP and WTA tours to distribute. The Cincinnati tournament scheduled for Aug. 16-23, which is majority owned by the USTA, will be moved to New York in place of U.S. Open qualifying.

"We have submitted our proposal to the state of New York. It's a very comprehensive plan that details all operational aspects of the tournament — first and foremost, the health and safety of anyone involved in the tournament," USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier said Monday. Widmaier said. "We are waiting to hear back from state officials on the viability of that plan. The U.S. Open is one of many professional sports entities within the state of New York and we recognize that the state needs to review all sports in a comprehensive manner."

Players concerned about attending tournament

Even with the go-ahead from the state, one significant question remains for the U.S. Open: Which players actually will participate?

Such top names as both No. 1-ranked players, Novak Djokovic and Ash Barty, have expressed reservations about heading to New York. So has defending men's champion Rafael Nadal. Already ruled out: Roger Federer, who has won five of his men's-record 20 Grand Slam singles titles at the U.S. Open but announced recently that he is out for the rest of the year after needing a second arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.

Last week, Djokovic said the restrictions that would be in place for the U.S. Open in New York because of COVID-19 would be "extreme."

"Most of the players I have talked to were quite negative on whether they would go there," Djokovic said.

All sanctioned tournaments have been scrapped until at least late July.

"I have concerns, too," Barty wrote in an email to the AP. "I understand the tournaments are eager to run, but keeping everyone safe has to be the priority."

Gaby Dabrowski, a doubles player from Ottawa, took to Twitter on Tuesday to voice her own hesitations about the authenticity of a grand slam without qualifying, among other concerns.

The USTA wants to add locker rooms — including at indoor courts that housed hundreds of temporary hospital beds at the height of New York's coronavirus outbreak — and improve air filtration in existing spaces. Also being considered: no locker-room access until just before a match. So if anyone goes to Flushing Meadows just to train, tournament director Stacey Allaster said in an interview last month, "You come, you practice, and return to the hotel."

Widmaier said the USTA has been consulting with the ATP and WTA about its setup.

"Our stated goal has been that, if we could build a plan in conjunction with medical and security experts that mitigated the risks of COVID-19 and assured the health and well-being of all U.S. Open participants, we very much want to move ahead with the tournament," he said. "We believe, by working in the collaborative manner with these experts and the two tours, we have such a plan."

With international TV contracts, including an annual average of $70 million US from ESPN alone — helping offset the loss of money from ticket sales and other onsite revenue — and facing a recession that already led to the recent elimination of more than 100 jobs at the USTA, the association's board decided to go forward with its marquee event despite concerns about COVID-19 and international travel.

Americans 'selfish' to not cancel

Australian Nick Kyrgios says the United States Tennis Association is being "selfish" by pressing ahead.

Kyrgios, who has been in lockdown in Australia since the pandemic brought a halt to the ATP Tour, appeared more concerned about having to undergo 14 days of self-isolation upon his return home from Flushing Meadows.

"People that live in the U.S. of course are pushing [for] the Open to go ahead 'Selfish'," the world No. 40 posted on Twitter.

"I'll get my hazmat suit ready for when I travel from Australia and then have to quarantine for two weeks on my return."

Kyrgios also slammed the ATP Tour as selfish earlier this month for pressing ahead with plans to play the U.S. Open while the virus had not been contained and with the streets of U.S. cities filled with protests at the death of George Floyd.

The U.S. Open is held annually in New York City, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was even turned into temporary hospital to help in the battle against the virus.

Last year's edition drew an all-time attendance record of nearly 740,000 fans and the event is the engine that drives the governing USTA.

With files from CBC Sports and Reuters

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