New York remains the epicenter of the novel coronavirus, but U.S. Open officials haven’t abandoned hope of staging the Grand Slam event – even if it means moving it to the West Coast.
The possibility of holding the tournament in November at southern California’s Indian Wells Tennis Garden was raised by U.S. Tennis Association executive director Mike Dowse in an interview this week with Inside Tennis.
It’s among myriad scenarios for resuming professional tennis in 2020 – proposals that have been lobbed and batted down at a dizzying pace by bullish event promoters and skeptical players in recent weeks.
A combination of factors particular to tennis complicates its resumption before the development of a coronavirus vaccine or, at minimum, significant strides in managing the pandemic.
Tennis is a global sport, with men’s and women’s tournaments scheduled this July through November in Europe, North America and Asia. Its athletes and officials live in all corners of the globe, which means any tournament would require massive air travel.
And it’s governed by seven entities that would have to reach consensus, including the Association of Tennis Professionals, the Women’s Tennis Association, the International Tennis Federation and organizers of the two Grand Slam events remaining on the 2020 calendar, the U.S. Open and French Open.
World No. 2 Rafael Nadal said this week that he doubted tennis would resume this year and is focused instead on preparing for the Jan. 18 start of the Australian Open, the first major of 2021.
“I’m more concerned with the Australian Open than what happens later this year,” Nadal told El Pais. “2020, I see it as practically lost.”
World No. 3 Dominic Thiem said as much this week, telling Austria’s Servus TV: “To bring all the guys together in one place is very difficult. In my eyes, the most realistic scenario is that we start again in Australia. Or with the events at the beginning of 2021.”
With Wimbledon’s cancellation for the first time since World War II wiping out the grass-court season, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic floated the possibility of canceling the North American hard-court season (including the U.S. Open), as well, if the virus isn’t contained by August, and resuming with a deferred clay-court swing in Europe.
“There is also the option that they will cancel all the tournaments in America and then start with clay in the autumn, maybe come to Rome in two to three months,” Djokovic told Sky Sports Italia. “Hopefully, we can start playing again.”
ESPN broadcaster Patrick McEnroe, who recently recovered from the virus, said he can’t see the sport resuming in any fashion in 2020.
“I’ve been saying from the start, professional tennis will be one of the last things to come back, just because of the international nature of the sport,” said McEnroe, who speaks from the perspective of the USTA’s former head of player development, former U.S. Davis Cup captain and a former touring pro, in a telephone interview. “Whether it’s the U.S. Open or the Marseilles Open, you have players coming from all over the world. Until the world is back to some semblance of normal, I don’t see how the game as we know it can restart.”
Though Dowse didn’t rule out holding the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows’ Billie Jean King National Tennis Center without fans, there is little incentive to do so.
With annual revenue of nearly $350 million, the U.S. Open is the most lucrative of the four Grand Slam events. The bulk of its revenue comes from the nearly 750,000 ticket buyers who stream into the gates of the vast Flushing Meadows complex and eat, drink and gobble up souvenirs over the two-week run. That revenue, along with spending by corporate sponsors who pay for on-site signage and programming to reach those spectators, dwarfs the USTA’s income from broadcast deals.
That’s what makes relocating to Indian Wells attractive. Indian Wells’ 16,100-seat stadium is the biggest tennis venue in the country next to Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York.
For that to happen, however, California would have to lift its ban on mass public gatherings; there could be no “second-wave” of the virus in Southern California; and players would have to feel far safer about international travel than they do now.
Chris Widmaier, managing director of corporate communications for the USTA, said Monday that tournament officials are studying several scenarios for staging the tournament and expect to announce a decision by mid- to late-June.
“We are modeling various scenarios, whether with limited fans or no fans on site, and what that would entail,” Widmaier said in a telephone interview. “There are a lot of unknowns in all of this modeling.”
Keeping the tournament in New York, with or without open turnstiles, appears the least likely scenario.
New York remains the epicenter of the highly contagious virus that has killed more than 67,000 Americans. At present, U.S. Open’s indoor practice facility is serving as a temporary hospital amid the crisis, which has outpaced capacity of the region’s hospitals.
The men’s and women’s tennis tours have been suspended since March 9 and will not resume until July 13, the day after Wimbledon was to have concluded, at the earliest. French Open officials announced earlier that they were postponing their event’s start from late May to Sept. 20.
Amid this uncertain landscape, U.S.-based World TeamTennis, whose three-week, hard-court season is typically shoehorned between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, remains hopeful of starting its 2020 season July 12, as scheduled. But given the pandemic’s spread, the league has abandoned the idea of staging matches in its nine franchise cities and instead will hold the entire season in a single city that has reopened for business. The likely candidates appear to be Orlando, Florida, Las Vegas and Austin, Texas, although the latter city no longer has a franchise.
Co-founded by Billie Jean King in 1973 as a student league with unique scoring and a fresh approach, WTT is suited to adapting to whatever restrictions are mandated by the initial resumption of sports.
Carlos Silva, CEO of WTT, said the league could consider tweaks such as relying solely on electronic line-calling, having players call their own lines or using teammates to play the dual roles of “ball kids.”
What’s certain, Silva said, is that WTT will have no shortage of players for a 2020 season, given the number of domestic and international players already training in the United States. All nine teams have full rosters, he said, and the league is fielding calls from agents and players themselves, eager to compete and earn a paycheck while the pro tours are on hiatus.
“There’s not going to be an issue with the roster,” Silva said. “We’ve had more calls than you can imagine.”
Washington Kastles owner Mark Ein, who bowed out as a WTT co-owner in 2019 to focus on acquiring Washington’s Citi Open, indicated he would be amendable to any scheduling adjustment the league felt appropriate but declined to comment further, given the many variables in play.