With fans for­bid­den, Ser­ena seek­ing No. 24

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Sports - By Howard Fen­drich As­so­ci­ated Press

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. The game 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.”

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). 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 tour­na­ment be­ing held the week be­fore­hand at the same site used for the U.S. Open — it’s usu­ally played in Ohio. Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka won the W&S Open ti­tles Satur­day.

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 can­celed for the first time since World War II.

“It’s been so long,” said Tay­lor Fritz, a Cal­i­for­nian ranked 24th in the world. “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 23,771ca­pac­ity Arthur Ashe Sta­dium.

Also miss­ing? Sev­eral top play­ers, in­clud­ing both 2019 champs: Rafael Nadal and Bianca An­dreescu.

Roger Fed­erer is skip­ping the tour­na­ment, too, af­ter two knee op­er­a­tions. The No. 1-ranked woman, Ash Barty, opted out be­cause of the pan­demic; in all, six of the top eight women with­drew.

“The field’s a lit­tle weaker than normal,” Fritz 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.

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 but is deal­ing with a trou­ble­some ham­string.

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 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.”

Some­thing else ab­sent: 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 played 28) be­fore the W&S Open.

Ri­ley Opelka, a 22-yearold based in Florida who is ranked 39th, of­fered this take on ex­hi­bi­tions: “We’re pro­fes­sional play­ers. We play for money, at the end of the day. So when there’s a big check on the line ... and there’s more in­cen­tives to win — there’s rank­ings, there’s points — it’s dif­fer­ent.”

As it hap­pens, there’s a lit­tle less cash over the com­ing two weeks.

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.

FRANK FRANKLIN II/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In a year with six of the top eight fe­male play­ers ab­sent from the U.S. Open, Ser­ena Wil­liams re­news her bid for a record-ty­ing 24th Grand Slam sin­gles ti­tle.

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