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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

U.S. Open turned out to be a healing salve with great storylines

Naomi Osaka of Japan celebrates with the championship

Naomi Osaka of Japan celebrates with the championship trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka to win the Women's Final match on day thirteen of the US Open tennis championships at the USTA National Tennis Center on September 12, 2020. Credit: JASON SZENES/EPA-EFE/Shutterstoc/JASON SZENES/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Sometimes you just have to admit that you were dead wrong.

This past spring, when reports surfaced that the U.S. Open was planning to not only hold its own tournament but also import a tuneup tournament from Cincinnati to Flushing so it could hold a "double in the bubble," I just couldn’t see the upside.

Flying in players from all over the world, isolating them in hotels and holding matches without fans seemed to be a huge health and public relations risk. At that time, New York still was the epicenter of the pandemic. Going ahead with plans to host the U.S. Open seemed like a desperate attempt by the USTA to make up for the fact that, unlike Wimbledon, they had not bought pandemic insurance.

Well, the 2020 U.S. Open now is in the books, and it’s hard not to declare the tournament a success. Not only has there been no big health crisis as players and support staff agreed to the rigorous testing and other changes needed to keep them safe, but there also has been some pretty compelling tennis, especially on the women’s side.

Yes, this was a corona-culled field, with six of the top 10 women opting not to come to Queens. Yet the level of tennis played by the four women semifinalists on Thursday certainly deserves no asterisk.

It’s hard to think of better storylines than the ones each brought.

Jennifer Brady was the first former college player to reach the U.S. Open semifinals since 1987, igniting a debate about whether players need to skip continuing their education in order to make their mark in the college game.

Serena Williams, who has dominated the game for decades, survived three three-setters to get to the semis but could not get to her third straight U.S. Open final.

Victoria Azarenka, a single mother involved in a custody battle that had severely limited her tournament experience the past couple of years, went on an incredible four-week run in both tournaments, winning 12 straight matches before losing to Naomi Osaka in three sets in the final.

And then there was Osaka. En route to her second U.S. Open title in three years, she found the power of her platform. She entered each of her matches with the name of a different victim of police violence written on her mask, which will go down as an enduring image of our very strange times.

And yes, it continues to be very strange times, as Osaka noted in her post-final media conference when asked about the difference between winning this year and two years ago.

"This one feels different overall because of the circumstances," she said. "I wasn’t in a bubble last time. There were a lot of fans. You know, in the end, all I can focus on is what I can control on the tennis court."

The U.S. Open couldn’t control the fact that it would be dangerous for fans to attend their fan-driven event. They couldn’t control the fact that so many of the top names in the game opted out of coming to New York. The one thing they could control was making their event as safe as possible for the participants and the people working there.

And so they tested, took temperatures, did contact tracing and made everyone fill out a daily health questionnaire. They purchased 504,000 face masks and utilized 224 HEPA Filtration systems. They took over the Long Island Marriott and Garden City Hotel to create controlled environments.

In other words, they committed huge amounts of resources to make sure they mitigated the health risks as much as possible.

"These four weeks have been able to demonstrate to the world how our sport can return to play safely," tournament director Stacy Allaster said.

I still think the healing power of sports is overrated. It’s going to take more than a great tennis match — or any kind of great sporting event — to make us whole again. Still, I have learned these past four weeks that there is something to be said for watching life march on.

Even in the most unfamiliar of circumstances.

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