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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

U.S. Open tennis doesn't make sense in these troubled times

A general view as Elina Svitolina of the

A general view as Elina Svitolina of the Ukraine serves during her Women's Singles semi-final match against Serena Williams of the United States on day eleven of the 2019 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 05, 2019. Credit: Getty Images/Matthew Stockman

  There is this persistent myth that sports has a unique ability to carry us through the worst life can offer.

   Who can forget Mike Piazza’s home run in the first professional sporting event played in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks? Or the way the New Orleans Saints gave their Hurricane Katrina-decimated city something to really around in 2006?

  We have all witnessed the healing power of sports, but what is happening in New York and the rest of the country right now is not going to be fixed by a great game or distraction. In fact, in the case of the U.S. Open, it could actually be made worse.

 The United States Tennis Association, according to a report in the New York Times, is considering holding a doubleheader tennis tournament in Queens at the end of the summer. The USTA would move the Western & Southern Open, which it also owns, to Queens.

 The Western & Southern Open would start Aug. 17 and end Aug. 23, while the U.S. Open is slated to run Aug. 31 to Sept. 13. Both tournaments would be held in front of limited fans or, most likely, no fans. Among the other options being considered are charter flights to the U.S. Open for tennis players, proof of negative COVID-19 tests before traveling, daily temperature checks, no locker-room access on practice days and centralized housing.

 “The fundamental goal here is to mitigate risk,” Stacy Allaster, the USTA’s chief executive for professional tennis, told The Associated Press.

 The problem is it’s not only a health risk that the U.S. Open is facing. There is a significant public relations risk.

 One of many things the pandemic has done is underscore the gross inequalities in our society.  Whether the U.S. Open is held in front of fans sipping $18 Grey Goose cocktails, it is more than a little tone deaf to the problems of our city at large to have players competing in a country club sport behind a wall in a borough that has been one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 virus.

 Millionaires flying in on chartered planes from all over the world to have their own private competition in Queens is just not a good optic. The USTA likes to tout how it generates more than $750 million each year in “direct economic impact” for the city, but what would be the impact of holding an event with limited or no fans in a city whose resources are already stretched to the breaking point?

 What’s more, the players themselves don’t seem all that keen to fly into the epicenter.  Defending U.S. Open champion Rafael Nadal told a Spanish newspaper last month that he didn’t “see it as prudent to be competing anytime soon.”

 Granted, this puts the USTA in a terrible position as the $400 million generated by the tournament accounts for 80% of the organization’s revenue.

One reason Wimbledon was so quick to cancel was the All England Club had a $141 million pandemic insurance policy that they had been paying premiums on for years. A USTA spokesman confirmed on Tuesday that the organization does not have such a policy. Even without fans in the stands, they could mitigate some of the losses because they would still get paid television rights. The USTA currently has an 11-year, $825 million deal with ESPN.

 If health and government experts do allow the USTA to hold both tournaments or even just the Open, you can bet it’s going to be marketed as some sort of act of defiance. Even in these terrible times, you can’t hold the tennis world down. Sports are here to unite us!

I’m not buying it.

 Stan Wawrinka playing a great match in today’s world is not the same thing as Mike Piazza hitting a home run after 9-11. It’s not going to heal a country where more than 100,000 have died and a good chunk of our population feels threatened because of the color of their skin.

 We can skip a year of tennis.

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