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Players trying to get used to eerie atmosphere at fan-less U.S. Open

Sebastian Korda, of the United States, right, returns

Sebastian Korda, of the United States, right, returns a shot to Denis Shapovalov, of Canada, during the first round of the US Open tennis championships, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. Credit: AP/Frank Franklin

Where six-figure Mercedes are normally on display, players are riding stationary bikes.

   Where the Emirates Pavilion beckons guests for exotic vacations, racket stringers are plying their trade.

   Where people line up by the platoon for burgers and franks and barbecue in the main food court, a few birds flit among the trees above the shuttered concessions.

   Where tens of thousands of tennis fans flock each year to watch the best players up close and personal or in the vastness of Arthur Ashe Stadium, there are a few hundred interested parties roaming the 42-acre grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

   Welcome to the 2020 U.S. Open, tennis during the COVID-19 pandemic, tennis without its fans, tennis without its emotional engine.

     “This is so weird,” said Petra Kvitova after a two-set win over Irina-Camelia Begu on Monday, opening day of this decidedly closed Open.

Weird was a word that echoed around Flushing Meadows.

  This is also tennis without some of its biggest names. Rafael Nadal, the defending champion, elected not to attend because of the pandemic. So too, did the defending women’s champion, Bianca Andreescu. The top of the women’s field was heavily diluted with several opt-outs, including No. 1 ranked Ash Barty, No. 2 Simona Halep, No. 5 Elina Svitolina, No. 7 Kiki Bertens and No. 8 Belinda Bencic.

   Which may be a big help to Karolina Pliskova, the third ranked player in the world but the No. 1 seed at the Open. Hers was the first match on essentially empty Ashe Stadium and she won it comfortably over Angelina Kalinina, 6-4, 6-0. The cheering was limited to a few coaches and players and aides scattered about, generic white noise pumped in and a series of fan-cam video boards surrounding the court.

    As for playing in the barren surrounding, the quiet and often demure Pliskova didn’t seem at all fazed.

    “I still have my team and I felt like just on the center court I think there is actually like couple people,” she said. “I mean, it's super huge and it still feels super empty, but I feel like there is at least the player boxes where they stay, so I felt like there is at least couple people watching there.”

   Pliskova, who has 16 Tour titles, has gone deep in Grand Slams without winning. The deepest she’s ever gone was at the 2016 U.S. Open, where she defeated Venus and Serena Williams on her way to the final, which she lost to Angelique Kerber.

    “I felt a little bit like weird on the court, especially here in New York, but now since I have been here almost two weeks, maybe little more, then I'm feeling just better,” Pliskova said. “I was like, ‘Should I cheer myself?’”

    Kerber was first on Armstrong Stadium, where she fashioned a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Ajla Tomljanovic.

   “Of course it's a little bit weird to play without fans and without the support and the atmosphere on the center courts,” Kerber said. “But it's kind of a little bit the feeling when you play, like, practice matches against the players, but of course you know it's like a serious game.”

   The USTA had to take serious measures during the pandemic to conduct  both the Western & Southern Open, a tournament it owns,  last week and now the two-week Open run. It’s become known as the Double in the Bubble.

    “Some things which I really had to get used to, to be in the bubble of course, as well,” Kvitova said. “It's something totally different, which I was normally doing, you know, going out for the coffee, sitting in Central Park. Suddenly this is not the option.”

  One thing not so weird?

 Novak Djokovic won his opening night match on Ashe against Damir Dzumhur, 6-1, 6-4, 6-1, the score nor reflecting the workout that Dzumhur gave the world’s No. 1 player.

In the late match, fourth-seeded Naomi Osaka needed three sets but beat Japanese compatriot Misaki Doi, 6-2, 5-7, 6-2.

New York Sports