The U.S. Open will crown its champions this September at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, but it won’t be the extravaganza that New Yorkers and the world have flocked to by the hundreds of thousands each year.
In fact, they won’t be flocking to it at all.
The day after New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signaled that the Open could be played without fans on its traditional dates, this year Aug. 31 to Sept. 13, the United States Tennis Association laid out its plans for staging its premier event during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those plans also include a doubleheader at the tennis center, with the Western & Southern Open, a top-tier men’s and women’s event owned by the USTA and usually played in Cincinnati, being conducted just before the Open.
Emphasizing the health and safety of all concerned, the USTA said during a Zoom media conference Wednesday there would be extensive coronavirus testing, centralized and individualized housing for players and their entourages outside of Manhattan, and drastic reductions in staff including using lines persons on only Ashe and Armstrong Stadiums and Hawk-Eye Live technology to call lines on the other courts.
USTA CEO Mike Dowse, in his first year in the position, let it be known that the USTA’s net income for 2020, which overwhelmingly comes from the Open, will be drastically reduced. The 2019 Open was estimated to have grossed $370 million and the Open funds most of what the USTA does to support the game across the U.S.
"As far as the financials, I will tell you our net operating income looks to be down about 80% this year,” said Dowse, who said Open sponsors are on board with the USTA’s decision to hold the Open. “That really talks about our commitment to the sport of tennis and the professional players . . . We have the financial wherewithal over the years with reserves that we can do that this year. It's not a model that can continue.
"I go back to our guiding principles: Is the safe for the players to play and everyone involved, yes. Is it in the best interest of tennis, which is key, yes. Financially does it make sense. Through our strong balance sheet, we've been able to support it this year and cover that significant gap we're going to have in overall revenue and net operating income. It's the right decision to make for tennis.”
The USTA is committing a total of $60 million in prize money to both tournaments. Last year, the Open prize pool alone was $57 million and the Western & Southern was around $10 million.
The field for the Open will be the traditional 128 players in both the men’s and women’s draw, but there will not be a qualifying tournament and there will be a reduction in the doubles draw to 32 teams from 64. Of the $60 million total commitment, $6.6 million will go to the ATP and WTA Tours to be distributed to players who would have earned money by being entered in the qualifying tournament, plus the tours can use the money at their discretion in the staging of lower level events.
Just who will be playing remains to be seen. Big name players such as defending champion Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep have raised concerns about traveling to play in New York and the potential for quarantine. Serena Williams made an appearance on the video conference to support the decision to play the Open and confirm that she will.
"I know on the quarantine, that's been a big topic of discussion [among players],” said Stacey Allaster, the Open’s tournament director. “Together with federal, New York State, local government and the USTA medical advisory group, we've created this centralized U.S. Open world and Western & Southern Open world that in essence brings the athletes into a safe environment for them to train and return ultimately to work.
"We have the assurances of the federal government on May 22nd, the President signed a proclamation of national interest with sport being part of that proclamation that all athletes, their entourages, tour officials, would be able to come into our country to participate in the Western & Southern Open and the U.S. Open.”
The French Open, postponed from May to September because of the coronavirus pandemic, announced Tuesday that it is being pushed back another week. The French Tennis Federation says the main draw will be played at Roland Garros from Sept. 27 to Oct. 11. That doubles the gap from the Sept. 13 end of the U.S. Open. The French Open originally was moved from a May start to Sept. 20.
The Rogers Cup men’s tournament in Toronto, a major hard court event that is part of the run-up to the U.S. Open, was canceled. The women’s event had already been scuttled with officials intending to resume the tournaments next year. The ATP and WTA Tour announced provisional calendars to restart tournaments beginning in August.