There will be no Coco Mania at the Western & Southern Open this year, and that Nono Mania will continue right into the U.S. Open.
Coco Gauff, who captured the hearts of the New York tennis crowd at the Open last year as a precocious 15-year-old, lost in the first round of the Western & Southern Open on Saturday at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
No fans, no mania.
There were maybe two dozens spectators for her match against No.13 seed Maria Sakkari on the Grandstand Court, which is the feature court for this combined ATP/WTA event that was moved from Cincinnati to precede the Open that begins Aug. 31. Neither tournament can have fans and there wasn’t a ticket-holder in the place.
Sakkari won handily in 65 minutes, 6-1, 6-3, with Gauff unable to gain traction in any part of her game. Her serve was off, her groundstrokes ineffective and the Greek player’s powerful game was operating efficiently.
“Definitely today was not my best match,” Gauff said. “I could have played better. She came out strong, hitting her shots. I didn't really have good responses to those. I'm just going to use this match to kind of prepare for the U.S. Open. I have a whole week before that, and I'm going to take what I did today and learn from it.”
As for the lack of vibe, Gauff didn’t seem that concerned.
“It's definitely more relaxed considering there is no people,” she said. “I think everyone is just trying to get used to the more relaxed vibe, but it's not a bad thing.”
The grounds of the tennis center were largely vacant except for players and their limited entourages. The plaza in front of the main entrance to Ashe Stadium has been converted into a player recreational area, with a miniature golf course, a kick-ball pocket pool game, a basketball goal and assorted lounging and workout areas. Venus Williams was seen strolling with her dog.
Gone is the cocktail crowd and its incessant white noise that gives the Open, or in this case the Western & Southern, it’s New York vibe.
Reilly Opelka, who won the New York Open at Nassau Coliseum in February shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sports world, found some pluses and minuses in the Open’s virus bubble after his win over Cameron Norrie, 6-3, 6-4.
“Cincinnati was my first experience in professional tennis, so right now it doesn’t even feel like Cincinnati, it feels like the U.S. Open,” Opelka said. “The U.S. Open was my first time really competing in an event at the junior level. It’s weird. I’m thinking 'Man, this is the U.S. Open [venue], where are all the people?' ”
For the men in the ATP draw of this event, this is the return to official competitive tennis since Thiago Seyboth Wild beat Casper Ruud for the Santiago, Chile, title on March 1 in the last ATP Tour match played.
“I loved it today,” Opelka said. “We are professional players, we play for money when there is a big check on the line and more money on the line than the exhibitions. There’s incentives to win, there’s ranking points, the key ingredients that weren’t in the other events we did.”
And despite the lack of atmosphere, this is what real tennis is all about for Opelka.
“You can’t replicate this,” he said. “You can go play the other events, but there’s not points on the line, there not a lot of cash on the line. You can fault me for this, but I’m not going to bring the same intensity, it’s not going to have the same effect on me psychologically, physically, so that was great [today]. It was the one thing missing and it didn’t feel like it was missing today.”
A big thing missing for Opelka was the ability to access Manhattan, where he stays during the Open and even the New York Open. The USTA does not allow players to exit the bubble and they are confined to the Long Island Marriott, Garden City Hotel and private housing. Those who go that very expensive route are required to pay for 24-hour security on the residence.
Another drawback for the 6-11 Opelka is having to take the official bus to the tournament instead of a private car.
“The seats are so tight, I’ve actually been standing up,” he said.