By Ben Lovell-Smith | Sport Editor
Grand Slam tennis returns on Monday as the US Open commences for the 140th time. The tournament will take place under extraordinary circumstances with the coronavirus pandemic continuing to plague the sporting world.
In the wake of Novak Djokovic’s embarrassing tournament failure, organisers are being extremely careful about how the tournament will take place. In June, Djokovic, Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki all contracted coronavirus after playing at Djokovic’s Adria Tour competition in Belgrade.
In order to control any possible spread of the virus tournament, organisers have introduced various measures that will make the tournament unique. For instance, only the two larger courts, Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong, will exercise the usual arrangement of chair umpires and line judges. Alternatively, the other courts will dispense of line judges, in favour of Hawk-Eye technology which is able to make “out” calls and detect foot faults.
Naturally, there will be no crowd in attendance. The 24,000 seater Arthur Ash stadium will feel unusually hollow to players who have become used to the atmosphere of raucous crowds over the years. It is a lesson learned from Belgrade, where 4,000 fans were in attendance, a contributing factor to the outbreak in June. Players will be isolated within a tournament ‘bubble’, in the same way as the Champions League was organised with coronavirus tests and temperature checks, separating the tournament from the outside world.
A warm up tournament in the grounds of the US Open was held under these conditions this week, and so far it has been successful.
There are notable absentees this year. Five time champion Roger Federer is recovering from a knee injury and will not compete. However a number of other players have decided not to compete on safety grounds. Including reigning champion Rafael Nadal, Nick Kyrgios, Gael Monfils and 2016 winner Stan Wawrinka. In the women’s game, Simona Halep, Ashleigh Barty and defending women’s champion Bianca Andreescu will also miss the tournament for safety reasons.
Andy Murray will make his first Grand Slam singles appearance since the 2019 Australian Open. Injuries had seemed to have retired the Scot, however he has fought his way back to fitness and does not intend on just making up the numbers. He faces world number 48 Yoshihito Nishioka in the first round on Tuesday.
British number one Kyle Edmund kicks off his tournament on Monday, facing Alexander Bublik from Kazakhstan.
With the absence of the likes of Federer and Nadal, and Murray’s failing body, the traditional ‘big four’ in the men’s singles has been reduced to Novak Djokovic. It provides a significant opportunity for some of tennis’ rising stars to make a real breakthrough onto the big stage. Stefanos Tsitsipas, Dominic Thiem, and last year’s finalist Daniil Medvedev all have an opportunity to challenge Djokovic to the title.
The women’s draw is where the real excitement lies. Many of the top ranked women’s players are not competing, but there are a number of top level contenders who could throw the competition wide open. Serena Williams is the obvious choice, she is a born winner and is heading for her 24th slam to equal Margaret Court’s record. The pressure is high though and the lack of a home crowd may benefit her competitors. Naomi Osaka will also be a favourite. Whilst Aryna Sabalenka, Petra Kvitova, Madison Keys and Britain’s Jo Konta will all throw their hat in the ring.
Though the tournament will lack the quality of a regular Grand Slam, and the absence of fans will be considerably noticeable. It will be an eye opener for the future of the sport that engenders tradition to its very core.
The lack of line judges will appear incredibly strange, but are they necessary and could such figures disappear from the sport completely? Whilst competitively there are a number of players who have a great opportunity to reach the later rounds of the tournament, with a number of the top players having dropped out. It is going to be different, but there’s still plenty to get excited about.