Putting the ‘Open’ Back Into the U.S. Open

It has been two years since tennis fans queued for $25 lobster rolls at the United States Open, 24 long months since tipsy spectators could shout from the upper deck of Arthur Ashe Stadium during rowdy night sessions.

But starting on Monday, the U.S. Open will pulsate with fans again, proceeding close to normal with people packing the stands and spending at the concession stands as if it were 2019 all over again.

But just as New York has sputtered toward a frustrating and uneven reopening due primarily to the highly contagious Delta variant, New York’s signature two-week summer sporting event returns with full spectator capacity, amid a mixture of hope and anxiety.

City leaders expressed shock and concern that the tournament in Flushing Meadows was initially prepared to allow roughly 55,000 people per day to enter the grounds with almost no protections against the coronavirus. But players generally seemed delighted that, unlike last year when no fans were allowed to watch in person, throngs of tennis enthusiasts will be back on hand with all their famous New York zest and vigor.

“I’m just happy there’s a crowd in general,” said Naomi Osaka, who won last year’s women’s singles title inside a ghostly empty and echoing Arthur Ashe Stadium.

But the crowds will now be required to show proof of vaccination after a hasty retreat on policy by the United States Tennis Association late last week. It was the first, but likely not the last, hiccup for New York’s annual curtain call for summer — a highly attended, two-week tennis festival that straddles Labor Day and by the end signals the first cool hints of fall.

On Wednesday, five days before fans were expected to arrive en masse, tournament officials announced that no proof of vaccination or recent negative coronavirus test would be required for fans entering the grounds, and there would be almost no mask mandates.

The announcement stunned and alarmed city officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, who pressured tournament officials to beef up the restrictions. After a series of discussions over the next two days, the U.S. Open announced that all fans would need to provide proof of at least one Covid vaccine shot.

Although it would have been better to make the decision weeks ago to give ticket holders fair warning, the announcement still pleased the tournament’s early critics, like Mark Levine, a City Council member from Manhattan who chairs the health committee and condemned the tournament’s initial lax coronavirus protocols as a dangerous health risk.

“Now we can get back to enjoying great tennis without worrying that there will be a superspreader event,” he said.

But while the fans are finally back, many top players will not be. Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Venus Williams, Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem, last year’s men’s champion, are skipping the tournament because of various injuries. Together, they have won 19 of the last 42 U.S. Open singles titles.

Novak Djokovic has won another three. If he raises the trophy in two weeks, he will become the first player since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win the Grand Slam — all four major tournaments in the same calendar year — and the first man since Rod Laver in 1969.

Djokovic’s quest will be the primary tennis theme of the tournament, as long as he doesn’t get disqualified for testing positive for the coronavirus, or some other reason. Last year, Djokovic was tossed from the tournament in the fourth round after he hit a ball in frustration off his racket and it struck a line judge.

Since that ignominious exit he has won the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon, and although he lost at the recent Olympics, he is the strong favorite to make this U.S. Open memorable for something other than the coronavirus and a somewhat hectic reopening.

“I know how big of an opportunity is in front of me here in New York where historically I’ve played really well over the years,” Djokovic said. “It’s probably the most entertaining tennis court that we have and the crowd will be back in the stadium.”

Unlike the fans, the players are not required to be vaccinated. But they will be tested upon arrival and every four days after that. If they test positive, they must withdraw. And any unvaccinated player who is in close contact with someone who is found to have contracted the coronavirus will have to isolate for 10 days, thus ending their tournament, too. So, fans who come to see a favorite player might go home disappointed if that player, or their opponent, is forced to pull out.

But several players noted that the presence of fans has a clear impact on play, whether intimidating or motivational.

“I played a lot of brutal matches here over the years,” said Andy Murray, the 2012 champion. “The crowd always helped. They like people that fight, give their all, show their heart and emotion and energy and stuff on the court.”

Those attending should see things as close to normal as they were in 2019, the last time spectators were permitted. The concession stands, restaurants, bars and shops will be open and fans can mill about freely — unlike last year when a smattering of devotees tried to absorb some of the feel of the tournament from outside the gates.

But some experts remain concerned about the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus, including Charles Branas, a physician and the chair of the epidemiology department at Columbia University’s School of Public Health. Dr. Branas said he is worried about people with only one shot of vaccines that require a double dose. He said they are considered under-vaccinated and do not have the full protective benefit of the vaccine.

“I understand this is a big event and a lot of money and jobs are at stake and severe restrictions can be costly,” he said. “But if there is an outbreak at the event, or somewhere else that can be traced back to the event, that has a cost too in a lot of different ways. You have to balance it.”

Dr. Branas was also concerned about the roofs and the ventilation of Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums when they are closed. He noted the “three Vs” that experts focus upon regarding the current situation: Vaccinations, the variant and ventilation.

“A closed roof, even if there is some opening on the side, is not optimal,” he said.

Similarly, Mayor de Blasio had insisted that either a vaccine mandate be imposed for the two stadiums, or the roofs on both would have to remain open, even in rain. The U.S.T.A., which spent more than $150 million on those roofs, was loath to see the costly structures sit idle in wet conditions, gumming up the tournament’s scheduling and frustrating ESPN, the main broadcaster.

So it opted for the vaccine solution, and took it even further than the mayor recommended, mandating vaccines for all fans, not just those with tickets to Ashe or Armstrong. The U.S.T.A. exceeded the mayor’s requirements because about 90 percent of ticket buyers this year hold tickets to Ashe, anyway, according to the U.S.T.A., and doing the screening on the outside the grounds was seen as more efficient than doing it inside.

Louis Marciani, the founder of the Innovation Institute for Fan Experience, which focuses on the safety and health of fans at sporting events, applauded the tournament’s ultimate protocols, even if they were hastily reconfigured.

“We as an organization support their decision because it is based on scientific evidence and local conditions,” he said. “Let’s face it, this might not be such a good idea in a place like Las Vegas that does not have as high a vaccination rate.”

Brian Hainline, a physician and a member of the U.S.T.A.’s medical advisory board, said the goal was not to prevent a single infection, but to prevent an outbreak.

After that, it’s all about the tennis and the $25 lobster rolls, the end of summer and the whisper of autumn in New York. And maybe a Grand Slam, too.

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