The US Open becomes the first Grand Slam of the COVID-19 era when it starts this week in a spectator-free bubble at Flushing Meadows following a troubled build-up that saw several top stars withdraw over coronavirus fears.
Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams headline a tournament that will be unrecognizable from previous Slams due to strict safety protocols that were still not enough to convince some of tennis’s biggest names to travel to New York.
Defending champion Rafael Nadal and women’s number one Ashleigh Barty are among high-profile absentees at the US National Tennis Center, which just months ago was transformed into an emergency coronavirus field hospital.
Raucous crowds are a hallmark of the US Open, but the cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium will be eerily empty to mitigate the risk of infection from the deadly pandemic that has wiped out much of the tennis season, including Wimbledon.
The players are being kept in a tightly controlled environment with regular COVID-19 testing throughout the tournament. Any competitor who tests positive once the event has started will be automatically withdrawn.
Most competitors are staying at one of two hotels where they will be shuttled the 30 minutes to and from the tennis center.
A few, including Djokovic and Williams, have chosen to stay in private homes where they must pay for 24-hour security approved by the United States Tennis Association (USTA).
The security teams are obliged to provide the USTA with information regarding when the player leaves and arrives at the house.
No player is allowed to travel anywhere other than between the tennis center and their accommodation. Any player who leaves the bubble without the written consent of organizers will be thrown out of the tournament.
Temperature checks are mandatory for everyone entering the US Open site, which is dotted with hand sanitizer machines and signs warning everyone to keep six feet from each other.
Players are to wear masks when not playing or eating, while ball persons and lines officials will wear face coverings on court on the Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums.
There will be no lines officials on the outer courts, where Hawk-Eye technology will make line calls.
Organizers are limiting the locker rooms to 30 players at one time, with competitors encouraged to shower and then head outside as quickly as possible where activities including basketball hoops have been put up.*AFP