When the Western & Southern Open begins in the northeasterly location of Queens on Saturday, it will be the first part of the most significant tennis doubleheader since the 2012 Wimbledon tournament and the Olympic tennis competition were played on the same well-tended grass courts of the All England Club.
But that doubleheader was a long-planned occasion, more than seven years in the making.
This one in New York was devised under duress, with the coronavirus pandemic forcing American tennis officials to find unconventional solutions to bring tour events back to the United States.
The result was moving the Western & Southern Open — long held in Mason, Ohio — to Queens for this year and hopefully only this year. It will be followed, after a quick two-day break, by the United States Open, scheduled to begin on Aug. 31.
Both events will be played at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center but will not use all of the same courts, which is partly an attempt to preserve separate identities.
The Western & Southern Open, a combined men’s and women’s event, will use the Grandstand as its primary court, with no plans to make use of the two largest venues on the grounds: Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium. The U.S. Open does not plan to use the Grandstand for matches this year.
“When I first heard the idea of moving,” said Katie Haas, chief operating officer of the Western & Southern Open, “I was of course like, ‘What? How’s that going to work?’ And then you stop and people start talking it out and talking it through and getting everybody’s buy-in and collaboration, and it’s like, ‘OK, we can do this.’”
It remains to be seen how smoothly they can do this. No spectators will be allowed at either tournament, but the players and their support staffs began arriving on Aug. 15.
Then on Tuesday, the United States Tennis Association announced that an individual among that pool had tested positive.
It turned out to be the Argentine fitness trainer Juan Manuel Galvan, who is working with two players: Guido Pella of Argentina and Hugo Dellien of Bolivia.
Galvan was isolated in his room at one of the tournament’s Long Island hotels.
Through contact tracing, it was determined that the 35th-ranked Pella and the 94th-ranked Dellien had both had extensive contact with Galvan, and they were withdrawn from the Western & Southern Open — Pella from the main draw and Dellien from the qualifying.
Both players have since tested negative multiple times for the virus but are required to remain isolated in their rooms for 14 days. They still have a chance to take part in the U.S. Open if they are cleared after their isolation period. But they are, for now, not allowed to practice or leave their rooms, which could make for a rough transition to best-of-five-set matches if they do indeed return to action in New York.
“It’s bad luck that I got affected out of the 1,400 tests that they did,” Pella said in a video posted on social media. “But there is no other option than to do everything possible to get through these two weeks quickly and see if we can get to the U.S. Open.”
Novak Djokovic, the men’s No. 1, and other players pushed for allowing Pella and Dellien to play in the Western & Southern Open, maintaining that neither was sharing a room with Galvan and that neither had tested positive.
How to proceed in a scenario like this was one of several points of contention between players and tournament and health officials in recent weeks.
The Coronavirus Outbreak
Sports and the Virus
Updated Aug. 21, 2020
Here’s what’s happening as the world of sports slowly comes back to life:
- The Western & Southern Open tennis tournament — long held near Cincinnati — has been moved to Queens this year, making for an unusual doubleheader with the United States Open.
- The Mets had two games postponed after a player and a staff member tested positive for coronavirus.
- While live sports are back, spectators are not in most cases. Readers comment on what they were missing as fans in the stands.
It was ultimately determined that players would automatically be held out of the tournament if they were lodged in the same room with a team member who tested positive. But though players are not automatically withdrawn if they stay in a different room, they are not guaranteed to be able to play even if they test negative. Instead, it depends on the findings of the contact tracing, which came as a surprise to many competitors, including Djokovic, who said a U.S.T.A. medical official had not made this clear on a recent conference call.
“That’s why a lot of players were upset and are upset, including myself, when I see that Dellien and Pella are treated in this way,” Djokovic said. “It’s hard. I can’t point fingers at anybody. These kind of circumstances are very tricky. Things are changing so rapidly.”
The contact-tracing policy was on the waiver signed by players and their team members before the tournament. Pella has acknowledged that he and Dellien were in close and frequent contact with Galvan during a recent training session in Miami. The contact tracing inquiry also determined the players had not been wearing masks in some of those interactions with Galvan.
Men’s tour officials still lobbied for Pella and Dellien to be allowed to continue, but the final decision was made by officials from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“I think they should play, and that’s what the majority of players think, I think 99 percent,” said Daniil Medvedev, the defending men’s champion.
The qualifying tournament began on Thursday as masked players from the men’s and women’s tours circulated through the vast and largely empty grounds.
“It is difficult at first,” said sixth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas. “You keep going back and forth from your hotel room and the site. I think it’s difficult not to be able to mix it up a little bit.”
But Tsitsipas said he understood the restrictions were “for the safety of everyone.”
The women’s tour resumed this month in Palermo, Italy, but the Western & Southern Open is the first men’s tour event after the five-month hiatus caused by the pandemic and is also the first combined men’s and women’s tour event.
Fifteen of the top 20 men are entered, including Djokovic and No. 3 Dominic Thiem. The former No. 1 Andy Murray, trying to return to the elite at age 33 after hip surgery, will face the American Frances Tiafoe in the first round.
The women’s event has 12 of the top 20, including No. 3 Karolina Pliskova, No. 4 Sofia Kenin, No. 9 Serena Williams, No. 10 Naomi Osaka and No. 13 Madison Keys, the defending women’s singles champion. “It’s definitely strange to be defending my Cincinnati title not on Cincinnati courts,” Keys said.
Coco Gauff, the remarkable American 16-year-old, will face 21st-ranked Maria Sakkari in the first round. But six of the top 10 will be missing here and at the U.S. Open, including No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and No. 2 Simona Halep.
“It still has to be tennis that’s played, asterisks or not,” said Williams. “I think this whole year deserves an asterisk, because it’s such a special year, history we have never been through in this world, to be honest, not this generation, not this lifetime.”
The Western & Southern Open is trying to preserve at least some of the familiar by adding some Midwestern touches.
The Grandstand, for example, will house artwork linking two bridges designed by John Roebling: the Brooklyn Bridge and the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which spans the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Covington, Ky.
This month, Dick Clark, director of facilities for the Western & Southern Open, drove to New York from Mason, Ohio, in a rental truck full of equipment from the tournament’s usual site.
“We had to bring our umpires’ chairs because we have LED signage attached to those, and all the nets with our logos because the U.S. Open doesn’t utilize the same ones, and our player benches that are branded,” Haas said. “It was a very large truck.”