Two Weeks of Loud Silence at this Year's US Open

Although the location of the U.S. Open has changed over time, it has been played in some form or another every year since 1881.  While change is nothing new for the tournament, one constant has always remained: there have always been fans in the stands -- until this year.

Apart from the absence of spectators, the other notable difference from this year's tournament was that three of the biggest stars on the men's side were missing in action.  Five-time tournament winner tournament Roger Federer was out with an injury.  Defending champion Rafael Nadal skipped the event to preserve his energy as he competes for a record thirteenth French Open title later this month, and 2016 U.S. Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka also chose to pass on the tournament.  On the women’s side, the defending champion Bianca Andreescu of Canada was also out with an injury.

Even with the absence of fans and stars from the tournament, the overall quality of play was not diminished.  Top-ranked tennis players do not simply forget how to crack 130 mph serves or hit screaming forehands while gliding around the court like Fred Astaire simply because the stadium is empty.  As tennis legend Chris Evert pointed out, without fans in the stands, the players needed to create their own energy.  It also did not hurt that both the men’s and women’s singles champions were competing for a $3 million payday.

“I’m not even missing the people, I think the players are doing the same,” Brad Gilbert, coach and ESPN commentator, remarked.  The intensity of the players on the court was evident throughout the two-week event.  In fact, probably more so than usual, as the TV microphones frequently picked up obscenities from the players that might otherwise have been inaudible with 23,700 fans screaming inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.  Serena Williams, who remains stuck at twenty-three grand slam titles (one away from the all-time record) had no shortage of emotions in her six matches before running into an inspired Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in the semifinals.  Azarenka, who made her first finals appearance at a grand slam event in seven years, would go on to lose against Naomi Osaka, the number four seed from Japan in the finals.

Still, some early round matches were missing the electric atmosphere under the lights that we have come to expect from so many Open matches that have ended well past midnight, and have turned obscure players into fan favorites. ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale pointed that out on several occasions during one of the most entertaining matches of the tournament, a four-hour thirty-six minute third- round match on Louis Armstrong Stadium between Stefanos Tsitsipas, the number four seed of Greece, and Borna Coric, the number twenty-seven seed of Croatia.  Coric ultimately prevailed in five sets after battling back from 1-5 down in the fourth set, and from 4-5, love 40 before saving six match points and forcing a decisive fifth set.  “If the fans were here they would be going absolutely wild.  What you have just seen is so improbable... I just wish with all my heart that we could throw 18,000 fans into the seats...This is the saddest thing about the coronavirus.  For them to walk up to the net in silence,” Drysdale said after the match finally ended shortly after 1 A.M.

There were also no shortage of bizarre moments at this year's Open.  During one early round men’s match, the chair umpire Carlos Ramos, told an empty stadium, to be “quiet,” to which John McEnroe, who was commentating for ESPN retorted, “quiet please?  It should be the opposite.”  Other strange happenings involved an Italian restaurant owner who was seen screaming at the top of his lungs outside of the U.S. Open grounds behind court seventeen, as he cheered on Matteo Berrettini, the number six seed from Italy during his third round match.

Perhaps the most bizarre moment involved Novak Djokovic, the heavy favorite and top seed on the men’s side who succumbed to his toughest opponent, himself.  After breezing through his first three matches of the tournament, Djokovic suddenly found himself packing his bags at 5-6 in the first set after inadvertently hitting a line judge in the neck with a tennis ball in his fourth round match against the Spaniard, Pablo Carreno Busta.  Smashing a tennis ball in frustration is never a wise move for a tennis player, but perhaps the next time Djokovic feels compelled to do so, he would do well to aim for the nearly 24,000 seats in Arthur Ashe Stadium that were empty. 

The other major theme from this year's tournament was social activism.  As part of their “Be Open” campaign, the tournament paid homage to past and current stars of the game, including Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, and Serena Williams.  In Arthur Ashe stadium a blue tarp covering the seats in the lower tier read “Black Lives Matter,” and murals of black stick figures were placed in the front row of the stadium, with the line, “Moving Black Lives To The Front.'' “New York Strong,” was also displayed throughout many of the stadium showcourts, serving as a reminder that the tournament was being played in the state that suffered the most COVID deaths.

Osaka, who won the tournament in 2018 before triumphing again this year made headlines for wearing a mask before and after each of her seven matches with the names of a different person of color who has been killed at the hands of police in recent years.  Billie Jean King, who knows a thing or two about activism, had some advice for where Osaka should devote her priorities. “Right now, she’s a tennis player.  She needs to not think about anything else,” King said.  It is not clear if Osaka will follow that advice, but she was more determined than ever in the final against Azarenka, as she used her penetrating groundstrokes and incredible court coverage to battle back from a set down to win her third grand slam title.

In the men’s final, Dominick Thiem, the number two seed from Austria, became the first player to win the Open in 71 years after losing the first two sets to Alexander Zverev, the number five seeded player from Germany.

During the match, John McEnroe facetiously suggested that the audio technicians should raise the volume of the fake applause, so that the decibel level matched the quality of play.  They did not need to.  This was the loudest tennis match in the emptiest stadium in U.S. Open history.

Image: Pixabay