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A U.S. Open Missing Fans and Stars: Was It Worth It?


Two of the biggest stars in the sport did not make the trip. Another one was disqualified midway through.

Six of the top 10 women’s singles players decided to skip the event, citing concerns about traveling during a pandemic. There were no ticket-buying spectators, robbing one of the grand celebrations in sports and New York City of the buzz and vitality that only packed stadiums can deliver.

A cadre of French players ended up quarantined in their rooms at the Long Island Marriott for 14 days after one of them tested positive for the coronavirus, possibly setting back French-American diplomacy a few degrees, at least in tennis.

Television ratings have plummeted from past years.

Was the United States Open worth it?

“Absolutely,” said Mike Dowse, the chief executive of the United States Tennis Association, which owns and organizes the championship. “The gratitude we have gotten from players for getting their tours back up and running again, allowing them to earn some compensation after six months without it, and elsewhere throughout the game, that to me speaks for itself.”

Not everyone shares that perspective. There were plenty of players who flew across the country and the world, dealt with the inconveniences of the tournament bubble for days, or even weeks, then lost quickly.

“A little tough to go out and play the top seed in my first match,” said Anhelina Kalinina, who struggled to find hitting partners over the past five months in Ukraine then drew the top seed, Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, in the first round.

Then there are the French players. After Benoît Paire tested positive for the coronavirus, electronic contact tracing revealed that several of his compatriots might be at risk for infection. A card game and some nighttime activities that violated social distancing rules came under scrutiny, prompting enhanced protocols, then disqualification from the doubles tournament for one player, Kristina Mladenovic, who called the situation a “nightmare.”

French players who were forced to remain in their hotel rooms for 14 days remain miffed at what they viewed as shifting protocols. Health officials forced organizers to disqualify Mladenovic even though she and others had initially been allowed to play during her quarantine. Mladenovic and her partner, Timea Babos, were the top-seeded women’s doubles team.

Attempting to placate the quarantined players, the U.S.T.A. moved them into the larger, corner rooms with patios at the player hotel in Uniondale, N.Y. It moved exercise equipment into their rooms and tried to provide them with top quality dining options.

Nicolas Lamperin, who represents Mladenovic, said the players were evaluating their legal options and declined further comment. The winning doubles team — Vera Zvonareva and Laura Siegemund won this year’s title on Friday — shares $400,000.

No matter how that dispute is resolved, putting on the tournament allowed the U.S.T.A. to collect revenue it desperately needed.

The U.S. Open in a normal year produces more than $400 million in revenue, which covers most of the organization’s annual budget. About half of that comes from ticket sales and corporate hospitality, money that the U.S.T.A. had to forego this year since no spectators were allowed beyond players’ families and coaches. Also, the organization, which did not carry cancellation insurance, could not curtail some $70 million in prize money without sparking a rebellion among the players.

However, the organization collects $140 million in media rights fees each year, including an 11-year, $825 million deal with ESPN, and tens of millions more in sponsorships.

Lew Sherr, the U.S.T.A.’s chief revenue officer, said that even with all the savings from not having to provide the necessary food, amenities and security for some 800,000 spectators, profits are off 80 percent. There was, after all, the significant expense of administering more than 13,000 coronavirus tests and creating a controlled environment that helped keep the negative test rate at 99.97 percent. The U.S.T.A. purchased a half-million face masks and performed nearly 50,000 temperature checks. But the tournament will turn a small profit and the organization plans to use its cash reserves to sustain grass-roots programs.

“It’s certainly not a sustainable model,” Sherr said Thursday. “But no one was telling us we would prefer not to do this event at all this year.”

ESPN certainly did not even though getting its operation up and running was no easy feat. Its tennis broadcasting team of roughly 600 workers includes 150 international contractors and specialists whose ability to get into and out of the United States was up in the air through the summer because of rules limiting international travel.

Commentators and players wore masks or stayed far apart during interviews or in broadcast booths.

“We all thought sports could be an escape,” said Jamie Reynolds, vice president of production for ESPN. “But sports has become a window on how people are going to get along and work together.”

Despite the long layoff, the tennis, at times, was stellar, especially in the second week of the women’s competition.

The women’s tour is wildly open, and with so many of the top players missing, the upsets were everywhere. Pliskova, the No. 1 seed, lost in the second round. Sofia Kenin, the No. 2 seed, went out in the fourth. Jennifer Brady, a 25-year-old former college player with little history of success, pushed Naomi Osaka, the No. 4 seed, to the brink in the semifinal as the No. 28 seed.

The tournament lost its biggest star Thursday night in the semifinal, when Serena Williams fell to the unseeded Victoria Azarenka, a former world No. 1.

With no fans to hound the players and all the seeds getting to use a luxury suite in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the tournament did deliver a silver lining — a rare, stress-free chance to watch a lot of tennis. When Williams played, Osaka tried not to miss a point.

“A lot of people pay a lot of money to watch her,” Osaka said of the player she idolized growing up. “To go outside and watch her for free for me is really cool.”

Still, with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal skipping the event and Novak Djokovic getting tossed from the tournament in the fourth round for inadvertently striking a line judge with a ball that he hit in frustration, ratings are down 47 percent from last year.

John Suchenski, ESPN’s director of programming, attributed the drop to competition with the N.B.A. playoffs, which are usually finished by mid-June, and the absence of some of the biggest stars.

Even the best players were feeling the void.

“It’s in the back of your head, with all four major players not here,” Dominic Thiem said after his quarterfinal win on the men’s side, which entered the final weekend without Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray, who lost in the second round.

The champions will not have to apologize. Sports is about staying healthy and answering the bell when it rings.

And yet, no matter what unfolds, or how compelling the stories, or how exciting it might be to crown a first-time men’s Grand Slam champion for the first time in six years, this tournament will likely always be remembered for what it did not have — the megastars, all those top women, and those raucous fans.

“I’m really disappointed that there is no crowd in New York,” said Daniil Medvedev of Russia, a rising star who likes to play to the audience. “I hoped I would get some laughs starting from the first day.”

Medvedev did not get his laughs. The U.S.T.A. missed its windfall. But the strange 2020 version of the U.S. Open will have to do.

As Dowse said, “The alternative we were looking at was no tennis.”

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