It started with a human traffic jam and could end with a Grand Slam. There were unprecedented and initially confusing medical demands and a massive storm that blocked onlookers and inundated the courts. Some of the game’s biggest stars didn’t play, but a host of intriguing news items took advantage of their absence and electrified an audience that seemed to be making more noise than ever.
The US Open 2021 was by no means normal. Attendance is down and competition is on the rise, but in the midst of a fluctuating pandemic, this has been a notable step on the road to tennis, and perhaps civic normalcy.
“Everything was a little less,” said Margaret Zuba, tennis fan and actuary from Marlboro, NJ. “Less crowds, less intensity. But the tennis was great and it’s really fun and relaxed. Yes, we have to wear masks inside. Yes, we have to be vaccinated. But we can handle that.
Zuba is one of more than 522,000 people who attended the annual event in Queens in the first 10 days. This figure is down 19% from the attendance record set in 2019, when more than 737,000 people walked through the doors. The United States Tennis Association attributes part of the losses to the pandemic and the reluctance of many to travel, especially overseas.
The absences of Serena and Venus Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and defending men’s singles champion Dominic Thiem, all of whom skipped the event due to various injuries, may also have contributed to the drop in attendance.
“In the first two quarters of the year, we expected to only be able to have 25% or 50% capacity,” said Michael Dowse, USTA CEO. “So considering everything that’s going on, we’re extremely happy with how it turned out. And in terms of tennis, it was great. “
This is especially the case for some players looking to take advantage of the void of absent superstars. While tournament organizers, fans and vendors hoping to get their money’s worth might miss Federer and Nadal, the players who showed up weren’t complaining.
“I don’t care if Roger or Rafa are here,” said second man Daniil Medvedev. “I want to win the tournament.
Frances Tiafoe, a 50th-ranked American, said he saw other players in the locker room “foaming in the mouth” at the prospect of advancing without having to face three of the best players in the game. “Pretty funny to watch” , he added. “I’m in the locker room breaking down.”
Fans gathered to see players like Medvedev, Tiafoe and world No.1 Novak Djokovic were required to show proof of coronavirus vaccination, a rule that was implemented just three days before the tournament started at the insistence of the Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York. Dowse said the ticket refund process showed some fans chose not to attend before the vaccine was in office, but he believes others purchased tickets once they heard about the change in rule.
Dowse said about 7,500 coronavirus tests had been administered to players, staff and relatives, up to Thursday. Of those, only 0.47% came back positive, he said, and all were when they first entered the tournament, which he said indicated that the event was not contributing to the spread of the viruses among players and staff.
The fans have not been tested.
“It’s always embarrassing now, with Covid,” said Rob Segal, a Manhattan tennis fan and health tech entrepreneur who was with his school-aged son. “But we felt safe. This is quite normal. “
But on August 30, the first day fans were allowed into the pitch, thousands were taken on an exasperating two-hour wait to get inside during the midday heat. The fault was caused by a lack of staff and a lack of door training. The next day, additional workers were assigned and the problem appeared to have been resolved.
Once inside, fans witnessed the first upheavals, the continued success of a legion of Canadian players, and the emergence of three fascinating teenagers. Among them, Canadian Leylah Fernandez, who surprised reigning women’s singles champion Naomi Osaka, Briton Emma Raducanu and Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, who beat number 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Fernandez and Raducanu will meet on Saturday in a teenage women’s final, with Raducanu becoming the first qualifier for a major final of the Open era.
The teenage buzz has energized fans and made veteran players like 28-year-old American Shelby Rogers take notice. Rogers was asked to give his opinion to tough kids.
“Buckle up,” she said. “It’s a long drive.”
But no one was prepared for what happened on day three of the tournament when the remnants of Hurricane Ida ravaged the area. The storm caused massive destruction and dangerous conditions, including at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The tournament was caught off guard and organizers criticized for not canceling the night session and sending fans home long before the flood.
A few hundred fans and workers, including No.16 seed Angelique Kerber, were forced to wait for the storm to end under the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium (or inside the gymnasium, where Kerber stayed. until 4 a.m.), while others faced potentially risky rides. house in flooded areas.
“We didn’t cancel because in a meeting with New York State and our meteorologists, it was projected as a heavy rainstorm,” Dowse said. “And we did extremely well, in heavy rains for years.”
But it turned out to be different, and many were taken by surprise. Dowse had left the field before the storm but returned at 5:30 am the next morning to find several flooded courts. He said there were several feet of standing water in the outside grandstand and on court 17. But they were emptied and after an hour late the tournament resumed under sunny skies.
Later that evening, Djokovic won his second game of the tournament, against Tallon Griekspoor. He has since qualified for a semi-final against No.4 Alexander Zverev, as he continues his quest for a Grand Slam. Djokovic has already won the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon this year and a title on Sunday would make him the first man to win a Grand Slam (all four majors in the same calendar year) since Rod Laver in 1969.
It would also give him a record 21 major titles, one more than Federer and Nadal. After beating sixth seed Matteo Berrettini in the quarter-final on Wednesday night, he declined to speak about the Grand Slam in an interview on the pitch.
“I know a lot of people want to hear me talk about it,” Djokovic said later. “But let’s talk about it, I hope Sunday.”
There would be nothing normal about it.