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Column: No fans. Diminished fields. Can the oddest U.S. Open produce something special?

Novak Djokovic holds the championship trophy after winning the Western & Southern Open in New York.
Novak Djokovic holds the championship trophy Saturday after winning the Western & Southern Open in New York.
(Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

Celebrating his triumph in the final of the Western & Southern Open, held at the site of the U.S. Open as a pandemic-defying rehearsal for the larger Grand Slam event, Novak Djokovic turned toward each side of the court at Louis Armstrong Stadium on Saturday and saluted a crowd that wasn’t there.

That eerie silence will prevail again when the Open starts Monday at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. The most boisterous of the four Slams will take place without the fans and clamor that make it so compelling, one of many significant changes made to ward off the novel coronavirus. The U.S. Tennis Assn. plans to use video screens and interactive features to liven the atmosphere and get fans involved, but it won’t be the same without spectators’ energy.

“It’s really different without them. They really bring out the best game,” said No. 2 seed Sofia Kenin of Florida, whose win Feb. 1 at the Australian Open — the only major completed this year — now seems decades old. “When it’s tough moments, they obviously are there on their feet cheering for you. It’s really unfortunate. I really wish they would be here.”

Naomi Osaka pulled out of the Western & Southern Open final Saturday because of a left hamstring injury, giving the title to Victoria Azarenka.

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Parts of the tennis center were transformed into a temporary hospital and a commissary for healthcare workers a few months ago, when New York City was hardest hit by COVID-19, so a return to tennis is a happy leap forward. But extensive protocols will govern movement and players and their newly reduced entourages will be tested often for the virus.

One small benefit of the new rules, Djokovic noted, is that seeded players got suites where they can relax and distance themselves from opponents. “So there are positives, obviously,” he said, “but you can sense that around the site there is a certain tension as well, because everyone is obviously being careful.”

Djokovic is the strong favorite to prevail over a field that will lack 20-time Grand Slam singles champion Roger Federer, who is recovering from knee surgery, and defending Open champion Rafael Nadal, who cited COVID-related travel concerns for skipping a chance to equal Federer’s Grand Slam win total. Djokovic improved to 23-0 this year with a 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Milos Raonic in the Western & Southern final, overcoming a sore neck and the general discomfort that had bothered him Friday. Djokovic, already the only player to win all nine ATP 1000-level titles, became the only man to win each of them twice.

Yet, Djokovic still found himself opposing Federer and Nadal, this time on the simmering issue of whether male tennis players would be better represented by a group that would be separate from the Assn. of Tennis Professionals. The ATP’s governing body includes representatives of the Grand Slam tournaments and other events; Djokovic and others, including Vasek Pospisil of Canada, want players to have more influence in the distribution of prize money and other key issues.

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Federer and Nadal lead the opposition. Nadal tweeted Saturday, “The world is living a difficult and complicated situation. I personally believe these are times to be calm and work all of us together in the same direction. It is time for unity, not for separation. ... We all, players, tournaments and governing bodies, have to work together.”

Federer responded, “I agree @RafaelNadal. These are uncertain and challenging times, but I believe it’s critical for us to stand united as players, and as a sport, to pave the best way forward.” Andy Murray said he wouldn’t immediately join because he believes the ATP deserves time to implement its vision and because female players are not currently included in the plans.

Djokovic said his new group could co-exist with the ATP and wouldn’t attempt to organize a parallel tour. “Of course I would love to have Roger and Rafa on board. Of course I would love to have all the players on board,” Djokovic said. “But I understand. I truly understand that some of them have different opinions and they don’t think the time is right. Again, I think the time is right.”

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Anxiety over COVID-19 has depleted the U.S. Open women’s field to include only four of the top 10 players. Defending champion and world No. 6 Bianca Andreescu, who has been slowed by a knee injury, cited “unforeseen challenges, including the COVID pandemic,” as reasons she couldn’t get into prime shape to play at Flushing Meadows. No. 1 Ash Barty, No. 2 Simona Halep, No. 5 Elena Svitolina, No. 7 Kiki Bertens and No. 8 Belinda Bencic also decided not to play.

That leaves No. 3 Karolina Pliskova, who has never won a Grand Slam singles title, as the No. 1 seed. Behind her are Kenin, Serena Williams — No. 9 in the world — and Naomi Osaka, who initially declined to play her semifinal at the Western & Southern Open in protest over racial injustice but decided playing would give her a greater platform. She withdrew from her final against Victoria Azarenka on Saturday because of an injured hamstring. “I just hope I’m giving myself the opportunity and the chance to have enough time,” she said of recovering for the Open.

The 23-time Grand Slam tournament winner returns to action Monday in Kentucky after six months of isolation with a new attitude of living in the now.

Williams, who will be 39 on Sept. 26, still is pursuing a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title. Since returning to the tour after giving birth to her daughter and enduring perilous postpartum complications, Williams has advanced to four Grand Slam finals and lost them all. She was the runner-up to Osaka in 2018 and lost to Andreescu a year ago.

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Tying Margaret Court’s record still drives her. “I’ve been definitely proudly stuck here, party of one. I’m pretty happy about it,” Williams said. “Obviously I’m never satisfied. That’s been the story of my career. So, yeah, it is what it is. I took a year and a half off for a baby. So I don’t know. It’s like I’ll never be satisfied until I retire. I’m never going to stop until I retire. It’s just my personality.”

There will be plenty for fans to talk about during the Open. Too bad none of them can chat and cheer at the Open.


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