It wasn’t until about a week before Novak Djokovic travelled to New York for the unusual tennis doubleheader coming up amid the coronavirus pandemic that he decided for sure to show up.
“Things,” the No. 1-ranked man said Friday, “were so unpredictable.”
That’s a good way to describe the world these days, and there certainly were times it seemed like his sport might not return at all in 2020. Tennis will be back in full swing as of Saturday, when main-draw action at the Western & Southern Open begins in Flushing Meadows — on the same hard courts that will be used for the U.S. Open starting on Aug. 31, and under the same special circumstances.
There will be no spectators and extra precautions. And there are some big names and Grand Slam champions missing from the draws, including Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka on the men’s side, Ash Barty and Bianca Andreescu on the women’s.
“In the end of the day, it is positive we are here. There are going to be a lot of people around the world who think we should not play tennis, that no public gathering should happen. I understand that fully. I really do,” said Djokovic, one of several people, including his wife and one of his coaches, who got COVID-19 during an exhibition series he organized in Serbia and Croatia in June.
“But, you know,” Djokovic continued, “I think there also is going to be quite a lot of people that are going to be happy to see tennis keep going.”
The Western & Southern Open is normally held in Ohio but was moved to New York this year because of the pandemic, to help create a controlled environment leading into the U.S. Open. This is the first top-level sanctioned tournament for men in nearly six full months; the women’s tour resumed earlier in August.
“I personally didn’t think there (were) going to be any tournaments this year,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is ranked No. 6. “I found it very difficult, due to the crisis that we are facing right now. For me, tennis was the least important thing at that moment.”
Among the players scheduled to be in action Saturday: Andy Murray, Marin Cilic, Venus Williams and 16-year-old Coco Gauff.
After so much time away for so many, it is hard for anyone to know what to expect. There’s also the unusual element of having the two events back-to-back in New York; top players almost always take a week off to rest and recharge before a Grand Slam tournament.
“There will be some surprising results and stuff. I’m sure some of the guys that do really well in (the Western & Southern Open) may not do well at the U.S. Open. There will be some that do really well in both events. There will be some that lose early in `Cincinnati’ and go on to have good runs in New York,” said Murray, a three-time Grand Slam champion who is still working his way back from two hip operations.
“We’ll just have to wait and see. I mean, ideally I would want to play a few matches, for sure. I can’t remember the last time I played the week before a Slam. It was a very, very long time ago.”