In a year unlike any other, get ready for a U.S. Open unlike any other.
"There was definitely a point where, in the beginning, I was like: There is no way these tournaments can even happen," Serena Williams said about playing amid a pandemic.
Professional tennis returned recently from a hiatus of nearly six months caused by the coronavirus outbreak — and it will be back on one of its biggest stages Monday, when Flushing Meadows begins hosting the first Grand Slam matches since the Australian Open ended in February.
"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 No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who caught COVID-19 in June during an exhibition tour he organized in Serbia and Croatia that did not mandate wearing masks or social distancing.
"But, you know," he 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 U.S. Tennis Association set up what it calls a "controlled environment." Nearly all players and their limited-to-three entourages are staying in two hotels on Long Island (eight players opted for private housing at a cost of $40,000). They're barred from going to Manhattan.
There's frequent testing for the coronavirus. One player said she got a nose swab at 7 a.m., four hours before a match at the Western & Southern Open, the hard-court tournament being held the week beforehand at the same site used for the U.S. Open (it's usually played in Ohio).
There are dozens of "social distance ambassadors" tasked with making sure players and others are covering their mouths and noses and staying far enough apart.
"The protocols that they have are so intense," said Williams, who has dealt with blood clots and lung problems. "It definitely helps me to feel safe."
The U.S. Open traditionally ends the Grand Slam season but is going second in 2020, because the French Open was postponed from May until late September and Wimbledon was canceled for the first time since World War II.
"It's been so long," said Taylor Fritz, a 22-year-old Californian who is the 24th-ranked men's player in the world. "Everyone is pumped up to be back out there."
Well, not quite everyone will be back out there.
For one thing, there will be no spectators; more than 700,000 attended last year. That will change things, especially at 23,771-capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Also missing? Several top players, including both 2019 champs: Rafael Nadal for the men and Bianca Andreescu for the women.
Roger Federer is skipping the tournament, too, after two knee operations. The No. 1-ranked woman, Ash Barty, opted out because of the pandemic; in all, six of the top eight women withdrew.
"The field's a little weaker than normal," Fritz said, "so there's always an opportunity for a couple of people to step up."
That's not to say all of the star power is gone.
Williams renews her bid for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title. The woman who beat her in the final two years ago, Naomi Osaka, is also entered.
Djokovic didn't make up his mind about going until about a week before flying to New York. He has won five of the past seven Grand Slam men's singles trophies to get to 17, gaining on Federer's record total of 20 and Nadal's count of 19.
"It is definitely strange not to have Federer and Nadal — at least one of them," Djokovic said. "They will be missed, without a doubt, because they are who they are, legends of our sport."
Something else absent: a strong sense of where anyone's game stands.
That's because of the lack of competition, even if there were various unsanctioned exhibition matches around the world (No. 2 Dominic Thiem took that to an extreme, playing 28).
Riley Opelka, a 22-year-old based in Florida who is ranked 39th, offered this take on exhibitions: "We're professional players. We play for money, at the end of the day. So when there's a big check on the line and there's more incentives to win — there's rankings, there's points — it's different."
As it happens, there's a little less cash on offer over the coming two weeks.
The loss of ticket sales and hospitality suites — which were turned over to seeded players — along with revenue sources such as merchandise or food and beverage contributed to a 6.7% decline in overall player compensation.
The singles champions will take home $3 million each, down from $3.85 million last year.
The U.S. Tennis Association quietly posted the women's and men's singles draws online, without the usual TV hoopla, on Thursday — the same day all matches in the Western & Southern Open were called off after Osaka's decision Wednesday to drop out of her semifinal in response to the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by police in Wisconsin. Osaka changed course Thursday, saying she would play when the Western & Southern Open resumes Friday because the tournament's pause helped call attention to the issues of racial injustice and police brutality.
The 22-year-old Osaka, who won the 2018 U.S. Open and 2019 Australian Open, and American teenager Coco Gauff could face each other in a third-round rematch at the U.S. Open. Osaka beat Gauff, then just 15 years old, 6-3, 6-0 in the third round at Flushing Meadows a year ago.
As tears welled in Gauff's eyes at the end of the match, Osaka offered a hug and words of consolation, then told the teen to address the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd. It was one of the most indelible moments of last year's tournament.
"I have honestly not talked about it with her. It just feels like it was like a natural thing, and it's kind of in the past," Osaka said this week. "For me, I don't really dwell on it, and I don't think she does, either. It's not in a negative way, but it's just, like — for me, it's just really cool to see someone rising up like that, and that's just something that I did, like, genuinely in the moment."
They met again at the Australian Open in January, with Gauff coming out on top.
If the No. 4-seeded Osaka or the unseeded Gauff reaches the quarterfinals, the opponent at that stage could be No. 6 Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion.
Other potential women's quarterfinals: No. 1 seed Karolina Pliskova versus No. 8 Petra Martic; No. 2 Sofia Kenin versus No. 5 Aryna Sabalenka; and No. 3 Williams versus No. 7 Madison Keys.
On the men's side, the top-ranked Djokovic was drawn to face 107th-ranked Damir Dzhumhur in the first round. The men's quarterfinals could be Djokovic versus No. 7 seed David Goffin, No. 2 Dominic Thiem versus No. 8 Roberto Bautista Agut, No. 3 Daniil Medvedev versus No. 6 Matteo Berrettini, and No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas versus No. 5 Alexander Zverev.