It was late-March in New York, just five months but seemingly a lifetime ago, and the leaders of tennis in the United States already knew that this year’s U.S. Open would be unlike anything they had ever experienced, if they could stage it at all.
With much of the world, and especially New York City, reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, they had no idea where or when the Open might take place, or if anyone would bother to show up for an event held in the city for more than 100 years, one of its biggest and most economically important festivals.
So Mike Dowse, the newly installed chief executive of the United States Tennis Association, set up a team to determine how to carry out the event, setting in motion a grand experiment that could show what international sports, as well as New York, might be capable of while navigating the public health threat.
Players, who began arriving in mid-August for a smaller tournament held before the U.S. Open begins on Monday, are mostly cloistered in a Long Island hotel, prohibited even from sharing an outdoor table with friends and preparing to play in cavernous stadiums without spectators at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
These athletes, who are used to the ultimate in pampering are doubling as guinea pigs, watched by medical experts, leaders of other sports and public health officials curious about what version of normal might be possible in the nation’s largest city as it hosts its first major sporting event since the pandemic began.
“This is such a — hopefully — once-in-a-generation experience,” Dowse said during an interview last week. “It’s a chance to be a part of history.”
It is also an opportunity to provide a new set of data points for the sputtering sports and live events world still trying to figure out how to survive until there is a vaccine.
“It’s been a fascinating experiment in human behavior that has made me realize that human beings are really social creatures,” said Dr. Bernard Camins, an infectious diseases specialist at Mount Sinai Health Systems who advised the U.S.T.A. on its protocols. “It’s really hard to tell people to stay away from your friends who you have not seen in five months, or for me to tell them you can’t say ‘hi’ or hug or shake hands with them or even be within six feet of them if you’re not wearing a mask.”
Dr. Camins said having athletes arrive from all over the world made staging the tournament especially complicated. Officials quickly determined that if they required a two-week quarantine period ahead of the tournament, no one would come. They decided instead to administer two tests within the first 48 hours and follow up on testing every four days.
Also, the U.S.T.A. leaned into education, trying to teach players the best ways to avoid becoming infected. There was a lengthy debate about protocols for massages — both athlete and masseur have to wear masks and an eye shield, not the most relaxing experience. Allowing spectators was never a realistic consideration, and probably will not be for a long time, Dr. Camins said.
The Open is under pressure to prove a success; the New York sports calendar is heating up.
After the tennis tournament ends on Sept. 13, the world’s top golfers will arrive in the New York area for their sport’s U.S. Open, which will be held at Winged Foot Golf Club in Westchester County, also without fans. By October, the Yankees will have a good shot at the playoffs. Later in the year, the N.H.L. and the N.B.A., home to five teams in the region, want to start playing in home arenas again.
The New York City Marathon, which is usually held in November, was canceled but New York Road Runners, the event’s organizer, is going to begin scheduling races in September and October.
“Pacing is really important,” said Michael Capiraso, chief executive of New York Road Runners, who sits on a committee with other civic leaders trying to figure out how to hold public events again. “The city wants to start bringing back events, slowly and safely,” he said, adding, “I’m really curious to see what comes out of the tennis. We’re all learning from each other.”
The stakes are not small for a city where major events are routine. In a normal year, the U.S. Open tennis tournament generates some $400 million for the U.S.T.A. and an estimated $750 million in economic activity, according to a study commissioned by the U.S.T.A.
It took city health officials months to get comfortable with the idea of holding the U.S. Open. They became convinced that the U.S.T.A. had done its homework, and the tennis organization also was committed to developing a comprehensive contact tracing program.
“A living experiment, that is exactly how our eyes are viewing this,” said Dr. Andrew Wallach, chief medical officer for ambulatory care for the New York City Health and Hospitals Corp. “What we are going to learn from the tournaments is a little different than a football game, but we are going to learn about preparedness and testing protocols and tracing in a sporting event.” Wallach said discussions grew so specific they even included details about who sits where on a bus, preparing city officials for conversations about the specifics of bringing other events to New York.
It may not be just the coronavirus that brings scrutiny. The tournament begins at a time when athletes are using their platform to bring attention to systemic racism and violence against Black people, with the U.S.T.A. having already suspended play in a preliminary tournament on Thursday, after Naomi Osaka, the 2018 U.S. Open champion, refused to play that day.
Still, for the world’s top tennis players, who have been sidelined since March, this is already a Grand Slam like no other. Many of them came to New York two weeks ago to compete in that preliminary tournament, the Western & Southern Open, which was moved from Cincinnati to the National Tennis Center to limit their travel.
“It feels like I am back in juniors,” Serena Williams, who is seeking to win her 24th Grand Slam singles title, said of playing without spectators.
Diego Schwartzman, who was eliminated from the Western & Southern tournament on Tuesday, has spent the past five days trying to fill idle time around the Long Island Marriott in Uniondale, N.Y.
“Playing cards with my team, watching Netflix, a few movies — not much to do when we are on the hotel site,” Schwartzman said. “We are in the tennis bubble.”
It’s not for everyone. Rafael Nadal, the world No. 2, opted not to play, and more than a dozen players have pulled out of the tournament since the initial player pool was announced, citing concerns about traveling or not wanting to deal with the restrictions.
“We all are going to be challenged mentally, emotionally,” said Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1, who is living in isolation in a rented house. “I’m trying to be open-minded and accept, because this is the only thing I can do right now.”
Trying to make the event as player-friendly as possible, organizers added a shaded, outdoor lounge and dining area to the hotel parking lot, where tennis and other sports are shown on a large screen and musicians perform. There is also an arcade, a fitness center and a golf simulator.
At the tennis center, where some 50,000 people usually pack the stadiums each day, there are few hints of the usual food, merchandising and corporate entertainment festival.
The endless rows of food counters are mostly closed, though there are picnic tables spread everywhere across plazas and other shaded areas, including the covered promenade on the third level of Arthur Ashe Stadium, where players can enjoy the epic skyline views. The top 32 players in the singles tournaments have their own luxury suites in Ashe Stadium. Organizers have ordered 64 massage tables so the players can be treated in those suites.
A glass-walled corporate entertainment space that Mercedes-Benz uses to entertain its clients has become an open-air gym, filled with treadmills and exercise bicycles. Another corporate entertainment space is now the testing center for the tournament.
The South Plaza of Arthur Ashe Stadium has a temporary mini-golf course, cornhole sets, a mini-tennis court, and human-size chess and billiards — an attempt, with mixed results, to keep players entertained, occupied and outside between their matches.
There are capacity rules for the locker rooms. Electronic monitors track everyone’s whereabouts, so if someone tests positive, those who have been potentially exposed can be notified immediately.
Players have wanted to eat together. They can’t. Eating and mask wearing are not compatible.
Johanna Konta of Britain, ranked No. 15 in the world, said she has been using Uber Eats or picking up food at one of the food trucks allowed at the hotel. She’s given mini-golf and the golf simulator a go and played the basketball arcade game, which she said did not go well.
“Everyone being quite social, but we are in this little fish bowl so everyone is also taking some time on their own in their rooms,” Konta said.
Tennys Sandgren, the journeyman American tennis player, said he and others realize everyone is sort of making things up as they go along.
“There is no real formula, there are people’s best guesses,” Sandgren said. “People are going to have to put themselves into an ever-changing world if they want to interact with it, and I am down to do that.”