(Reuters) – Fears that strict health protocols due to the COVID-19 outbreak could deter the game’s biggest names from competing at this year’s U.S. Open were somewhat allayed on Wednesday when Serena Williams confirmed she will play the New York event.
Williams, in a video message played during a United States Tennis Association news conference to announce that its marquee tournament will be played from Aug. 31-Sept. 13 without fans, said she misses the excitement of competition.
“Ultimately, I really cannot wait to return to New York and play the U.S. Open 2020,” the seven-times champion said.
“I feel like the USTA is going to do a really good job of ensuring everything is amazing and everything is perfect and everyone is safe.”
A number of top players, including world number ones Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Australian Ash Barty along with reigning U.S. Open men’s champion Rafa Nadal, are among those who have expressed concerns about attending the U.S. Open.
One sticking point is the number of support staff they can bring on site, which the USTA said it is still trying to sort out.
The decision will impact the upper echelon of players who typically travel to events with a coach, hitting partner, physiotherapist and fitness guru.
“We understand the needs of athletes,” U.S. Open tournament director Stacey Allaster said during a video conference from the centre court at Arthur Ashe Stadium. “We just need to make sure that we navigate physical distancing and ensure that we keep everyone spread out and also everyone gets the proper training and preparation that they need.”
Allaster also said players who do not want to stay at one of the two designated hotels can rent homes in the New York area but cannot stay in Manhattan.
‘UNDERSTANDING THE RISK’
The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home to the U.S. Open, will also host the Western & Southern Open, which is normally held in Ohio, from Aug. 22-28 as part of efforts to stem the spread of the virus.
Testing will be conducted before travelling to the United States and 1-2 times per week at both events along with daily temperature checks.
During the U.S. Open, which this year will not include a mixed doubles tournament, players and guests must wear masks when onsite unless practising or competing.
There will be linespersons for matches inside both Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium but none on the other courts, where a chair umpire will work with the electronic line-calling system HawkEye Live.
Should an athlete test positive, they will be isolated and cared for by a USTA medical professional who will determine whether treatment can be done at the hotel or if the individual needs to be hospitalised.
“We all go into this understanding the risk and our responsibility,” Allaster said. “As in every year, the health and well being of our athletes, their safety is paramount to our medical team and it will be unwavering during this event.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Ed Osmond