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US Open 2021…Virtual Version

By Cheryl Jones and Mark Winters

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During the pandemic, life has become one big Zoom call. Circumstances have made it the communication “go to…” Virtually everyone has been relying on the app. Tennis journalists have gone even further, taking full advantage of the crisis enhanced “modernizations”. They have become adept at using Virtual Credentials to cover tournaments from a distance. Even with the “distance” stars of the game are merely a click away, depending on the quality of the internet reception.

In the past we were always in New York, the last week of August and the first week of September, for the US Open. The adventure began with the arrival at a familiar airport, spending a fortnight at an outrageously expensive mid-city hotel and the “hide and seek” route that tournament transportation traveled going to and coming back from the facility. There was an assigned desk at the Bud Collins Media Center, beneath Arthur Ashe Stadium, with a tiny television screen that broadcast the action taking place on the courts.

Television sets over booths in the press room at US Open.
Television sets over booths in the old press room at US Open.
Photo: Ted Pink

On occasion, it could be frustrating, even frightening, making one’s way to watch a match firsthand. Open crowds are formidably bruising and the same held true when it came to finding a path to the press seating at the show courts. The designation “Press” doesn’t mean much. If a spot happened, by chance to be unoccupied, it was instantly filled…It doesn’t matter who you are. That’s just the way it was…

This year’s tournament, taking place at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, August 30th to September 12th, could qualify as the Virtual Open because of all the champions and assorted other performers who are missing. As if the pandemic could do no more, evidently it has given rise to a long list of maladies that have stricken much less silently than the COVID-19 numbers that are intoned on each and every newscast.

Topping the list of those on Injured Reserve are four of the most formidable players in the game’s history. Roger Federer, a five-time tournament winner from Switzerland, is facing a third surgery on his right knee. Spaniard Rafael Nadal, a four-timer in New York, is out because of a congenital (and chronic) problem with his left foot. Then there are the Grande Dames – Serena and Venus Williams. Together they have eight trophies in their Open collection. (Serena’s count is six and Venus’ two.) The damage Serena did to her right hamstring at The Championships is keeping her sidelined. A leg injury (the leg and the problem weren’t detailed), which she has been dealing with for most of the summer, made it impossible for Venus to reach the starting gate.

Venus Williams at Wimbledon 2021
Venus Williams playing on Day 2 of The Championships in June.
Photo: John Walton

Defending men’s champion Dominic Thiem tore the tendon sheath in his right wrist playing the Mallorca Open in June and still can’t grip his racquet without pain. (For those in need of an anatomy class – The triangular fibrocartilage complex – was damaged.) But, videos have been posted showing the Austrian hitting shots left-handed (it must be added that no one in his camp has said if he is looking to challenge Nadal who is a natural right-hander but as everyone knows plays left-handed).

Stan Wawrinka, a men’s semifinalist in 2013 and ’15 and champion in 2016, has been out longer than almost all of those in the “Not There” category. The Swiss performer had surgery on his left foot in March and again in June. March was a good month for orthopedic surgeons. That is when Kyle Edmund had surgery to repair a persistent knee problem (fortunately they are only two possible guesses but no hints were given as to which one). The Brit’s rehab has been slow which is the reason he is not in the Open mix.

Milos Raonic doubled down this spring/summer with two physical problems. The Canadian followed the “I’m out…” injury script when he withdrew from The Championships with a calf injury (and didn’t specify which calf). He pulled out of the Western & Southern Open with a heel (unspecified) problem. When it came to the US Open, the body part freelancing continued with the announcement of his non-participation as – A right leg problem.

Milos Raonic playing in the 2021 Miami Open.
Milos Raonic playing in the 2021 Miami Open. His last slam match was the fourth round of this year’s Australian Open. Photo: Mpi04/Media Punch

Borna Coric was direct. The Croatian, who had shoulder surgery in May (and it must be assumed that it is his right shoulder because a “persistent problem” was mentioned but not its location), admitted he “had not fully recovered” from the operation.

Sofia Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open titlist and Roland Garros finalist the same year, had been dealing with “an injury” to her foot (without clarifying if it was her right or left) since The Championships. Then she was tripped up by an even more dangerous predicament. Though vaccinated, she tested positive for COVID – 19 before the tournament. Her symptoms were mild but none of her recent tests came back negative, forcing her to remain quarantined in Florida, where she lives.

Patricia Maria Tig of Romania is a “no – show” because of a continuing back problem (again it’s a pig in a poke kind of “pick ‘em” as to the actual area of distress). Qiang Wang had the “best out”. And this isn’t a criticism it is merely a reaction to the reason given by the tournament for the Chinese competitor not being in the draw. According to the “official” statement, which was brief, she had withdrawn because of “a change of schedule”. Fortunately, Wang used Weibo to provide clarity saying, “…Due to travel restrictions and safety concerns, my team and I have withdrawn from Western & Southern Open and US Open…” Unfortunately for Thomas Drouet the situation brought about the end of his coaching relationship with Wang who noted, “Under those circumstances, Thomas and I cannot team up for matches and regular training. After discussion, we have to put an end to our journey by mutual agreement…”

Qiang Wang at Roland Garros 2021
Qiang Wang at Roland Garros this year. Photo: Rob Prange

Turning the Open into a video experience is easy because of the number of times those missing have appeared in the championships. Venus, who has been a contestant 22 times, first played in 1997. Serena, a rookie in 1998, has been in the draw 20 times. Federer is next in the “been there…” count at 19. Nadal follows with 15 and Wawrinka with 14 showings respectively. So there is plenty of video to make the Virtual Open a great watch.

Had Federer participated he could have added to his tennis records by winning at the ripe old age of 40 which would have made him the oldest men’s champion. William Larned, who was 38 years, eight months old when he claimed the last of his seven US Open trophies in 1911, currently stands at the head of that class. Venus turned 41 on June 17th. Serena will be 40 on September 26th. This means that Molla Bjurstedt Mallory is safe. The Norwegian, who became a naturalized citizen, won the last of her eight women’s trophies in 1926 at the age of 45 and five months.

Molla Bjurstedt
Molla Bjurstedt Mallory playing in New York, ca. 1920.
Photo: Everett Collection Inc

The 2021 US Open, with Novak Djokovic of Serbia attempting to realize a historic Grand Slam season, along with Ashleigh Barty of Australia and Naomi Osaka of Japan looking to close the year in dramatic style, should be memorable. But it would have been even more glittering if those in the Virtual video category were on the courts in New York. For us, it will be a Virtual Open sitting in comfortable chairs in front of a big screen television attempting to compile cogent notes that will lead to readable features. Like everyone who follows the game we are looking forward to the excitement, the intrigue and surprises that always define the year’s final slam.

Title photo by Jimmie48 Photography

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