The four biggest tournaments in tennis, known as the Grand Slams, so clearly reflect the cities in which they take place.
January offers the Australian Open, a free and easy party in Melbourne. The French Open, in springtime in Paris, leads with the beauty and elegance of Roland Garros and its red clay. Wimbledon, in July in London, with its hallowed grass, is tradition and history, with a box reserved for the royal family. And the late summer finale is the United States Open in New York, a tournament every bit as noisy and chaotic and nonstop as the city itself, with matches that sometimes start near midnight and stretch well past it, with fans carousing into the night.
Except of course, when the U.S. Open takes place amid a pandemic.
Through this spring, New York became more quiet and empty, with atypically bare pavement in Times Square and silence on the streets broken only by the citywide cheers each night at 7 o’clock from the windows to herald doctors, nurses and other essential workers.
Gone, seemingly, was everything that made the city the city.
That contrarian version of life arrived Monday at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, a bow to the safety precautions required to limit the spread of the coronavirus. To be here during the opening day of the U.S. Open was to experience something nearly impossible to envision.
A usually crammed boardwalk connecting the subway to the west gate was devoid of nearly all signs of life. No one begging for or trying to sell an overpriced, last-minute ticket. No endless lines trying to get through the six metal detectors that were still operating but had little metal to detect.
The Adidas and U.S. Open stores were filled only with people stringing rackets, six feet apart, instead of fans swiping plastic for souvenirs. Metal shutters were pulled down on every stand in the food court. No Franks and Fries or Neapolitan Pizza or Ben & Jerry’s.
As Angelique Kerber of Germany and Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia got underway at Louis Armstrong Stadium with the first match in a big, nearly empty venue — Armstrong can hold some 14,000 people — the loudest sounds were the screeching trains from the Long Island Rail Road yard just beyond the tennis center’s walls, and of course the planes flying low out of nearby La Guardia Airport.
Tomljanovic, who lost 6-4, 6-4, described the bizarre sensation of slugging through the most intense points only to have all that effort met with the sound of one coach clapping.
“That’s usually when the crowd would erupt,” said Tomljanovic, who likes to people-watch during her changeovers but had nothing to look at but empty seats covered by tarps. “Nothing really happens. It has to come from you.”
Players marched onto their courts after an announcer introduced them over the public address system with brief highlights of their careers, even though no one was really there who didn’t know the information already. Then came some brief piped-in crowd noise.
Big screens that surround the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium showed a grid view of fans cheering remotely in small boxes, looking a bit like they were being held hostage and told to cheer on command.
Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, the No. 1 seed in the women’s draw with Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep not playing, opened play in the 22,000-seat Ashe Stadium and imagined that she was, in fact, being watched. The top 32 seeds each get a luxury suite in Ashe to use as a lounge. Surely a few of them saw her dismantle Anhelina Kalinina of Ukraine, 6-4, 6-0.
“It’s super huge and it still feels super empty,” Pliskova said of Ashe, “but I feel like there is at least the player boxes where they stay, so I felt like there is at least a couple people watching.”
The artists call it “negative space” — the area around and between the subjects. At the U.S. Open, it is usually a sea of people, with the occasional player navigating through on the way to a match or a practice court like a commuter racing for a train at Grand Central at rush hour. There are no tunnels or hidden walkways here. You march with the people.
On Monday, the negative space was mostly empty, allowing all those players, racket bags slung over their shoulders because they can’t leave them in the locker rooms that have rules limiting their capacity, to dominate the scene as never before. The tennis center was like their college campus, complete with the warnings about and limits on indoor dining.
There was a cracker of a match of Court 5, where Cameron Norrie of Britain came back from two sets down to upset the No. 9 seed Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 7-5.
It was not beautiful tennis.There were 58 break points and 146 unforced errors, but it was knotted at 3-3 and 5-5 in the fifth set. Schwartzman hit the deck twice in the last set while scrambling desperately for points. Norrie saved match points and took advantage of a cramping Schwartzman in the final games.
“Sometimes you got to win ugly,” Norrie, 25, said when he had completed one of the great comebacks of his career, a match that would have packed the bleachers of the court in any other year. Instead, about two dozen people watched his fifth set, including several of his fellow Britons, among them Jamie Murray.
“All the Brits have become a little closer,” Norrie said.
With no paying spectators to worry about, Murray dropped his racket bag on one side of the bleachers then left it unattended for the bulk of the nearly four-hour match.
“It’s actually nice to get a chance to watch some of the matches,” he said, pointing out one the rare silver linings of this strange and empty event. “Kind of stress free.”
Sure, Norrie allowed, he would have loved to have put on the show in front of a squealing, overflow crowd. He tried, instead, to focus instead on all the people watching at home in England, maybe even more than usual, given the continuing resistance to large social activities.
“At least I am giving them something to cheer about,” he said of his countrymen and women. “In the back of my mind, everyone was watching.”