Cincy Tennis at the US Open – Meet The Press (Virtually)
(August 21, 2020) This year’s Western and Southern Open normally held in Mason, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, is the lead in for this year’s US Open on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) instituted a bubble for players by moving the Cincinnati event to the US Open site, the week of what would have been the qualifying tournament for the US Open. No fans will be on the grounds, just players, officials and tournament staff.
On Friday, some players met selected press during virtual news conferences for media day for the Western and Southern Open.
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic said that it was about a week ago that he decided to play the US Open.
“First I just want to say a little. It’s quite interesting to be in the room with a camera,” he said before taking questions from the media via Zoom.
“The bottom line is that it’s positive that we are here. I congratulate the USTA, ATP, everyone who has been involved to make this happen. It’s not easy. We are one of the few global sports that have not found a way to keep going. But it’s all understandable.
“And I think especially when you see things from a perspective of our sport being played worldwide, week after week, with every country and every continent going through different sort of restrictions and different regulations…
“But, yeah, as I say, in the end of the day it is positive we are here. 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.” Djokovic and his wife tested positive for COVID after an exhibition tour he organized in Serbia and Croatia.
“But, you know, I think there also is going to be quite a lot of people that are going to be happy to see tennis keep going and everyone try their best in organization to create conditions, bubble-like, that will protect the players and people around and allow the sport to keep going.
“This is not only about us top 100 players, you know, participating here in the US Open and Cincinnati, as well. This is about tennis ecosystem in general. I think it sends out a very positive note about our sport and I think it’s important from a financial standpoint to start, you know, also generating money within the ecosystem, within the federations, like American federation, ATP for that matter, and start feeding certain percentages to the groups of lower-ranked guys.
“I mean, you can see things from different perspective. But I just feel like in the end of the day when you draw a line, in my opinion, it’s more positive.”
“I was obviously close to not come, honestly, until probably week before I landed in New York. I didn’t know whether I’m going to be playing or not because things were so unpredictable. I mean, there were so many different points that were discussed.
“For me, the crucial, so to say, the most fundamental point that had to be confirmed, I think, for us players is this special exemption of coming back to Europe without being quarantined so we can actually be able to compete in the European tournaments like Roma or Kitzbühel for that matter or anything on the provisionary calendar. So that was the key issue that wasn’t confirmed until quite late.”
“It is definitely strange not to have Federer and Nadal, at least one of them,” he said. “They will be missed, without a doubt, because they are who they are, legends of our sport.
“But, you know, with Federer and Nadal and Wawrinka not coming to the tournament, every other top player is here. So I don’t make a significant difference in terms of whether this Grand Slam should be considered as a Grand Slam in terms of title or something like that. I see there is a conversation about that and that people think that it should not be valued in the same way. I disagree with that.”
“I made my decision already months ago to come to US Open and play here because I really wanted to restart on a hard court where I feel the most comfortable. That’s the surface that I have most success on. I love playing in the US Open.
“So I did make my call to come, but I wasn’t 100% sure whether that’s going to happen or not until certain points were defined and clarified before coming here, which was, as I mentioned before, the special exemption, coming without quarantine back to Europe and so forth, few other details.
“Once that was checked and I flew over, that’s it. Every Grand Slam I play is an opportunity to get a title. I know that. But I’m not the only one. Every other player who is playing here has a chance to win it.”
“I think most of the top players are here. Yes, the circumstances and conditions are obviously different. Yes, we are not having the crowd, we have restrictions, the bubble. We have restricted access from team members to some player areas and stuff. But in the end of the day, we also have a suite now,” said the 17-time major champion with a smile. “We usually don’t have. So that’s kind of on a brighter side an advantage of not having a crowd, is that you have as a seeded player access to your own suite on center court where you can have an area for resting, for treatment. You can, you know, obviously order food. You can have your private time.”
“I miss the amusement park in Cincinnati. My daughter loves going there. I like going there, too. We have a really good time.”
— Western & Southern Open (@CincyTennis) August 21, 2020
Serena Williams is in the Cincy-US Open bubble. She talked about what she misses about not playing in Mason.
“I miss the amusement park in Cincinnati,” said the 23-time major winner. “My daughter loves going there. I like going there, too. We have a really good time.”
Like Djokovic, Williams opted to stay in a house rather than the tournament hotel.
“I didn’t want to be in the hotel because I have lung issues, so I felt like it was actually a big risk for me personally.
“At my house, I can control more. There is no housekeeping, there is none of that type of stuff. And so, I mean, as much as I want to be here, it’s great, but I have genuine health issues that I just really needed to put my mind at rest to even be able to perform in New York.”
With Williams who has her eyes on winning her 24th major when the US Open begins on August 31, she discussed those who say that this major played in the age of COVID will have an asterisk.
“It still has to be tennis that’s played, asterisks or not,” she said. “I think this whole year deserves an asterisk, because it’s such a special year, history we have never been through in this world, to be honest, not this generation, not this lifetime. It’s just in history, period.
“So I think we are living a future history lesson. So I think regardless, there is always going to be some asterisk by it, because it’s never been done before. And if you win, it was, like, wow, I was able to win in this crazy circumstance where there was no fans. It was just so sterile and weird. But I mentally came through. It might be a more mental test than anything.
“But it’s interesting, and we will see. I don’t think it really matters.”
Andy Murray comes into the Cincinnati-US Open double with a wild card.
“I do feel there will be a lot of upsets,” Murray said about he upcoming tournaments. “Usually there’s a little bit more time to get used to the conditions. Normally you play a few more tournaments in the buildup to a major event like the US Open, as well.
“Who knows really what’s going to happen. I think obviously still winning a tournament like Cincinnati or winning the US Open is still a huge deal. It’s just, like I said, going to be different playing in front of no fans.
“It’s really nice in some ways for the players. The USTA have done, in my opinion, an excellent job of setting everything up. The plaza outside is really nice. They’ve done a really good job. So in some ways it’s nice for the players.
“I don’t know, it just feels a bit sad that there’s no fans watching the matches, to be honest. I kind of felt that a little bit yesterday when I was walking through the grounds. It’s nice walking through to your practice courts, not getting stopped or anything, but then the atmosphere is just not the same without the people.”
“I’m looking forward to it, like just to be back competing again. I’ve really enjoyed, like, the last few days just practicing with top players, which I’ve kind of done it a little bit back home but not that much. I’ve had the chance to practice with Dan Evans and Cam Norrie. I played a match against Kyle which has been good.
“Since I got here, it’s very different conditions, very lively, quick, very hot. I’ve been practicing. I practiced with Thiem, Rublev and Khachanov. Those guys don’t really hold back, as well. Yeah, a bit of a different speed to what I’ve been used to.
“I felt a little bit off the pace at times. But I’m feeling quite good on the court physically in terms of my hip. When I spoke to my team a couple months ago, that was really all I wanted. I wanted to get hopefully to the US Open feeling pretty pain-free so that I could go out and play and enjoy playing in a Grand Slam again.”
“During the coronavirus, yeah, I learnt that I was quite patient. I learnt that with just being around my kids and stuff in the house, which it’s very rare. Obviously I’m used to traveling. I would see them a lot when I was home, but I would often be away. I was pleased with how I was able to keep my temper with them.
“Then as soon as I stepped back on the tennis court, I can’t do it (laughter). I don’t know why that is. I’d love to understand exactly why.
“But, look, last few years obviously they’ve been tough. Again, I felt like I was doing really well at the end of last year. I was so excited for the beginning of this year. Obviously had the setback again in November, tough few months after that. Didn’t really know exactly what was going on with the hip.
“Now I’m in a position to compete again, hopefully play in a major. I’ll try my best to reduce the risk of having setbacks. Obviously played a lot of tennis four weeks in a row before the Davis Cup when my hip started hurting. Obviously won’t make that mistake again.”
“It’s a great opportunity to be able to perform and play at such a high level again,” said Stefanos Tistsipas, who practiced with Serena Williams on Thursday. “Personally speaking, I’m very happy I get to be back on the court.
“I was very happy when I first came here and saw my fellow players. I greeted all of them, had a smile on my face seeing them, being surrounded by them. It’s a great environment. Honestly, I’m just happy competing again, just happy to be able to be back to my normal happiness.”
He talked about life in the bubble.
“It is difficult at first,” he said. “You’re not able to go anywhere except your hotel room. You keep going back and forth from your hotel room and on the site. I think it’s difficult not to be able to mix it up a little bit, go somewhere else, go to a nice restaurant with your team, go explore the city a little bit. That daily routine, that daily repetition makes it difficult.
“At the same time it’s for the safety of everyone. I don’t feel like it’s unfair to me because everyone has to undergo all of this. So that gives me in a way a different approach towards my tennis, that gives me an opportunity to focus more on my tennis and less of what’s happening outside of it, which is great.
“I practice a lot. Gives me an opportunity to practice a lot, discover myself more being out on the court, love my sport even more, appreciate my sport more. “
“I was worried about the virus at first. Despite all of the regulations that US Open set from early on, I still felt it could be unsecure to travel to the U.S. So far it has been proven wrong of what I initially thought.
“At the same time I personally didn’t think there are going to be any tournaments this year. I found it very difficult due to the crisis that we are facing right now. For me, tennis was the least important thing at that moment. Just being able to spend time with your family, not having any chances of spreading the virus if you’re positive, of course, yeah, it shouldn’t have been this way.
“Well, I thought, again, tennis was not number one priority at that moment. After I spoke to most of the ATP players, after that conversation and everything, I found it secure and safe to travel to the U.S. and that’s why I did so. Plus I miss competing a lot. I felt like if they think it’s safe for us to play, I should just go and try it out. They know better than I do.”
Daniil Medvedev comes into the Western and Southern Open as the defending champion. He spoke about his thought process coming into the Cincinnati-US Open bubble.
“Of course it could be something if I didn’t feel safe to come or if I didn’t feel good to come, it could be something that would be an easy decision not to come.
“But I like to play tennis. It’s long time I didn’t compete. I didn’t play any exhibitions. So I’m happy to be here, happy to see where my game is at, and, you know, any game I play, first I play for the win and then for ranking and money which goes with it.
“That’s why I’m here. I’m happy to be here.”
“I have been all the time in Monaco, so didn’t move to any other country during all this six months,” he said.
“I mean, we tried with my coach to make the best of calendar possible, because we never knew when tennis is going to come back.
“When Indian Wells was canceled, everybody felt possible about, let’s say, Barcelona, Madrid, and Rome going.
“So actually coming back, I started practicing quite hard, and then when we knew it was going to be for really long time, that’s when we just tried to keep in shape but not to overtrain, also, because you need to be fresh. Took some days off, and after was practicing again.
“I should say it was a normal life with some small changes.”
“First of all, big opportunity for a new Grand Slam winner, because there is, let’s say, only three Grand Slam winners in the draw of US Open, Cilic, Murray, and Novak, if I’m not mistaken, which of course gives bigger chance for everybody else.”
“Immediately after Indian Wells I think was when everything started shutting down. No one knew, like, when the next tournament would be,” Osaka said in regard to the shutdown of the tour due to the pandemic.
“But actually I started practicing like around a week or two weeks after Indian Wells got canceled just because I didn’t have anything else to do. I don’t know. For me, I didn’t feel like I lost my tennis or I missed tennis because I was practicing since then.
“Then when Wim (Fissette) (Her coach) went back to Belgium after Indian Wells got canceled, and he came back, I don’t even know what day it is today, I feel like he came back a month and a half after Indian Wells got canceled, then we started practicing seriously. Yeah, I’ve been practicing ever since then. I played a couple matches.
“For me, I just, I don’t know, kept everything kind of low profile because I didn’t want to show that I was practicing I guess (laughter). I wasn’t really sure what was happening, yeah.”
“Physically I’m very fit right now. I also think mentally I’m just happy to be here. I’m not sure if I was playing for a long time in Europe, then had to come here, I would have that same feeling. I think I’m just grateful to be here. I’m happy that there’s a tournament that’s going on that I can play.”
Defending champion Madison Keys: talked about what she did during the shutdown:
“I worked out. I played tennis, which is kind of the usual for me. I did a ton of cooking. I pretty much had my hands in soil at all times playing with plants. That was kind of it. It felt a lot like it was a long time, but it also kind of went by really quick. Tried to stay as busy as I could.”
“There were a lot of different times when I kind of felt different things. At first it was obviously confusion of what’s going on, how long is this going to go. I think everyone was very apprehensive.
“I was obviously in a really privileged position where I wasn’t very stressed about a lot of things going on. I didn’t have that added stressor, which I’m very thankful for, but also very blessed. I know I was one of the few people in that position.
“But it also just took me a moment to just be really grateful for the life that I have, the things that I am able to do, to get to stay home, just kind of hang out and not really be stressed. It really made me take a second to think how grateful I am for that, how I kind of want to start taking some steps to help other people who aren’t necessarily in that position.”
“It’s definitely strange to be defending my Cincinnati title not on Cincinnati courts, which hopefully we don’t ever have to worry about again. I’m just really happy I am able to come back and defend my title no matter where in the world it is. Very happy to be back playing tennis and playing competitively.”
“The honest truth in that is I don’t have the added pressure of if I don’t win I’m not going to fall in the rankings. That’s just being totally honest in the situation that we’re in.
“At the same time we’re still playing for something. There are more tournaments coming up that I could actually make a difference and do better than I did last year. There’s still that added pressure of I want to make sure I get off to a good start so that I can get matches under my belt and not be all of a sudden in a tournament where I didn’t do well and I have an opportunity and not have that confidence.”
Karolina Pliskova comes into the US Open bubble as the only European in the Top Ten deciding to compete in the tournament and she is now the top seed. Asked if she was surprised by this, the Czech said:
“Maybe I’m surprised a little bit. For me, it was easy decision because I was, since early beginning when we started really thinking about playing some tournaments, I was sure I want to make this trip.
“I mean, for me, surprised that the rest of the girls, maybe not all of them — I know maybe for some it’s tough to make it, but I think some of the countries, I think they possibly could make it. But it’s a decision on them. So maybe they don’t feel that safe. I actually feel quite safe.
“I think everybody here is doing great job just to make this, everything possible, this all happen. I feel actually safe. It’s not that nothing can happen. Of course it’s always, even if I stay home, something can happen.
“But I always knew I want to go play tournaments when they start to be happening. So it was quite easy. I was not really thinking about it.”
Asked about her opinion on the contenders for the titles, she said: “I have no idea, and I think it will be tough to tell. In normal season, it’s tough to tell. And especially now, I think there can be so many surprises, so many strange results.
“I don’t know what the rest of the girls were doing. I know about some of them but not about, I mean, most of the girls. And I know almost nobody — I mean, somebody played these clay tournaments but almost nobody has some matches in the last couple of months. I was lucky enough I had couple actually in my country, but I guess nothing to compare to play these events.
“I mean, let’s see. I think it’s really tough to say even where my level is, because I’m not sure how I will be playing because I didn’t play anything for five months, and I never had this break before. So I was never kind of, like, injured. So let’s see.”
Fans or not, it’s still tennis to 16-year-old Coco Gauff in the bubble.
“It’s still tennis, the same court, the same balls regardless if there’s fans or not.
“In the bubble, I mean, pretty much the same as a normal tournament. Obviously not to be able to move as freely as we do normally, but we still have a lot of things to do on-site. They have a lot of games and stuff to keep us entertained.”
“It’s definitely exceeded my expectations. At the hotel they have a lot of activities for us to do, which I was a little bit worried about that, that there wouldn’t be anything to do besides Netflix. They actually have a lot of things to do.
“On-site they have a lot of fun games that I’ve never really tried before. I really enjoy it. The weather has been great. Actually I’ve been sitting outside.
Yeah, the bubble has been great. The tournament, the USTA, has done a great job with everything. The sanitation… There’s not really much I can ask for after this.”
“I’m still excited to be able to even have the chance to play. It is a bummer that we can’t have fans. But safety first. Hopefully next year we’ll be able to get things back to normal.”
‘The games, on-site they have a lot of outdoor games, basketball, pool, soccer, paddle tennis, bean bag. They have a cool nine-hole mini golf course, which is pretty cool.
“At the hotel they have PS4, ping-pong, typical arcade games. They also have karaoke. I don’t think that’s been a big hit because I don’t think anybody wants to go up and sing in front of everybody in the tournament.
“Regarding the COVID-19 cases, when I was home I tried to stay as safe as possible. Didn’t go anywhere but practice and the courts. Occasionally went out on the boat.
“The biggest thing I can ask people is to continue to wear their masks, continue to social distance so things can get back to normal quicker.”
Sofia Kenin was just weeks off of winning her first major, the Australian Open back in February when the pandemic hit.
“Yeah, it’s tough. Really upset that this happened, but I really hope everything is going to go back to normal.
“Definitely felt I was playing really well. I was the highest level I could ever be in my career. So of course was a little bit upsetting. I had no motivation after that.
“But I’m picking myself back up and I’m playing well right now, and we will see how it’s going to keep going.”
“The quarantine, at the beginning, once everything was canceling week after week, it was hard when you see the whole schedule, three months of no tournaments, no competition, nothing,” she added.
“Of course it’s a bit hard, but my dad really helped me with motivation. He told me of course it’s tough, but just try to do the best you can to motivate yourself. He helped me with that.
“Of course, once I found out I’m going to Charleston to play an exhibition and then WTT, World TeamTennis, which was a lot of fun, motivation was right there. I was playing well and really fired up and super happy to be back on court and competing. Now I’m back here at the Big Apple, the Big Bubble, so it’s nice to be back.”
Kenin already has experience in a bubble when she played World Team Tennis earlier this summer.
“Definitely used to it. I have been there at World TeamTennis. Everyone was taking all precaution. All testing, everyone was six feet apart, wearing masks.
“I’m used to these crazy times already. I was there for three weeks. But I really enjoyed it there. Here, I’m following all the rules, doing everything I can to keep myself, my dad, all others around me safe and healthy.
“So, yeah, I’m quite used to it, but of course would like to be done with this already, so if we can walk with no masks and go back to normal life.”