Questions, concerns loom as US Open prepares for Grand Slam amid pandemic

Serena can't wait to play in the US Open (0:46)

Serena Williams confirms she will play in this year's US Open but says she will miss the fans. (0:46)

"This is crazy. I'm excited."

That was the expression from Serena Williams, the most accomplished women's player of the Open era, as the USTA revealed its plans to hold the Western & Southern Open and the US Open in conjunction over a 24-day "bubble" period beginning Aug. 19.

The plan has been touch and go for weeks. On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in his daily press briefing that the USTA would be allowed to stage a no-fan US Open taking place under strict protocols demanded by the coronavirus pandemic.

The US Open will retain its distinction as the only Grand Slam tournament that has never been canceled since it was first played in 1887.

This will be unlike any US Open in recent memory. The lack of fans, the social distancing protocols and the effects of a strict testing regimen will replace celebrity spotting as a topic of conversation.

There has been intense speculation about the restrictions a 2020 US Open might feature. In the end, though, the measures revealed Wednesday seem less onerous than most expected. Here are some FAQs regarding the event:

Why are there two events being played in this bubble?

The Western & Southern is a top-tier, combined ATP and WTA tuneup for the US Open. It takes place annually in Cincinnati, on or around Aug. 15. The planners at the USTA (which is part-owner of the event) decided that because of travel restrictions and other concerns related to the pandemic, the two events could be held in the same time period.

The USTA officials decided players from abroad (the majority of top 100 players in both the ATP and WTA are from Europe) would feel safer and have greater incentive to participate if the events were bundled.

"[The] international aspect [of tennis] creates challenges in restarting the tour seasons," Western & Southern Open chief operating officer Katie Haas said in a statement. "With continued restrictions on international travel and quarantine guidelines, hosting multiple tournaments in a controlled environment ... provides us the best chance to safely resume play."

Where will the players be housed, and what restrictions will there be on their movements?

It was initially thought the players would be obliged to stay in hotels designated by the USTA, but the restriction has been significantly softened. Most players still will be housed at one of two hotels. Each player will be eligible to have two hotel rooms, only one of which will be paid for by the USTA. A player will be permitted to house three additional guests in the two rooms. One hotel, the TWA at JFK Airport (512 rooms), has already been chosen.

New US Open director Stacey Allaster said during a video conference that housing at private homes will be allowed, with the USTA providing a real estate agent to those interested. The homes will have to be residential, in non-dense locations outside of Manhattan.

"Putting the guys up at the airport?" ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said. "That won't work, not if you want Rafa [Nadal] and Novak [Djokovic] to come."

It will be impossible to monitor the movements and activities of the players, but Allaster and Dr. Brian Hainline, speaking for the USTA's medical advisory group, said the USTA expected the players to act "responsibly" and abide by a sort of honor system.

How many guests can a player bring?

Speculation that players would be restricted to one guest, as has been the rule at some of the recent non-tour exhibition events, was unfounded. The USTA knew that could be a deal-breaker when it comes to top players. Novak Djokovic had already suggested that he would not play if he was unable to bring his support team.

On May 22, the United States exempted athletes who competed in professional sporting events in the United States from entry bans imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Besides the athletes, the exemption applies to essential staff, spouses and dependents. Therefore, anyone staying in private housing can bring as much of a support team as he or she wants, while those at the official player hotels can have up to three guests, be it a coach, spouse, physio or friend.

The USTA has not decided how many entourage members will be allowed on-site.

How often will the players be tested for the coronavirus?

The players are not arriving en masse, but on their own schedules. Each one will be tested for COVID-19 via nasal swabs upon arrival. After that, every player will be tested at least once weekly. "If someone does test positive, they would have a repeat test within 24 hours," Hainline said. "That would be a confirmatory test."

Should the second test confirm infection, the player will likely be declared ineligible to compete or continue in the tournament. The Grand Slam rulebook leaves the final determination on whether a player is fit to play up to the event's chief medical officer -- in this case Dr. Alexis Colvin.

Athletes who test positive will be treated in an isolated treatment area, and the tournament will conduct contact tracing. If there is the possibility that the tournament bubble has been breached, there could be testing every other day.

It is unlikely players would be asked to sign waivers absolving the USTA of responsibility should they get sick.

How will the National Tennis Center be transformed to accommodate the protocols?

The USTA will transform the South Plaza into a "sports center," an outdoor player lounge where the players will be able to play soccer, basketball and other sports, as well as watch movies and video games. There will be outdoor cafes, food service and training and fitness facilities.

The locker rooms will be expanded to conform to social distancing guidelines, with some players assigned space in the luxury boxes in Arthur Ashe. Special food services catering to high-performance athletes will also be available at the hotels.

Will all the usual events be played?

The USTA felt that in order to produce a safe and manageable event, it would be unable to host a qualifying event, mixed doubles, juniors or wheelchair competitions. The only events that will be played are the men's and women's singles and doubles.

There will be eight wild cards in addition to the 120 who get in via their ranking in each singles draw. The 32-team doubles fields will offer four wild cards, with entry strictly based on doubles-only ranking. Players who are entered in the singles fields are not allowed to enter doubles.

In order to alleviate the financial pain of lower-ranked players who were hoping to qualify or vie for a payout from the traditional, million-dollar US Open qualifying event, the USTA has allocated a $6.6 million fund, split evenly between the tours, to be used at their discretion to compensate and provide other opportunities to lower-ranked players who will be hurt by the event reductions.

Is the prize money being reduced?

Total compensation will be $60 million. While the distribution has yet to be broken down, a typical outsized payout to the winners is sure to draw criticism -- especially in light of the well-publicized hardships that lower-ranked players have experienced during the pandemic.

"The prize money breakdown in general is way too skewed in favor of top players," ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said in a recent interview. "Do [Roger] Federer, Serena, Rafa [Nadal] really need to make seven times as much as, say, David Ferrer did in his prime? This is a good time to look at the way tennis approaches this, and also to figure out how many pro players it legitimately can, or wants to, support."

The USTA is taking a significant risk by offering a purse comparable to the ones it distributed in better times.

"We're committing to 91% of the prize money when our net operating income is going to be down 80 percent," USTA CEO and executive director Mike Dowse said. "With [our] reserves, we can do that this year. [But] it's not a model that can continue."

Will the tournament offer rankings points?

The ATP, WTA and Grand Slams have an agreement that as long as all eligible players are free to enter, the events must offer ATP and WTA rankings points. There may be some questions about whether all eligible players were free to play (cancellation of the qualifying is relevant in this), but the agreement is iron-clad. Rankings points will be distributed as always.

Among other things, US Open rankings points will serve as a huge incentive for players to enter both tournaments. The ATP and WTA have not yet announced if the existence of rankings points will serve to jump start the entire ranking system, which has been dormant since mid-March.

Will there be ball boys/girls and line judges?

The plan calls for some linespersons, if not a full, complement, along with a chair umpire on Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium. All the other courts will be limited to a chair umpire, but every court will have electronic line-calling technology.

A total of six ball boys/girls will work matches on Ashe and Louis Armstrong -- two on each end of the court and one at either net post. The other courts will have three ball boys/girls to help retrieve and roll balls to the players.

What will the event look like on television?

"We could do bells and whistles if we wanted," said Jamie Reynolds, ESPN vice president of production. "But the big question is: Do they enhance the competition? In competition, you have to ride that roller coaster, punch by punch. Do you want to get in the way of that, or accept the purity of the sport?"

Reynolds said that while social distancing reduces intimacy, the story is always, ultimately, about player A vs. player B. He pointed out that during the ATP Tour Championships in London, the arena is so dark during play that a viewer doesn't even know if there are fans in the stands. It's all about the two players on court.

Some details that will affect the broadcast have yet to be worked out, including where and when coaches, family members, guests and even other players will be allowed to sit near the courts.

With Serena Williams in, are the other top players willing to play?

Set aside Williams' growing sense of empowerment as a spokesperson and role model, and there's also that pesky number 24, which represents Margaret Court's all-time Grand Slam singles title record.

Williams has been somewhat haunted by that elusive title since winning her 23rd major in February 2017. At the age of 38, her chances are dwindling.

Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams' coach since 2012, told ESPN last week that when the pandemic hit, "Serena took quite a long rest, and she needed it. Then she started with just fitness, then tennis about three weeks ago. But it's very difficult for players to be motivated to practice when they don't even know when they will be playing a tournament."

Allaster said that when she informed Williams of the USTA's plan to reopen, Williams had a Laykold court identical to one to be used at the National Tennis Center shipped and installed in her yard.

The situation in New York is likely to be tricky for Williams, though. Lesser-ranked players are far more accustomed to playing without being able to take energy from a wildly supportive crowd.

"Tennis and sport without the fans loses every single thing," Nadal told Eurosport earlier this month.

Ash Barty, the No. 1-ranked woman, and No. 2 Simona Halep also suggested that they could easily pass on a US Open laden with restrictive protocols. Halep said in a statement on Wednesday that she does not "currently plan to play" but was open to changing her mind.

Djokovic previously groused about protocols he found "extreme," but Thursday, he appeared to pull back on skepticism over plans to stage the US Open, saying he was "extremely happy" the Grand Slam escaped the coronavirus cancellation that had claimed much of the season.

All of those players will probably face increased pressure to take part in the doubleheader now that the restrictions turn out to be less draconian than many feared. Fellow players, especially those below the elite level, have already criticized the comments.

"The top players have been the ones most resisting playing without fans," Jennifer Brady, an American whose rise in the rankings was halted at No. 48 by the pandemic, told ESPN. "They're the ones used to playing in packed stadiums on Arthur Ashe when it's full. No fans is something that is completely different for any top player, where it may help someone who is used to not playing in front of a lot of fans."

The way Brady tells it, playing without fans might give the rank-and-file players, the ones used to playing on Court 15 early in the day or during twilight, a real advantage.

That, and the general lack of opportunities to compete for the past few months, could really level the playing field. Those most eager to play, no matter what the conditions or restrictions, will be the ones best positioned to thrive.

"Ultimately I really cannot wait to return to New York and play the US Open 2020," Williams 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."