The USTA is sticking to its plan to play the US Open without fans in attendance, but if the coronavirus pandemic remains under control in New York, the tournament could allow a limited number of spectators who served as front-line workers and first responders during the peak of the pandemic.
"If New York is still looking great in a month and a half, we may act opportunistically," Lew Sherr, chief revenue officer of the USTA, told ESPN on Wednesday. "You might see us invite some number of frontal-line workers, health care workers and their families. It's a possibility that we've talked about, but nobody has put pencil to paper on it."
For this year's event, scheduled to start Aug. 31, the USTA has already offered ticket holders refunds or the option to roll over their tickets to 2021.
A number of upcoming tennis events, including the World TeamTennis playoffs, an exhibition in Berlin and the All-American Team Cup, an exhibition that begins July 3 in Atlanta, have said they will welcome a limited number of spectators under strict social distancing and health-related protocols. Some fans will have to sign waivers to gain entry, and they will be obliged to sit in seats assigned with social distancing in mind.
Sherr said that approach isn't feasible for the US Open, which will be played along with the major tune-up event that usually takes place in Cincinnati during a three-week bubble at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
"We've looked at those other events, as well as golf and NASCAR and everything else," Sherr said. "It's different if you're on one court in West Virginia [WTT] or Atlanta with a limited player field. They can let a few hundred people in as general admission, but for us, that model just doesn't work."
The National Tennis Center has a 42-acre campus. Matches will be taking place on multiple courts, with 250 players competing in US Open singles alone, some 500 to 700 international broadcasters expected, and various operations and food service crews working daily. With between 1,500 and 2,000 individuals on site on any given day of the event, the USTA felt it was critical to ensure that the entire campus would be dedicated to making the players comfortable and guaranteeing adequate social distancing.
Large areas have been set aside as open-air lounges for the players, and many existing fixtures, including retail sites and luxury suites, are being repurposed to allow for adequate social distancing while players are on site.
"Once we start to let any number of fans in, say, 10% capacity, it impacts our ability to leverage the grounds and ensure adequate social distancing," Sherr said, adding that providing even minimal amenities for fans would cut down the number of facilities that can be set aside for the needs of players.
Perhaps most important, there would be no way to keep fans and players separate on an open campus. The USTA wants almost all of the National Tennis Center site to be open to players so they don't have to be sequestered in nearby hotels on free days or before and after they play.
Should the event run smoothly with no coronavirus-related problems, the gates of the National Tennis Center probably will be open to fans, if ever so slightly.
"If there's an opportunity to do something nice to recognize folks that deserve it, we'll be open to it," Sherr said. "It will inject a little more energy, but the health and safety of the players and staff comes first."