NEW YORK -- Entering the grounds of the National Tennis Center through the West Gate gave way to a surreal sight at the Western & Southern Open on Saturday, the first day of the unusual tennis doubleheader currently underway in New York.
Instead of the familiar, restless horde of fans attracted to the US Open, the walkway and open areas nearby were sparsely populated by individuals and very small groups of tennis players, a who's who of the ATP and WTA, fit, tanned and clad in tennis kits. Some were chatting. Others were working out, some incorporating the empty metal chairs and tables usually occupied by fans into strength or agility drills, creating a form of tennis parkour.
The fence flanking the five premier practice courts alongside Arthur Ashe Stadium glittered in the sunlight. Alexander Zverev, wearing a shirt with the sleeves cut off, was working out with his team. Nobody paid them any attention.
For a die-hard tennis fan, it was heaven. But no fan will get to experience this up-close view of tennis professionals at work and play in the coming days. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, no spectators are allowed at the ongoing Western & Southern Open or the US Open that follows immediately after on Aug. 31. The only way to enjoy the events this year will be on television. ESPN is presenting the US Open for its sixth year as exclusive domestic media partner. Because of the unique circumstances, this is likely to be a groundbreaking and potentially paradigm-shifting viewing experience.
So what, exactly, will a viewer might see tuning in to watch the US Open?
Arthur Ashe Stadium will be virtually unrecognizable with a scrim hiding the empty seats and nine large LED screens strategically positioned to display scores and announcement and to track the path of the tennis ball with Hawk-Eye technology. The USTA also has planned to allow specially selected fans to watch the action from afar and pose questions to a winning player after a match.
"The challenge is how will we capture what this event is known for without fans," said Jamie Reynolds, head of tennis productions for ESPN, the USTA's official broadcast partner. "How do you find the noise, the excitement, the cheering, the interactions of the tennis community that is here every day? Without that, we're in danger of being anemic."
There will be no video of energized crowds milling about in the twilight by the South Plaza Fountain, no shots of long lines of patrons at the smoky hamburger concessions. There will also be a lack of gimmicks in hopes of compensating for the lack of fans. Reynolds is adamant about not diminishing or overshadowing the fierce nature of one-on-one competition. The "first level" of coverage will focus on the intensity of the game. He has faith in the integrity of the competition and what he calls the "robustness" of the players.
The essence of the spectacle, though, will be familiar to most fans. As Coco Gauff said during her media day appearance on Friday, "I mean, it's still tennis, the same court, the same balls, regardless if there's fans or not."
There are multiple answers to what viewers will see, starting with the greater flexibility the camera operators will have with camera positions. With no concession to spectators, technicians can put cameras lower down in the stadium, closer to the court and in places reserved for premium spectator seating in normal years. The three show courts (Arthur Ashe, Louis Armstrong and Court 17) will have live cameramen, while the 10 "outside" courts will be covered by robotic cameras operated remotely. The geometry of the game demands that producers respect and maintain the traditional angles of coverage.
"There's no question the staging for the Western & Southern Open and the US Open will take on new dimensions without fans on-site," new US Open director Stacey Allaster said. "Together with ESPN and our international broadcasters, millions of fans in more than 200 countries will have the opportunity to be inspired by what I believe are the most amazing athletes to compete in sport at the highest of levels."
Some of the key elements in tennis broadcasting as we've known it will be radically different. The US Open will be the first to use Hawk-Eye Live in place of human line judges at the US Open. The system, approved last November for use at all levels of play by the ITF, will be used on 11 of the 13 courts, the exceptions being Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong, which will still have officiating teams comprised of nine line judges working in one-hour shifts.
Viewers will still get to hear voluble shouts of "out," or "foot fault" thanks to recorded human voices ringing out over the PA system. Oliver Clough, tennis general manager at Hawk-Eye Innovations Ltd., told ESPN that the firm has collected a variety of voices making various calls during the 2019 US Opens in order to be realistic.
"There will be no challenges on outside courts," Clough added. "But close points will be shown on the screen. In trials [including the use of Hawk-Eye Live at the recent ATP Next Gen exhibition], we learned that even if challenges are allowed, the players tend to stop making them when they see how accurate the Hawk-Eye technology is."
Those robust calls will not be the only recorded voices viewers of the US Open will hear. The debate throughout sports over using canned cheering and other techniques meant to create excitement has been, as Reynolds put it, "a highly polarizing conversation." He favors letting the action speak for itself because tennis simply is too fluid for the sporting equivalent of sitcom laugh tracks to be punched up, especially during points. But cheers and chants are not the only forms of sound that accompany a match and make spectators feel that, even sitting on their sofas, they are witnessing a highly charged event. There is always something audible happening before, during and after a match -- even when the ball isn't in play.
"The question is, 'What should we do downstream,'" Reynolds said. "Not during play but throughout the broadcast. What 'comfort' audio do we want in order to make viewers feel that the arena is an alive, dynamic place."
The challenge led technicians to harvest natural sounds from all the US Open matches in 2019. They deleted all ambient noise, including ball strikes, calls by officials and chanting fans. With help from IBM, the team put together a catalog of true-to-life ambient sound covering all periods of a match. They learned that there's a difference between how things sound in Ashe during a day session match and what it sounds like in Louis Armstrong when the roof is closed, what you hear during changeovers, as the players are introduced or when they leave the court.
"We will not be stylizing live play, blow-by-blow or cheer-by-cheer," Reynolds said. "But we will have all these sound embeds that will be mixed in to give you that comfort that the venue is alive and authentic."
While the food court and some other open areas will be a land of countless empty tables and chairs, much of the South Plaza Fountains area has been transformed into a spacious player lounge, complete with pristine white chaise lounges shaded by canopies and a host of games including a putting green, a court meant for "soccer" tennis and -- most popular, by far -- a basketball hoop. Dazzling white globes the size of beach balls float like bubbles on the surface of the fountain pool. Various fitness devices stand in a covered area nearby. There has been no sign thus far of crowding or competition for space or equipment among the players.
"Instead of fans running around on the plaza, we'll have players and their entourages right here on the tournament footprint," Reynolds said. "My feeling is that we may have more access and the players will have a greater willingness to engage with our telecast."
Most fans are familiar with those cutaways to the luxury boxes in Ashe. This year, those suites have been reserved for top pros as a kind of home-away-from home. Those making use of them thus far include Denis Shapovalov, Naomi Osaka and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The USTA also is devising a system intended to allow up to 50 supporters of a player to populate a virtual "player's box" on a closed video network that will be accessible from a screen on Ashe. After completing a match, the winner will be free to stroll over to the video screen and communicate with the people in his private box, with viewers of the telecast looking on.
The players, in some senses, will be a captive audience to an even greater degree than fans tuning in to the telecast. Those back at either of the two player hotels might be invited at any time to join the regular telecast via Skype or Zoom to provide additional commentary.
In the end, though, the most significant factor in the viewing experience will be the quality of the play. The early reports from the ATP and WTA pros suggest that competing without fans and observing stringent health protocols hasn't diminished their own enthusiasm to return to competition. To some, the hardships imposed by the pandemic has forced a form of self-discipline.
"It's actually not that bad, I won't lie to you," Tsitsipas said of the restrictions and demands imposed by the bio-secure environment. "It's quiet, you can just concentrate on your daily routines without having any distractions."
"We're professionals, we play for money. At the end of the day when there's a big check on the line and incentives like rankings, it's different. That's the ingredient that's been missing [during the recent exhibitions]," Opelka said after winning his first ATP match in over six months at the Western & Southern Open. "You can fault me for this, but I'm not going to bring the same intensity in an exhibition or a special event as I do to a real tournament."
Taylor Fritz, another rapidly improving young American said after he won his first match at the Western & Southern Open, "If you asked me the week after Acapulco (shortly before the game went dark) how all this would affect the players, I would have said absolutely the players aren't going to play so well. But it's been so long since anybody has really played a match that we don't really care [about the lack of fans]. I'm as pumped up as normal. This is not going to be an issue for anyone."
While six of the top 10 women chose not to compete in the US Open bubble, all-time Open era singles champ Serena Williams, No. 3 ranked Karolina Pliskova and Australian Open singles champion Sofia Kenin had no reservations about competing in New York. All are hungry for competition and primed to play.
"I don't mind not having the fans," Williams said. "I would love if the fans were here because it's so special to play with the fans and they really pull me up when I'm down, but at the same time, we need to be safe right now, so let's not have anyone -- when we are all feeling better, we can all come back and we can all have fun."