How US Open fans feel about lagging vaccination rates in tennis

NEW YORK -- On Day 1 of the US Open, the first time in two years fans were allowed into the stands at Flushing Meadows, 53,783 people walked through the gates. Some were masked, some were unmasked, but all attending were supposed to have had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as mandated on Aug. 27 by New York state.

But one group didn't have to go through the same protocols: the players and their teams. Even though the ATP and the WTA have strongly encouraged vaccinations among athletes, there is no vaccine mandate for athletes to compete at the US Open.

That puts tennis far behind other sports. The ATP and WTA both released data revealing that only about 50% of tennis players are vaccinated, the least among all professional sports. The WNBA reported 99% vaccination rates, followed by MLS at about 95%, NFL at about 93% and NBA at around 90%.

Fans are taking notice.

"It's a bizarre situation because these are role models and you want everyone to be vaccinated and so you would hope that they would be doing it to show everyone that you can get vaccinated and you would be OK," New York City resident Jeffrey Einhorn, 42, said outside Arthur Ashe Stadium, where he was attending the second and third day of the tournament.

He and several other fans wondered: How is it that fans are being held to a higher standard than the athletes?

Some players have had the same question.

Wednesday evening, after her second-round victory at Louis Armstrong Stadium, former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka said it was "bizarre" that fans have to be vaccinated while players do not. A vaccine mandate is inevitable, Azarenka said, and she indirectly called out the tennis tours' lack of action, saying, "We all want to be safe, we all want to continue doing our jobs, and I know there is a lot of discussions about it.

"I hope that as [an] association we make the best decision for our business, for our health, for the tournaments, for [the] public."

Tennis players are some of the most-traveled athletes, particularly across continents, and considering the varying rules in every country and stadium, it would make life easier if the athletes were vaccinated, said former tennis player and ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe.

"At some point [vaccine mandates are] going to be somewhat inevitable -- tennis is hesitant to go there because you've got some of the biggest names in the world that don't want to take the vaccine for whatever reason," McEnroe said.

McEnroe was referencing several high-profile players, including world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev, who have raised concerns about getting vaccinated. Djokovic said during a news conference before the US Open that getting the vaccine was a "personal decision," and "whether someone wants to get a vaccine or not, that's completely up to them."

During the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati in August, Tsitsipas said he would only get the vaccine if it becomes mandatory to compete on the ATP Tour.

"I don't see any reason for someone of my age to do it," said Tsitsipas, 23. "It hasn't been tested enough and it has side effects. As long as it's not mandatory, everyone can decide for themselves."

Greek government spokesperson Giannis Oikonomou responded strongly to Tsitsipas' statement, telling Reuters, "He does not have the knowledge and studies to assess the need for vaccinations."

When Medvedev was asked about Azarenka's comments on vaccine mandates Wednesday, he was noncommittal, saying he understood why the mandate applied to fans.

"So far it has not been applied to the players. We as players, we can just follow the guidelines and the rules. That's all we can do," he said. "So if we're going to have the same rule, we will need to find out how we cooperate with it."

Azarenka called out players on the tour, stating she would understand if the players' opinions were based on heavy research and stats, but said that kind of knowledge is "missing in a lot of players."

Tennis players' approach to the vaccination and how they speak about it has changed several fans' opinions of them. When Sofia Verzbolovskis, a fully vaccinated New York resident, heard Tsitsipas is not vaccinated, she said it made her change her mind about how she thought of him on and off the court.

"As athletes, I feel like they have a responsibility and I believe in science, so I don't understand what research they're doing that is so opposed to vaccines. Like, I am not able to understand that," said Verzbolovskis, 34.

When watching Tsitsipas play Andy Murray in Round 1, Verzbolovskis said she was unable to root for Tsitsipas the same way she used to and went all in on supporting Murray.

Incidentally, Murray has been outspoken about the need for players to get vaccinated.

"Ultimately, I guess the reason why all of us are getting vaccinated is to look out for the wider public," Murray said during a news conference Aug. 28, ahead of the US Open. "We have a responsibility as players that are traveling across the world to look out for everyone else, as well."

Einhorn, the longtime tennis fan, agreed with Murray's take. When he watched Djokovic play Denmark's Holger Rune in the first round on Arthur Ashe, he said he was rooting for Rune throughout -- with Djokovic's vaccine stance playing a part.

"Everyone likes to root against Djokovic, he is the bad boy, he is the Joker. [But, him not being vaccinated] added fuel to the fire, for sure," Einhorn said with a smile.

On Twitter, fans shared similar frustrations. Shanlon Wu, a former federal prosecutor, tweeted, "Why don't professional sports teams and organizations just require vaccinations for competitors unless they have a medical or religious exemption?"

While some athletes like Murray are measured when speaking about the vaccination, others aren't. Australia's Nick Kyrgios, who was ousted in the first round by Roberto Bautista Agut, was displeased throughout the match about how far he had to walk to place his towel, a system put in place when tennis resumed last year after the pandemic pause. During the news conference after his loss, Kyrgios made a larger point about how unvaccinated players were preventing him from doing what he needed in the tournament.

"Look, the towel situation for me is incredibly stupid," Kyrgios said. "I'm one of the players on tour that is fully vaccinated. And as of now, I'm getting treated exactly the same as a player that is not vaccinated. I feel like if I want my towel around the court, if it's not disturbing Bautista Agut's vision, if he doesn't see the towel, I don't see anything wrong with having my towel on the side or on the ground. And it's just absurd for me."

Earlier, the ATP released a statement, saying, "While we respect everyone's right to free choice, we also believe that each player has a role to play in helping the wider group achieve a safe level of immunity." The WTA, meanwhile, said it encouraged players to get vaccinated, but stopped short of a mandate, saying it is "not requiring players to get a vaccine as this is a personal decision, and one which we respect."

Some fans took a similar view regarding unvaccinated athletes: They understood it was a personal choice, and did not lose respect for them.

"These athletes know how to take care of themselves, they're aware of their bodies ... so if they feel like they do not need the vaccine, then it's up to them," said Jackie Arnold, a Texas native visiting for the tournament.

"If they're sharing why they don't feel they want to get vaccinated or if they have reservations, also being able to express that is important," she said.

While players don't have a vaccine mandate, it is important to note that some protocols around contact tracing are different for the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. Unvaccinated French player Gilles Simon was disqualified the Friday before the start of the US Open after being in close contact with his coach, Etienne Laforgue, who tested positive after arriving in New York. The same rules of close contact do not apply to a vaccinated player. They will be placed under testing protocols, but not disqualified from the tournament, if they come in contact with a team member who has tested positive.

A big part of being role models and leaders in the sports world is having to make tough choices, said Greg Strassberg, a fan from Long Island attending the Open. In this case, that would mean players like Djokovic and Tsitsipas listening to doctors and science and getting vaccinated -- for the greater good.

"They are role models and people look up to them and they're leaders -- that's part of being a role model, is making those choices and being a leader and if people choose not to follow them because of that, I understand that," said Strassberg, who attended day matches on Day 2.

It's an easy and straight-forward decision, said Taylor Young, 29, a fan visiting from Cincinnati.

"It certainly makes me question what is being said to them behind closed doors [by their doctors and trainers] that is making them say no to getting vaccinated," Young said.

"They have a moral responsibility and they have to be held to a higher standard -- because that is what I would do [if I were them]."