U.S. Open 2020: Year unlike any other, Slam unlike any other

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In a year unlike any other, get ready for a U.S. Open unlike any other.

“There was definitely a point where, in the beginning, I was like: There is no way these tournaments can even happen,” Serena Williams said about playing amid a pandemic.

Professional tennis returned recently from a hiatus of nearly six months caused by the coronavirus outbreak – and it will be back on one of its biggest stages Monday, when Flushing Meadows begins hosting the first Grand Slam matches since the Australian Open ended in February.

“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,” said No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who caught COVID-19 in June during an exhibition tour he organized in Serbia and Croatia that did not mandate mask-wearing or social distancing.

“But, you know,” he continued, “I think there also is going to be quite a lot of people that are going to be happy to see tennis keep going.”

The U.S. Tennis Association set up what it calls a “controlled environment.” Nearly all players and their limited-to-three entourages are staying in two hotels on Long Island (eight players opted for private housing at a cost of $40,000). They’re barred from going to Manhattan.

There’s frequent testing for the coronavirus. One player said she got a nose swab at 7 a.m., four hours before a match at the Western & Southern Open, the hard-court tournament being held the week beforehand at the same site used for the U.S. Open – it’s usually played in Ohio.

There are dozens of “social distance ambassadors” tasked with making sure players and others are covering their mouths and noses and staying far enough apart.

“The protocols that they have are so intense,” said Williams, who has dealt with blood clots and lung issues. “It definitely helps me to feel safe.”

The U.S. Open traditionally ends the Grand Slam season but goes second in 2020, because the French Open was postponed from May until late September, and Wimbledon was canceled for the first time since World War II.

“It’s been so long,” said Taylor Fritz, a Californian ranked 24th. “Everyone is pumped up to be back out there.”

Well, not quite everyone will be back out there.

For one thing, there will be no spectators; more than 700,000 attended last year. That will change things, especially at 23,771-capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Also missing? Several top players, including both 2019 champs: Rafael Nadal and Bianca Andreescu.

Roger Federer is skipping the tournament, too, after two knee operations. The No. 1-ranked woman, Ash Barty, opted out because of the pandemic; in all, six of the top eight women withdrew.

“The field’s a little weaker than normal,” Fritz said, “so there’s always an opportunity for a couple of people to step up.”

That’s not to say all of the star power is gone.

Williams renews her bid for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title. The woman who beat her in the final two years ago, Naomi Osaka, is also entered.

Djokovic didn’t make up his mind about going until about a week before flying to New York. He’s won five of the past seven Grand Slam trophies to get to 17, gaining on Federer’s men’s-record total of 20 and Nadal’s count of 19.

“It is definitely strange not to have Federer and Nadal – at least one of them,” Djokovic said. “They will be missed, without a doubt, because they are who they are, legends of our sport.”

Something else absent: a strong sense of where anyone’s game stands.

That’s because of the lack of competition, even if there were various unsanctioned exhibition matches around the world (No. 2 Dominic Thiem, took that to an extreme, playing 28).

Riley Opelka, a 22-year-old based in Florida who is ranked 39th, offered this take on exhibitions: “We’re professional players. We play for money, at the end of the day. So when there’s a big check on the line … and there’s more incentives to win – there’s rankings, there’s points – it’s different.”

As it happens, there’s a little less cash on offer over the coming two weeks.

The loss of ticket sales and hospitality suites – which were turned over to seeded players – along with revenue sources such as merchandise or food and beverage contributed to a 6.7% decline in overall player compensation.

The singles champions will take home $3 million each, down from $3.85 million last year.

Croatia advances in Davis Cup as Coric beats Thiem

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Borna Coric beat 2020 U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem 7-6 (3), 6-2 to send Croatia into the group stage of the Davis Cup.

Coric helped the Croatians win their second Davis Cup title in 2018, but he was sidelined when they lost in the 2021 final while missing a year of action with a right shoulder injury.

He returned to the tour last March, winning a Masters 1000 title in August in Cincinnati, Ohio, and rejoined the Croatians when they reached the Davis Cup semifinals last year.

His victory over Thiem, who has also dealt with injuries in recent years, gave Croatia a 3-1 victory in Rijeka. The Austrians had taken the tie against the No. 1 team in the Davis Cup rankings to a fourth match when Alexander Erler and Lucas Miedler beat Ivan Dodig and Nikola Mektic 6-3, 7-6 (11) in the doubles match earlier Sunday.

Chile, Finland, the Netherlands, South Korea and the Czech Republic also completed victories Sunday to secure their places in the next round, which will be played in September.

On Saturday, the U.S. completed a sweep of Uzbekistan, while Serbia, France, Britain, Switzerland and Sweden also finished off victories. Those 12 countries will play in the group stage, along with reigning champion Canada, 2022 runner-up Australia and wild-card recipients Italy and Spain.

Eight teams will then advance to the closing matches of the Davis Cup Finals scheduled for Nov. 21-26 in Malaga, Spain.

In Sunday’s other matches:

– Finland 3, Argentina 1: On indoor hard courts in Espoo, Finland, Harri Heliovaara and Emil Ruusuvuori edged Maximo Gonzalez and Andres Molteni 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4, before Ruusuvuori secured the winning point and a personal 3-0 weekend by beating Facundo Bagnis 7-5, 6-1.

– Netherlands 4, Slovakia 0: On indoor hard courts in Groningen, Matwe Middelkoop and Wesley Koolhof sent the hosts through with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Alex Molcan and Lukas Klein. Middelkoop then beat Jozef Kovalik 6-4, 6-4.

– South Korea 3, Belgium 2: On indoor hard courts in Seoul, the hosts rallied from a 2-0 deficit after the first day. Min-Kyu Song and Ji Sung Nam kept them alive with a 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5) victory over Joran Vliegen and Sander Gille. Soonwoo Kwon then beat David Goffin 3-6, 6-1, 6-3 before Seong Chan Hong completed the comeback with a 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory over Zizou Bergs.

– Czech Republic 3, Portugal 1: On an indoor clay court in Maia, Portugal, Jiri Lehecka wrapped up the victory by beating Joao Sousa 6-4, 6-1.

– Chile 3, Kazakhstan 1: On an outdoor clay court in La Serena, Chile, Cristian Garin beat Alexander Bublik 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 after the hosts had taken the lead with a victory by the doubles team of Alejandro Tabilo and Tomas Barrios Vera.

Unseeded Parks beats top-seeded Garcia for her 1st title

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LYON, France — Unseeded American Alycia Parks secured a stunning 7-6 (7), 7-5 upset win over WTA Finals champion Caroline Garcia in the Open Metropole de Lyon final to clinch her first career title.

“I think France has a special part in my heart right now,” Parks said. “I’ll be back next year.”

The 22-year-old Parks, who is ranked 79th, had 15 aces and saved all four break points against the top-seeded Garcia.

Parks secured the only break of a tight contest to win the match.

The fifth-ranked Garcia, a U.S. Open semifinalist last year, was seeking a 12th career title.

“Congrats on a great tournament,” Garcia told Parks in English. “If you keep playing like this for sure you’re going to keep going up (the rankings).”

Parks has a career-best ranking of 75th.

The 29-year-old Garcia, who grew up in Lyon, took time to thank her home crowd – this time in French.

“It means a lot to play here, thanks for being here,” Garcia said. “You supported me from the first point to the last. Thanks for all your encouragement.”