Ban on fans changes U.S. Open

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

One of the enduring images of the 2019 U.S. Open simply will not — could not — happen at the 2020 U.S. Open: Eventual runner-up Daniil Medvedev’s heel turn, goading and taunting the folks in the stands jeering him.

By the end of the tournament, the charismatic Medvedev had won them over, receiving wildly positive support in 23,771-capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium while pushing Rafael Nadal to five sets in a rollicking final.

Neither those early boos nor late cheers will be heard this year at Flushing Meadows, where the American Grand Slam tournament begins Monday. All spectators were banned from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, one of several measures meant to protect players and others on-site from getting — or spreading — the novel coronavirus.

“It’s going to be really sad without the New York crowd,” Medvedev said. “It’s going to be really strange, of course, for us.”

For everyone, really, changing the very fabric of the event.

Players can’t get a welcome boost of energy or, conversely, don’t need to fret about having people rooting against them – or simply the pressure of performing in front of thousands.

Coaches will find it easier to shout something to a player or, conversely, won’t be bothered by kibitzing from a few rows away.

Chair umpires won’t need to plead, “Quiet, please!” or delay starting the serve clock until after post-point noise dies down.

And, of course, the fans themselves don’t get to go — while those watching on TV will find it oddly quiet after points and see large swaths of cloth stretched over empty seats.

“I absolutely love playing for people. I absolutely love when people come and enjoy a performance that myself and my opponent are able to put on for them,” said Johanna Konta, a British player seeded ninth in New York. “But obviously that’s not the reality we have right now.”

She and others got a chance to sample the silence during the Western & Southern Open, a tournament normally played in Ohio but moved to the U.S. Open’s site this year because of the pandemic.

One benefit players noticed in the week before the U.S. Open: no packs of people to deal with while navigating the tournament grounds.

On court, it was lonely.

“You can hear yourself breathe,” said Kristina Mladenovic, a four-time Grand Slam doubles champion from France. “But this is better than nothing — than being home on the couch.”

After winning the first sanctioned ATP men’s match since March at the Western & Southern Open, Felix Auger-Aliassime jokingly sent a ball toward his coach in the stands, the way players will offer a souvenir to spectators.

“To have nobody, to have no crowd, it feels weird,” said Auger-Aliassime, a Canadian seeded 15th for the U.S. Open. “I’m not a fan of it.”

In team sports in empty arenas, such as Major League Baseball or the NBA, someone wearing the same uniform can offer a pat on the back or words of encouragement.

In tennis, players are on their own out there. No teammates and no coach standing right there on the sideline to suggest a quick adjustment or draw up a play.

“Tennis is such a mental sport, and I guess it makes it way more difficult without fans, because I just imagine playing in the fifth set on Arthur Ashe, night session, way past midnight — and in a normal year, you get so much energy from the fans. They give you so much, all this atmosphere,” said Dominic Thiem, an Austrian seeded No. 2 in New York behind Novak Djokovic and a three-time runner-up at Grand Slam tournaments.

“And now, in an empty stadium, maybe your coach and your team is there. These are the only people,” Thiem said. “That makes it, I guess, very, very lonely. Very, very tough. And that’s going to be a very interesting thing to experience.”

It’ll be particularly unusual at Flushing Meadows, famous for its boisterous crowds who tend to make much more noise than their counterparts at the All England Club or Roland Garros, say.

Especially during the New York night sessions, where the socializing and imbibing take things to a whole other level.

“There’s a hush when you walk out on Centre Court at Wimbledon. When you walk out at the U.S. Open, there’s an explosion,” said Chris Evert, who won six of her 18 Grand Slam singles titles in New York.

“It’s going to be challenging, mentally, for the players. The ones that can focus, compartmentalize — just manage to remember that they are playing a Grand Slam and the importance of it — will handle it a little bit easier than those that are a little all over the place,” Evert said. “Either way, hopefully it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov give Canada 1st Davis Cup title

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MALAGA, Spain — Felix Auger-Aliassime fell to his back behind the baseline, then waited for teammates to race off Canada’s bench and pile on top of him.

A few minutes later, the Canadians finally could lift the Davis Cup.

“I think of us all here, we’ve dreamt of this moment,” Auger-Aliassime said.

Canada won the title for the first time, beating Australia behind victories from Denis Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime.

Auger-Aliassime secured the winning point when he downed Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-4 after Shapovalov opened the day by rolling past Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-2, 6-4.

Seven years after leading Canada to the top of junior tennis, Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and their teammates finally got to lift the biggest team trophy in their sport.

“We wanted to grow up and be part of the team and try to help the country win the first title,” Shapovalov said, “so everything is just so surreal right now.”

Shapovalov had dropped both his singles matches this week and needed treatment on his back during a three-set loss in the semifinals to Lorenzo Sonego of Italy that lasted 3 hours, 15 minutes. But the left-hander moved quickly around the court, setting up angles to put away winners while racing to a 4-0 lead in the first set.

Auger-Aliassime then finished off his superb second half of the season by completing a perfect week in Spain. He twice had kept the Canadians alive after Shapovalov dropped the opening singles match, and he replaced his weary teammate to join Vasek Pospisil for the decisive doubles point.

This time, Auger-Aliassime made sure the doubles match wouldn’t even be necessary. After his teammates poured onto the court to celebrate with him, they got up and danced around in a circle.

Canada had reached the final only once, falling to host Spain in Madrid in 2019, when Rafael Nadal beat Shapovalov for the clinching point after Auger-Aliassime had lost in the opening match.

But with Auger-Aliassime having since surged up the rankings to his current spot at No. 6, the Canadians are a much more formidable team now. They won the ATP Cup in January and finally added the Davis Cup crown to the junior Davis Cup title Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov led them to in 2015.

Australia was trying for its 29th title and first since current captain Lleyton Hewitt was part of the title-winning team in 2003.

But it was finally time for the Canadians, who were given a wild card into the field when Russia was suspended because of its invasion of Ukraine.

“Look, I think we were very close today,” de Minaur said. “Just wait until the next time we get the same matchup. Hopefully we can get the win and prove that we can do it.”

But Canada will be tough to beat as long as Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov play.

Shapovalov is just 23 and Auger-Aliassime 22, but both already have been Grand Slam semifinalists and Auger-Aliassime ended 2022 as one of the hottest players on the ATP Tour. He won all of his four titles this year, including three straight weeks in October.

He also beat Carlos Alcaraz in the previous Davis Cup stage in September, just after the Spaniard had won the U.S. Open to rise to No. 1 in the rankings. That victory helped send the Canadians into the quarterfinals, which they started this week by edging Germany.

“They’re not kids anymore, that’s for sure. Not after today – well not after the last couple of years,” said Pospisil, the team veteran at 32. “They’ve been crushing it.”

Australia beats Croatia 2-1 to reach Davis Cup final

Day Four - Davis Cup Finals 2022
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MALAGA, Spain – Australia had to fight back twice to reach its first Davis Cup final in 19 years after beating Croatia 2-1.

Lleyton Hewitt’s team recovered from losing the first singles. Then the Australian doubles pair battled back from a set down in the decider.

Australia won its 28th and last title in 2003. It has finally got back to the final.

“I am so proud. Australia has a really rich history in this competition,” said Hewitt, who played a record 43 Davis Cup ties for Australia from 1999-2018.

“We have been fortunate to win it all on a number of occasions a long time ago. And I know what it meant to me as a player to play a final, and I am glad these guys can play it.”

Borna Coric put Croatia ahead by beating Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-4, 6-3, but Alex de Minaur leveled after defeating Marin Cilic 6-2, 6-2 to send it to the doubles.

Jordan Thompson and Max Purcell then secured the semifinal win against Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic by 6-7 (3), 7-5, 6-4.

“This is what this team is about, that never-say-die attitude,” De Minaur said.

Canada will face Italy on Saturday in the other semifinal.

In the opener, Kokkinakis struck 11 aces, but Coric was able to break him once in each set.

“On my serve, I felt like it was an ace or he put it back on my toes,” Kokkinakis said.

Cilic, who was on the Croatia team that won the title in 2018, committed 10 double faults. That erratic serve helped De Minaur break Cilic four times and level his head-to-head record with the former U.S Open winner at two wins each.

Thompson and Purcell bettered the more experienced pair of Mektic and Pavic, both ranked in the top 10 in doubles. Thompson and Purcell combined for 13 aces, broke the Croats twice, and never dropped a service game to come back after losing the first-set tiebreaker.

Two-time winner Croatia was the runner-up last year.

“It proved too difficult on the court today,” Cilic said. “(But) for us it has been a great year again after the finals last year to reach the semis.”

The final is on Sunday on the indoor court in Malaga.