| By Mark Gellard
Mark Gellard, coach of top WTA pro Magda Linette, watches from the stands as Linette wins her opening round match the 2020 U.S. Open.
Photos courtesy of Mark Gellard

 

This year has not been good. From bushfires in Australia to earthquakes in Croatia, floods in Indonesia to a global pandemic, and now numerous instances of police brutality, it is safe to say things have not gone how we had hoped.

However, despite all of these catastrophes, many places across the world are gradually attempting to regain some semblance of normality with restaurants and shops reopening, universities resuming, airplanes taking back to the skies and sporting events returning; albeit in limited capacity. Fortunately for tennis players and fans alike, the professional tour has restarted and so once again the worlds very best will grace our televisions and social media with their poetic movements and magical shot-making abilities.

After months of tedious work and fastidious preparations, all governing bodies (ATP, WTA, ITF) decided that it would be in the best interests of all involved to hold the Western and Southern Open, which is typically held in Cincinnati, and the U.S. Open consecutively at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (NTC). Creating a “bubble”, the same way as the NHL and NBA have done will allow tennis to resume as safety protocols have been implemented with the sole purpose of reducing the possibility of anyone becoming infected with the virus.. However, creating such a unique event in such a short period of time will almost certainly come with a hefty price tag. The NHL reportedly spent over $7 million in testing alone just through their qualifying rounds, while the NBA spent a whopping $150 million setting up their safe environment at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

I am the current coach of the 37th ranked player in the world, Magda Linette. We have worked together for the past two-and-a-half years and have shared moderate amounts of success whilst on tour, earning one ITF title, two WTA titles and gaining a career high ranking of 33. But in this article, I would like to give readers the opportunity to gain some insider perspective into this year’s unique U.S. Open setup. Having lost in the second round of the Lexington event, to eventual champion Jennifer Brady, the week before the Western and Southern Open, we opted to drive to NYC as opposed to flying in order to reduce our contact with people and possible COVID-19 exposure. Upon arrival at the official hotel on Long Island we were warmly greeted by USTA staff and immediately ushered into a converted conference room where we promptly met with nurse practitioners who administered both the PCR and antibody blood test. Following the check-in procedure, we were escorted to our rooms where we were required to self-quarantine for a 24-hour period or until we received our negative test results. PCR tests would be re-administered after another 48 hours and then again every 96 hours throughout the duration of the tournament. All hotel rooms were pre-sanitized before our arrival with plentiful supplies of face masks, hand sanitizers, the CDC recommended interaction guidelines and USTA tournament protocols that were to remain in place until the end of the U.S. Open.

Once we received our results the following day we were formally presented with our on-site credentials and were henceforth permitted to travel on official transportation, book practice courts, eat on site and partake in other necessary activities. After an almost five month hiatus from professional events the tour had officially returned in a big way and we were all eager to see familiar faces, get back to competing and find some form of normality.

“The USTA has made every effort to ensure frequent testing so everyone in the bubble can remain safe and calm,” said Linette.

U.S. Open transport typically consists of private cars that shuttle players back and forth between the NTC, off-site training facilities and official hotels. However, the events of 2020 have rendered these conventional modes of travel obsolete and have been replaced with buses that depart from one of the two official hotels to the main site every 15 minutes in order increase safety and efficiency. Seats must be reserved in advance to ensure there is no overcrowding. Players must not sit next to one another and all aisle seats are to be left vacant to maintain social distancing guidelines; face masks are also a mandatory requirement. Prior to boarding the bus to go on-site, each credentialed person is submitted to a temperature check in addition to completing a daily questionnaire via a cell phone application that monitors for possible symptoms or trace contacts with other infected people. The whole process is seamless and well-orchestrated allowing buses to depart in a timely manner while maintaining player safety.

Transportation protocols are not the only thing that has changed this year as both on-site and on-court codes have been adjusted. Upon arriving at the NTC players have their credentials scanned as per usual but that is where virtually all traditional similarities dissipate. The electric atmosphere typically associated with the Big Apple tournament is gone; it’s a shell of its former self. The once bustling player restaurant has been reduced to a creepily quiet chamber encompassing an extremely limited seating capacity, socially-distanced tables, and online food ordering in lieu of face-to-face transactions. The player lounge which is typically buzzing with players, agents, coaches, trainers, friends and family and physiotherapists is now more like a library as an eerie hush presides, and human interaction is frowned upon.

Luxuries which were previously taken for granted such as a player gift shop, candy bowls, fruit plates, and arcade-style video games have all been removed, acting as a constant reminder to the severity of COVID-19. Private suites inside Arthur Ashe stadium, which are typically hangouts for excitable fans, corporate businessman and television network operations, have been reallocated to any players lucky enough to be seeded in the Top 32 of the Men’s or Women’s Singles draws as a further means to reducing contact. If there was one positive thing for some players this year, this was certainly it!

Players are limited to three guests, only one of which is permitted inside the player areas. Those not lucky enough to be the player’s designated ‘plus one’ are relegated to ground access only but they need not fear as there are no crowds to navigate, or media and press personnel to avoid. Some minor modifications to the grounds layout have been made for the benefit of players such as the remodeling of store fronts to ‘warm-up’ areas, mini-golf courses, giant chess sets and tennis football mats that have been set out as another way to help keep players occupied during down time. Furthermore, dedicated teams of cleaners roam the premises sanitizing everyone and everything in sight. Gyms are more like hospital clean rooms and hand sanitizers are on every corner in addition to piles of face masks on every shelf, stand and desk which are available in different styles and colors for anyone feeling the need to glamorize their look.

Perhaps the most difficult obstacle for players to overcome this year lies within the confines of the court itself. This year’s tournament will look undeniably different than in years past as there will not be a single line judge on court except on the two main two show courts, Ashe and Louis Armstrong. Instead, a lone umpire will supervise proceedings and all line calls with be made by Hawk-Eye cameras and questionable calls being displayed on each courts oversized TV monitor; surely a revolution that may render traditional line judges superfluous moving forwards. There will be fewer ball boys working each court and if players elect to receive on-court treatment they must wear a mask throughout. In addition, players must fetch their own towels, and on-court coaching, which is typically permitted on the WTA tour, is replaced by off-court coaching. During doubles play, each team is prohibited from physical contact such as ‘hand-taps’ and ‘high-fives’ and instead instructed to use ‘racket-taps’ as a substitute. Moreover, when sitting down on changeovers partners no longer have the luxury of an intimate area in which to hold tactical exchanges as chairs are now placed six feet apart at all times.

 

Even the practice courts are not immune to change. The conventional player practice desk which is usually situated at the epicenter of the player’s area has been replaced with a remote call center that accepts practice bookings and transport requests over the phone. Coaches wishing to impart basket drills or extra serving exercises with their athlete are somewhat impaired as the typical boxes of balls are no longer available. For those relegated to the ‘off-site’ courts located in Corona Park, adjacent to the NTC, a player bus has been setup (despite the minimal distance) to ensure no individual leaves the ‘bubble’ by accident, or on purpose, which would result in the players immediate withdrawal from the tournament.

Arguably the most unique aspect of ‘bubble life’ is the player hotel which houses all competitors aside from a select few who elect to pay the substantial fees required to have their own house and security during the tournaments. Despite having amassed over $60 million in career earnings, Andy Murray elected not to accept the private housing option, instead opting to stay at the hotel with the majority of the players.

The hotel is located approximately 45 minutes from the NTC and has been customized for the comfort of all residing. An arcade room, gym, video game room, golf simulator, outdoor cinema screen, recovery room and coffee bar have all been put in place to reduce the symptoms of boredom and a nightly ‘food truck’ that provided a multitude of different foods each evening stops by between the hours of 6-9:00 p.m. Credentials are required at all times (and of course a mask) except when exercising in the gym or eating in designated areas, and outsiders are strictly prohibited from entering the hotel at any time and this was heavily monitored by a 24-hour security task force.

“I am honestly really enjoying life in the bubble,” said Tom Hill, the coach of 30th ranked Maria Sakkari. “It’s rare, especially at a Slam, to all be staying in the same hotel. So as a coach, I’m enjoying getting to know some of the other coaches on tour and stories of their careers. The USTA has also done a phenomenal job of keeping us safe as well as entertained”.

One point of controversy did occur early on in the Western and Southern Open when two players were disqualified from the tournament after the trainer they both use tested positive. It was a sore point amongst many competitors who felt the actions were too strong and there have even been rumors of a player boycott but so far that has yet to materialize. WTA veteran Alize Cornet was open about her feelings regarding the disqualified player:

“I am a little sad for him and we are a little disgusted for the players concerned”.

However, USTA CEO Mike Dowse played down the issue.

“We expected this to happen,” he said. “Mathematically, we expected to have a positive, if not more than one. So we did anticipate this and we have put very specific protocols in place to prevent this from spreading broadly. Our number one priority is to take care of this person first and secondly to prevent the spread from going any further.”

In the month-long buildup to this unusual ‘double-header tournament’ numerous high profile professional players including Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev, Kei Nishikori and Frances Tiafoe all contracted the virus. However the USTA, WTA and ATP were mindful of the significant loss of ‘work’ and available income for professional players over the past five months since the tour’s suspension at the Indian Wells tournament in early March. Their decision to host these two events has been heavily scrutinized in the buildup, but by creating this well-structured bubble that minimized the chances of COVID-19 contraction, they have allowed one of the biggest events on the tennis calendar to proceed. Kudos to them and for the players that did participate in making this great event possible and providing fans and sports lovers across the globe with a small rest bite from the misery that has encapsulated all of us in 2020.

 

A PTR Professional, USPTA Elite Professional, and NSCA-CSCS certified strength and conditioning coach Mark is the current coach of 33rd ranked Magda Linette, and has worked with players, such as Martina Hingis, Nadia Petrova, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Danka Kovinic. Former Head Female Development Coach for the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation and working in cooperation with China’s prestigious Star River team. Mark played Division 1 college tennis for the University of South Alabama and earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. You can visit Mark's website at www.firststriketennis.us or follow him on Instagram at @coachgellard