“Absolutely Asinine”: US Open Decision to Lock Fans Out of Qualifying Puzzles Players and Fans
Steve Fogleman, Tennis Atlantic
(AUGUST 12)—Of all of the great things about summer, one thing regional tennis fans have on their list is the US Open. Whether you attend qualifying rounds or main draw play, it’s always a great time. And the best part about the US Open is that it allowed fans of all budgets to walk through the metal gates and into a Tennis Wonderland. Hundreds of thousands of students, families and neighbors of the surrounding boroughs have attended qualifying matches for years at the US Open. Qualifying in New York is an event that is truly egalitarian, as millionaires stand next to those who can’t afford a $75 ticket(master) grounds pass for the opening rounds or a $2,800 luxury experience box seat in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Entire junior tennis programs load up buses and head to Flushing for the experience. Without needing to shell out big bucks for a ticket, a fan could feel indulgent and buy a $15 beer or a $40 ball cap and call it a good day.
Those good days are off the calendar for 2021 unless you can afford a ticket to the main draw. The USTA, in a “heartbreaking” move, has called qualifying off-limits to the general public but are prepared to welcome you with open arms and 100% capacity for ticketed main draw rounds. Also scrapped was the phenomenally popular Arthur Ashe Kid’s Day, where $10 bought you a ticket into the greatest stadium in sports along with top-notch entertainment talent.
The reason, according to the USTA, is to protect the players. But many of the players I spoke to at Citi Open last week didn’t understand the logic and had fond memories of attending qualifying as a kid and a fan. No one in the press room last week asked the players about US Qualifying but yours truly and not the talent who reads the transcripts and then reads a teleprompter for Tennis Now. She wasn’t in the house. But once she put my questions out there, it was about time to post my findings, which I was working on for next week. The only reason that the Q&As were in the transcripts is because the ATP wouldn’t let me do one-on-one interviews to ask the players that single question, which would have kept the question and their answers out of the public sphere until my post. In all fairness, I’m glad a bigger media outlet is now, after all of my public questions, covering this matter.
The comments section on the video were almost universally against the fan lockout. Longtime tennis fan Chris Rapseik of Chester, New Jersey was not happy. “As someone who has attended qualifying for many years, I find this decision hypocritical,” he said on Youtube. “I planned to buy tickets for the next week when I attended qualifying, now that is not happening. Yes, there are some costs to allowing fans to see qualies but the fans love the opportunity. So the US Open is not considering the fans, who they want for two weeks, to be able to watch qualies. Shame on them.”
What was most puzzling about the answers I heard at Citi Open evidenced that many of the players I spoke with last week were not aware of the policy, even though it was done to protect “the players.” Which made me wonder if “the players” were even consulted at all about a policy designed to protect “the players” themselves.
“I mean, if you think about that, it seems like there’s that discrepancy or there’s like a double standard as far as what’s allowed and what’s not allowed,” Tennys Sandgren told me last week. “I mean, if you’re allowed to be there for main draw, why shouldn’t you be allowed to be there for qualifying? If you’re going to do one, then you do the other,” he added. “If you’re not going to do one, you wouldn’t do the other. That’s I guess my first reaction to that, would be I don’t really get it. But there’s a lot of this stuff I really don’t get honestly, so it wouldn’t be the first time I felt like there was a double standard or discrepancy there that just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”
When I asked Brandon Nakashima about it, he was diplomatic about the protocols of the past year before concluding “I think if they’re able to have fans come in during the main draw, I see really no reason why they shouldn’t be able to come into the qualies as well.”
Denis Kudla agreed. “I feel do they really protect us if (the crowds) showing up three, four days later, it’s going to be packed four days later?” he mused. “I don’t really think that makes sense. Keep it open. We’re not going to be in a bubble. We’re going to be roaming around New York City. We’re responsible for our own health. I don’t see how that’s really making sense. If you’re going to do full bubble, nobody, or just leave it completely open,” he added. “All this kind of half and half things, certain rules for certain people, I don’t think it makes sense in general. So, yeah, that’s pretty much my answer. I think people should be allowed in qualies. I think it’s a huge opportunity for families who can’t spend a bunch on tickets, have an opportunity to watch top guys practice and the future of the sport.”
Steve Johnson is always a straight shooter in press and he didn’t disappoint when I asked him the question last Wednesday. “I’m not the arbitrator of what’s fair and not fair,” he said with a smile. “Me, my perspective, look, we’ve had a lot of confusing COVID rules the last 18 months, especially last six months. I’ve stopped really trying to guess because half the rules make absolutely zero sense, it’s strictly an optical thing that I think is absolutely asinine really,” he added. “I mean, I’m the right guy to probably get a quote from, but I’m the wrong guy to give an impartial decision. Look, I think there should be fans at every stadium. I think we’ve shown in the States that you can do it and it’s safe,” he continued. “There should be fans. Everybody knows the risks. Everybody is willing to do what they want to do. That’s what makes America America. Everyone has their own choice to do whatever they want. If they want to come watch tennis, they should be allowed to. If they feel unsafe, they shouldn’t. There should be fans there the entire time. Again, it’s one of those questions why week one and not week two? Why is it any different? I’ve stopped trying to get those answers because it just makes me more confused than anything.”
In fact, the only player who didn’t express concern was Reilly Opelka. He was having no part of it. “I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me, you know? They’ve been great to me,” he said, referring to his benefactors. “The USTA has been great to me. That’s all funded by the US Open. There’s flaws in everything. They’ve been great to me. Martin Blackman and Kent Kinnear, my coach Jay Berger, even Pat McEnroe has been beyond generous to me. There’s nothing negative I can say because they’ve changed my life for the better,” he concluded. He’s one of the nicest guys on tour, but it was clear that he could not be critical in any way of his White Plains Overlords.
Like a good blogger, we reached out to White Plains yesterday to make some sense of this decision. We asked USTA Communications Director Chris Widmaier a few questions by email and followed up with a call to his cell phone, specifically inquiring the following:
1) You must be aware of the crowd size differential between qualifying rounds and the first round of main draw play. Is it fair to say that you expect far more attendees on August 30 and 31 than you would for any day of US Open qualifying in the past?
2) How much money do you expect US Open vendors and partners to lose as a result of the USTA’s decision to close qualifying to the public?
3) Are you aware of the impact of the decision on the thousands of attendees who come to qualifying from struggling neighborhoods all over the region? Will there be widely-advertised discount programs to allow low-income fans to attend the main draw in lieu of free qualifying?
4) Did you consider opening up qualifying for attendees who could provide proof of vaccinations?
5) Was the USTA provided with specific public health guidance that 0% capacity at qualifying would protect players and/or that requiring proof of vaccination for attendees at main draw rounds would be beneficial to the players?
Widmaier called me back. He explained that the decision was “heartbreaking and not an easy decision” for the USTA, and was made several months ago “based on expert medical advice at the time.” He described the Open as a “mega global event” and that all such decisions had to be made in advance for logistical purposes. He acknowledged that the USTA communicated the call to the ATP and WTA, and that he expected that they would have informed the players. “There are never more players on site than during qualifying,” he said. “You have the 256 singles entrants and the qualifying field here at the same time.” According to Widmaier, that medical advice included advising the US Open to build out expanded player areas, including gyms and dining areas to promote social distancing, which they have done.
To quote John McEnroe, “Let’s be honest.” It sounds to me like it was a call that was made, and it’s a call that can’t be challenged or reversed because it’s too late to get security and infrastructure in place for thousands of extra people to show up. Optics are everything, and some feel it’s time to stop blaming COVID-19 for decisions that make little sense except the most obvious—to make a buck and/or keep expenses down, just like a Fortune 500 company beholden to shareholders. It also seems that the last thing the USTA wants is to have to kick fans out after the tournament starts due to an outbreak, which would blow another hole in the organization’s finances after a disastrous 2020.
Perhaps accidentally, though, it feels like the USTA may have missed the mark on its mission statement on this one: “Include all people on a non-discriminatory basis, and make diversity and inclusion an embedded part of USTA.” Because this decision is a heartfelt blow to everyone except the sad rich people in those lower boxes on Ashe. Or as Emma Lazarus, the poet laureate of the Statue of Liberty might say, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, not right now, but certainly before 2023.“