The USTA recently announced that it will go ahead and host the US Open this year from August 31st to September 13th. Some of the notable changes due to the pandemic include: no fans, fewer lead up tournaments to the US Open, no Qualifying Tournament, and a reduced doubles draw size.
Every tennis fan around the world is very happy to hear this news. However, there will forever be an asterisk to the winner of this year’s US Open. There are three leading factors for this:
- No Fans. Some players like Novak Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios level of play change with the crowd. Certain players, most notably non-American players, will have a greater advantage as in most US Opens the American players are heavily favored by the crowd. This US Open is an opportunity for the USTA to innovate and really invest into a social experience for the millions of the tennis fans watching remotely. The USTA needs to make the viewing experience feel more connected than the usual TV experience.
- Players are less practiced and more healthy. Usually the last grand slam of the year, many of the players enter the US Open not as fresh as the beginning of the year. This is a double edged sword because the players will have less practice in match stress situations but because of the lack of tournament match play will have less injuries. This lack of tournament play and less injuries will favor certain players and hurt others. Therefore, the tournament likely would not have led to the same result if we weren’t in a global pandemic.
- Not all players will be there. The Qualifying Tournament was cancelled. The qualifiers in the tournament make the early round matches exciting because they create upsets. Upsets have huge impacts on the rest of the tournament. I do not argue that the average quality of play will change significantly without the qualifiers, but the tournament will not be the same.
To be clear, the three leading factors are largely not adjustable. I agree that the US Open must make tradeoffs to keep tennis fans, the players, and the greater public healthy. However, the USTA needs to be aware of the impact of these changes and innovate to alleviate the above impacts by adjusting the TV viewing experience. The Western & Southern Open will also happen this year before the US Open. It is a great opportunity for the USTA to test new strategies to engage fans more at home. The number of tests during the Western & Southern Open will be a great indicator of whether the USTA is thinking ahead and planning to engage viewers at home in new interesting ways.