Masks, soap machines and mini-golf: inside the US Open bubble

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Gone are the crush of fans seeking selfies with their favorite player, the distant cheers from an outer court as a baseline forehand lands inside and the warm embrace between competitors at the end of a match.

In their place are hand sanitizer machines, daily temperature checks and virtual hugs, making for a sterile atmosphere at the 2020 US Open — the first Grand Slam to take place in the COVID-19 era.

The US National Tennis Center in New York normally buzzes with energy and excitement during Open week, but not this year, with the tournament occurring in a spectator-free quarantine bubble.

Match-winning shots were met with virtual silence in eerily empty stadia as play got under way Monday, while players were free to mill around the Flushing Meadows site without being swamped by autograph hunters.

Competitors, officials, and the handful of journalists in the bubble, including AFP, wear masks as they move gingerly around the grounds, careful to keep six feet apart.

“You can sense that around the site there is a certain tension because everyone is obviously being careful,” said Novak Djokovic following his Western and Southern Open win at Flushing on Saturday.

The tennis center has been thoroughly scrubbed since it housed an emergency field hospital at the peak of New York’s coronavirus outbreak in April.

Hand sanitizer machines dot the grounds, as do posters reminding players that hugs and fist bumps are banned. Quick elbow taps are allowed.

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Organizers are limiting locker rooms to 30 players at one time, with competitors encouraged to shower and head outside quickly where activities including basketball hoops await.

Mini-golf, pool and chess are other games available to try to keep players outdoors when they are killing time.

“It’s pretty sad because usually this place is just filled with energy and atmosphere,” said Andy Murray.

“Fans give life to the tournament, they give life to your matches and your practices.”

But the absence of 750,000 spectators does bring some benefits.

“When you have to get somewhere for a certain time, it’s nice because you know there is no-one around and that you’re not going to get stopped. It’s very quiet and very relaxed,” Murray added.

Anyone entering the site must undergo a temperature check every day, with players, staff, volunteers, and journalists undergoing regular coronavirus tests throughout the tournament.

– Security –

Players wear masks when not playing or eating, while ball persons and lines officials don face coverings on court in the Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums whose seats have been draped in “Black Lives Matter” banners.

There are no lines officials on the outer courts, where Hawk-Eye technology is making line calls.

Organizers are limiting the locker rooms to 30 players at one time and elite players have been given their own boxes in Ashe and Armstrong to eye the competition.

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“Walking around from court to court, I’ve never been able to watch so many live tennis matches,” said three-time US Open champion Kim Clijsters.

Most competitors are staying at one of two hotels where they are shuttled the 30 minutes to and from the tennis center.

A few, including Djokovic and Serena Williams, have chosen to stay in private homes where they are paying for 24-hour security approved by the United States Tennis Association (USTA).

The security teams are obliged to provide the USTA with information regarding when the player leaves and arrives at the house.

No player is allowed to travel anywhere other than between the tennis center and their accommodation. Any player who leaves the bubble without the written consent of organizers will be thrown out of the tournament.

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