NEW YORK >> The U.S. Open is usually a crowded, raucous and very New York affair. Local luminaries like Alec Baldwin, Spike Lee and Katie Couric sit courtside, while corporate bigwigs swill cocktails in exclusive boxes over Arthur Ashe Stadium, and laser-focused tennis fans, arriving via a packed subway, watch from the nosebleeds above.
Not so for 2020. This year the tournament grounds in Queens, which usually see about 850,000 fans between late August and mid-September, are basically empty. The only people allowed are the athletes, their limited entourages and U.S. Open employees.
It’s the year of the bubble. Players like Andy Murray and Serena Williams are living in strictly regulated hotels and homes — while battling opponents on empty, silent courts to canned applause. In the South Plaza, typically the buzzing heart of the tournament’s social scene, a basketball court and a mini golf course have been installed. Empty chaise longues and massage tables await players, who roam freely without security.
When it comes to the competition, the only spectators allowed to watch matches (besides coaches and family) are the tournament workers, who have been encouraged to do just that. So they sit in outside courts or empty stadiums — the bartenders and the laundry workers and the security detail — watching athletes like Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked male player, from seats that would normally be snapped up months in advance and cost hundreds of dollars.
They are the lucky spectators of this year’s U.S. Open. Here are some of their stories.
A court attendant who has worked at the U.S. Open for five years, Latif-Zade, 22, is from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
The Experience: The players, you can tell they forget that nobody is there. As the only spectator, I wish I could cheer them on and celebrate, especially if there is a good point. I feel like it is a big responsibility to be watching them, and I do wish there were other people to share it. The problem is, while I don’t know the official rules, I do think I have to be neutral, and I don’t think I am allowed to cheer them on.
How She Got the Gig: I have been playing tennis my whole life. I was in the City Parks Foundation program, a public initiative that gives free tennis lessons. I used to play tournaments on the courts next to where the U.S. Open is played. I heard about the opportunity to work for the tournament, and I applied for it and got it.
Favorite Player: Probably Nadal and Federer and Serena. When I am at work, I am neutral, though. I put my feelings to the side, and I get all players everything they need.
Standout Moment: When I was on Arthur Ashe, the main court, that was a wonderful experience. Because I am standing on the court, it is like I am one of the tennis players. It’s so exciting.
Takeaway: The players are used to getting energy from the people, but you can tell that some are finding strength in themselves. They are professional players, and while they are accustomed to a different kind of atmosphere, they are figuring it out. That’s cool to see.
An operations manager in the players’ dining room, Kidaka, 51, is working her second year at the U.S. Open. She lives in Manhattan.
The Experience: I actually like this environment better. It’s quieter, and we can all just be outdoors and keep social distance. But I know some staff members say it doesn’t feel like the U.S. Open without fans.
How She Got the Gig: I work for the restaurant Morimoto, making food for all the players. They especially love sushi. We did 500 or 600 orders before the tournament even started.
Favorite Players: Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori, who could not be here this year.
Tournament Advantage: Usually when there are thousands of people you can’t just run and watch players on your lunch break. You can’t get there so fast because the crowds are in the way. Now if I have five minutes, and I know which court Naomi is playing on, I can run there and see her. I am Japanese, and I want to support all the Japanese players. I just saw her playing.
Observations: I see many players training outside, where the food court used to be. It’s an open gym area, and they are lifting weights or running on the treadmill or jumping rope. I’ve never seen that before, and it’s so interesting how this is such a big part of their training. I even saw tall men, I think they were players, dunking on the basketball court.
A barista, Ramirez, 26, is working the tournament for the first time. He is from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
The Experience: Before COVID, we would be serving 30,000 to 40,000 people. Now we are serving 1,000. It’s very weird, but I also kind of like it, because I can talk to people.
How He Got the Gig: I work for Restaurant Associates, and they sent an email out to employees to ask who was interested in working for the U.S. Open. There is a high demand for working here; I’ve been trying for three years. I’m working in the U.S. Open Club, the restaurant for USTA executives and employees, including the ball boys and stringers.
Favorite Player: Federer. It really stinks he isn’t here. I thought it was because of COVID, but now I’ve learned he had knee surgery. Now I guess I’m rooting for Djokovic.
Best Moment: The players are just roaming freely without security. I saw Serena Williams playing tennis on a practice court with her mother and sister. It’s very cool to see them, and how much dedication they have. It makes me appreciate tennis even more.
Perks of the Job: I’ve gotten to know a lot of the ball boys and stringers. I didn’t know the USTA brought in people from all over the country, and it’s really cool. A lot of them are from Europe. I hope to become friends with them, so I can have places to stay when I travel again.
GERALD AIKENS JR.
Aikens, 30, came from Wilmington, Delaware, to work security for the tournament.
The Experience: The U.S. Open is something I knew nothing about before this job. I didn’t watch it or anything. So I don’t know the difference from this year to the last one.
How He Got the Gig: Through a charity. It’s a drug rehabilitation program that helps people get jobs and have cool experiences that are like apprenticeships. I’m not in the program, but my dad was. He’s now a coordinator, and he invites me along to things.
Favorite Player: I kept hearing about a woman named Kim Clijsters. I saw her play, and someone rooted her on, and she spoke back and said, “Thank you.” I thought it was cool that a superstar did that.
Standout Moment: When I was doing security during the Cincinnati Open, I had to make sure everyone had credentials, and I had to make sure people didn’t come in who weren’t authorized. Lots of paparazzi wanted to get in. It was fun to know that I could roam around wherever I wanted. I saw these athletes up close, and they all look great. This was my first time ever watching tennis.
Observations: When I thought about tennis, I thought of people swatting that ball and making that grunting noise. I just wanted to hear someone make that noise, and now I know they really do. Men, women, they all make the same noise.
A co-owner of Dante West Village, Pride, 38, was invited to recreate a New York City bar scene in the bubble.
The Experience: Usually at an event like this, when you are bartending, you are very busy, and it’s high volume. Now, with fewer people, it’s not like a crazy party. It’s not bad, but it’s different.
How He Got the Job: One of the girls who is a regular at my bar reached out and asked if we would run a bar in an outdoor area in a hotel where everyone is staying. It’s in the players bubble, where there is coaching staff and family members. It’s a beautiful area. They have 10-feet-high hedges, lounge chairs, big televisions, and the Grey Goose Honey Deuce cocktail is served here, of course. The idea was they wanted to bring New York to the players, because they couldn’t experience the city.
Favorite Player: I loved Roger Federer before, but this year, since we are doing to-go cocktails, he ordered a huge Negroni pack from Dante that we sent to Switzerland. That made me like him even more. The fact that he isn’t playing this year is devastating.
Takeaway: With everything that has happened in the last five months, everyone is happy to be there. The players, and their teams, they are so grateful the event wasn’t postponed. You feel this sense that you are part of something, an event that defied the odds.