Kevin Palmer: US Open rapidly developing into a farce after Rafael Nadal’s announcement

Kevin Palmer
Rafael Nadal with US Open trophy

Rafael Nadal’s decision to pull out of the US Open will not have surprised anyone in the tennis community, but it will still send shock waves through the sport.

As the defending US Open champion declared he has “decided to follow my heart this time and for the time being I rather not travel”, the sport was handed another hammer blow in its increasingly fraught efforts to function amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Nadal should not be criticised for expressing concerns about going to a country where the virus is increasing at a rapid rate and, while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo appears to have done all he can to halt the spread in his state, the prospect of travelling to America at this time cannot be appealing to any of the game’s biggest stars in Europe.

As Nadal has been practicing on clay in recent weeks, it has been clear that he was targeting a return to action at the Madrid Open next month, ahead of his assault on a 13th French Open title at Roland Garros a couple of weeks later.

With the Madrid event now cancelled, it remains to be seen whether his reluctance to travel will impact whether on not he plays on his favoured red clay in Paris. With the Shanghai Masters also a victim of the coronavirus crisis, it feels like we could be edging towards a scenario where the entire 2020 tennis season is postponed.

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World No 1 Novak Djokovic appears to be keen to try and win his 18th Grand Slam title at the US Open, but we may soon reach a tipping point that will mean the event loses all credibility to hail itself as a major tournament if the withdrawals continue to flow.

With Roger Federer already out with an injury, Nadal’s absence will be a huge blow to a US Open that had already lost the unique talents of Australian showman Nick Kyrgios, with world No 7 Alexander Zverev among those expressing doubts over whether he will play.

On the women’s side, world No 1 Ashleigh Barty has confirmed she will not travel to America and if the high-profile absentees begin to stack up in the next couple of weeks, the feasibility of allowing the event at Flushing Meadows to retain it’s Grand Slam status would surely be called into question.

Empty Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadows - US Open

We all appreciate that the need for tennis to find some way to return is now pressing, with lower-ranked players starved of income and doubts already surfacing over whether the 2021 Australian Open will go ahead as planned in Melbourne as that nation tries to get to grips with their own Covid-19 wave.

Yet with international travel still such a major headache at a time when the virus is bubbling up with menace once more, a sport that requires stars to converge from all corners of the world for one and two-week events might struggle to find a way to function.

Golf’s PGA Tour has enjoyed a successful return as all players can base themselves in America and avoid quarantine issues, yet tennis has a more complex travelling roadshow that involves different continents, varying travel restrictions and vastly more challenging issues on a number of levels, including insurance for players and their travelling party.

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What happens next? Imagine a scenario that sees half of the world’s top 20 male and female players pulling out of the New York tennis festival that will also include the relocated Cincinnati Masters event. Imagine the quality of the seedings list that should be one of the highlights of the tennis year. Is that really what we want to see at an event that would still be called the US Open?

It is an uncomfortable question tennis chiefs may have to answer in the coming weeks as, while we are all desperate to see the sport returning to our lives, the version we may be about to witness in front of empty stands at a “bio-bubble” created around Flushing Meadows is in danger of becoming a farce none of us needs to witness.

Follow Kevin Palmer on Twitter @RealKevinPalmer

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