Summertime is always the best season for tennis. Normally, it's jam-packed with Grand Slams and Masters tournaments across Europe and North America. But when COVID forced everything to shut down, it left a huge hole in the hearts of tennis fans. That’s why the upcoming US Open has us all incredibly excited to see the sport back in action.
We interviewed Caitlin Thompson — who co-founded the influential and award-winning print quarterly tennis magazine Racquet with David Shaftel — to get her thoughts on what we’ll see when that first serve gets tossed up at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. Catch all of the action beginning Monday, Aug. 31 on ESPN and ESPN2.
Sling: Let’s get the obvious question out of the way. How do you feel about the US Open happening during the pandemic? Are you looking forward to it after months without tennis or should they have cancelled it altogether?
Caitlin Thompson: I'm thrilled we'll have professional tennis in New York this year, and I can't overstate how ready I am to watch the coverage wall-to-wall for the next few weeks! Tennis is really the perfect sport for our socially distanced moment, and a number of tournaments both here and in Europe have pulled off successful events without issue. Others have gotten into some trouble because they haven't put strong protocols into place and because some of the players—men, mostly—haven't followed the rules. From what I understand, the USTA, America's governing body that runs the US Open tournament, has done so and the players seem to understand that if they want to play (and earn Grand-Slam money) it's in their interest to do the right thing.
Sling: There’s been a lot of controversy around players who have opted out. Why do you think that is? Has the USTA done enough to keep players safe?
CT: The opt-outs (aside from five-time champ Roger Federer, who is injured) have largely happened because of logistics. The European clay court swing, which usually takes place in the Spring, has been moved to September. Many of the international players both prefer that surface and would rather not travel to the States and then quickly pivot back to Europe, and then face a potential 14-day quarantine upon arrival. That says more about America and our government's failure to meet this moment in every way than it does about the USTA or New York City, where the event is taking place.
Sling: The field is missing many top seeds on the men’s and women’s side. Will this affect how we look at the winners? Will people be inclined to put an asterisk next to their titles?
CT: Tennis is one of the hardest sports to play, so my attitude is: you win seven matches in a Grand Slam, you win the Grand Slam.
Sling: Do you think we’ll see first time winners? Who are your favorites? Who are your dark horses? Does Andy Murray have a shot?
CT: I sure hope we'll see some new faces, especially on the men's side of the draw. The women have been providing popcorn-worthy matchups and depth of field for years, and a recent champion—Naomi Osaka—is certainly one of the favorites, along with exciting younguns Coco Gauff, Aryna Sabalenka and the Australian Open champ Sofia Kenin. Seven-time champion Serena Williams will be a favorite, mirroring three-time champ Novak Djokovic, who is also the number one men's player in the world. Novak hasn't lost often to Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer in Grand Slams, but he isn't going to play either of them here—so I'm actually thinking a younger player—Daniil Medvedev, Matteo Berrettini, Dominic Theim or Stefanos Tsitsipas, has a great chance to take him out and become a first-time Grand Slam champion. I will weep tears of joy if Andy Murray wins a few matches, much less the whole thing.
Sling: Give me your thoughts on tennis without fans. Arthur Ashe is the largest tennis stadium in the world. What will that sound like? How weird will it be for players? For viewers?
CT: I always encourage people—especially if they're new to tennis—to watch it in person, as the speed, spin, angles and tension don't translate well on television. This year, there's no choice about where people will get to watch, so I hope the broadcasters experiment more with camera angles that show less of the full court but more of the player's vantage point. Fan noise in Arthur Ashe stadium, as well as the whole of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, is notoriously boisterous—and this year it'll be silent. We'll need better commentators than ever to explain the game and contextualize the moments for viewers at home. It's gonna be weird, but I'm into weird.
Sling: I’ve read that players are being given a one-time waiver to express social justice messages on their clothing and shoes. Considering tennis has such a strong history of athletes as advocates (BJK, Ashe, Martina, Venus, Serena), should this be allowed all the time?
CT: More than any other sport, tennis has been on (mostly) the right side of history—with regards to gender equality, racial inclusion and the ahead-of-the times conversations around gay and trans rights. Sports are inherently political, and when you don't acknowledge that, you side with the powerful against the marginalized. I couldn't be prouder of tennis players for addressing the righteous racial reckoning we are having in this moment, and it's always the right time to speak. I was moved to see a "Black Lives Matter" banner behind a court at the Lexington, Kentucky tennis event last week, and I hope to see more from players, from events and from governing bodies in the months and years to come.
Sling: Any ideas/suggestions for viewers to make the experience more fun at home? Are you hosting any Zoom watch parties? Will you be shaking up some Honey Deuces?
CT: We are, in fact! Racquet has teamed up with the party mavens over at Social Studies to create a home delivery party kit for the US Open, which includes all the stuff you need to host an incredible event as well as a bunch of Racquet swag, including our newest issue. To celebrate, we'll have a special live event on Wednesday, Sept. 9 hosted by a Grand Slam champ of our own with trivia, music and prizes. Stay tuned to our IG channel for more details!
Watch the US Open first ball to last ball on ESPN and ESPN2 starting on Aug. 31.