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U.S. Open Action Is Underway Without Crowds And Some Star Players

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A year ago, Rafael Nadal and Bianca Andreescu claimed the men's and women's U.S. Open singles titles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER #1: ...Is the king of the hill, the top of the heap and the U.S. Open champion.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER #2: It's an extraordinary debut. Can you believe it? Bianca Andreescu is a U.S. Open champion.

(CHEERING)

MARTIN: The biggest event in American tennis, which began this week, sounds and looks a whole lot different this year. Some of the biggest names are skipping the tournament altogether.

Watching it all from his virtual perch is Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated who joins us now. Good morning, Jon.

JON WERTHEIM: Good morning.

MARTIN: Let's first talk about just how the tournament is trying to protect players and everyone associated with the tournament. What are they doing?

WERTHEIM: They have essentially tried to recreate the NBA bubble. So you have all of these athletes from all over the world and are used to playing in - you know, in Asia and in Monte Carlo and staying glamorous hotels. And they are all marooned on Long Island in two hotels. They are not allowed to leave to come into Manhattan. It's not a perfect bubble, but they are in a bubble-type scenario. It's basically hotels, tennis courts and back-and-forth.

MARTIN: What about on the court? I mean, umpires, line judges, ball boys and girls - are they still doing their thing?

WERTHEIM: Yeah. It's sort of - it's toned down, and not all the courts have line judges. And there are ball kids, though they're sparse. I mean, the big difference, I think, is just the absence of fans. And you have this very emotional sport...

MARTIN: Oh, yeah, that. Right (laughter).

WERTHEIM: Yeah, that. Oh, those 750,000 people...

MARTIN: Those people (laughter).

WERTHEIM: In some ways, you watch it, and it seems like a normal grand slam tennis match. And then you look at the stands, and you see how strange it is to watch Serena Williams perform in front of 11 people.

MARTIN: So crazy. So Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both skipping the tournament - how's that being felt?

WERTHEIM: It's interesting. I mean, Roger Federer's injured. Rafa Nadal is gearing up for the French Open, which in this crazy year is on pace to be held in a few weeks - so not its normal time. And a number of players - I mean, six of the top 10 women are not here. Some of this is philosophical - I don't feel comfortable amid COVID. Some of this is strategic because the schedule is now so crazy a lot of the European players say - you know what? - I'm going to skip the U.S. Open; I'm going to skip all the potential travel complications. I'm just going to stay in Europe and be ready when tennis resumes in my part of the world.

MARTIN: Huh - interesting. So I want to ask about Naomi Osaka. She's the 2018 champion. She is playing in this tournament, and she's been getting a lot of attention for raising awareness - using this moment to raise awareness around racial injustice, right?

WERTHEIM: Right. It's really quite remarkable. I mean, people will remember - in 2018 when she won, she had this sort of awkward moment where it was a controversial match. And so she won. She cried. I mean, this is someone who is, by her own reckoning, very introverted. And yet she was playing last week, and Kenosha happened. And she basically said, you know, I'm an athlete, but I'm a Black woman first. And I don't feel comfortable playing and distracting people from more important matters - I'm not going to play tomorrow.

And the tournament really scrambled. And some players were thoroughly with this, and others were not. And they took a day of pause in tennis. So it was a strange day. But it was really sort of this moment of reckoning for Naomi Osaka.

MARTIN: Well, we appreciate you giving your view of this historic tournament, for all kinds of reasons. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated. Thanks, Jon.

WERTHEIM: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATE MERCEREAU'S "RIGHTEOUS ENERGY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.