Serena Williams leads WTA’s restart in Kentucky

Serena Williams will be leading the drive to reboot pro tennis in North America after nearly five months without any official tournament play due to the coronavirus pandemic. It seems appropriate, even uplifting, during a time of great anxiety and uncertainty that the player many view as the greatest of all Grand Slam champions will headline the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Kentucky, starting Aug. 10.

Williams, 38 years old and one of those rare sporting icons who transcends her sport, was the first top player to wholeheartedly endorse the USTA’s decision to forge ahead and stage both the Western & Southern Open and the US Open in succession at the National Tennis Center in New York. Williams blew right through hesitations and fears that so many of her peers harbored (and still do) about the plan’s potentially onerous health protocols, the absence of spectators and the requirement that the players inhabit a “safety bubble” at the NTC for up to a month as a safeguard against an outbreak of COVID-19.

“I really cannot wait to return to New York and play the US Open 2020,” Williams said in a video message released by the USTA in mid-June, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave the USTA the green light to hold the hold the Western & Southern and US Open over three successive weeks. “It’s going to be exciting.”

Williams had given no indication that she would participate in any events preceding the US Open until last week, when officials announced that she had entered the Top Seed Open. On Wednesday, Williams was also confirmed as an entry in the W&S Open, traditionally the major tuneup event for the US Open. That event was moved from Cincinnati to New York to make it easier to present both events amid the pandemic and the health concerns it triggered.

The clay-court Palermo Ladies Open, which begins Monday in Italy, will be the first WTA event to take place since the tours shut down in mid-March. But the push to the US Open begins in Kentucky, on hard courts comparable to the ones the ATP and WTA pros will find at the doubleheader in New York.

“We’re super excited, looking forward to Serena’s participation,” Top Seed Open tournament director Jon Sanders told ESPN. “This is a great opportunity.”

Apparently, Williams also saw this as a great opportunity — in her case, to prepare her game for the US Open. It isn’t often that the holder of 23 major titles — the most by any man or woman in the Open era — has stepped up to enter a WTA International event (the lowest category of WTA Tour tournaments, offering the smallest amount of prize money). The organizers didn’t even have to court Williams; she came to them.

“Serena is anxious to get back on court and play,” Sanders said. “Her people told us she is ready to gear up and get prepped for New York. She reached out to us about playing, and we chatted, and it ended up being a great relationship.”

The road to the US Open was meant to begin at the Citi Open, a longstanding combined ATP 500/WTA International event played in Washington. As time passed, the promoters increasingly felt they could not hold the WTA event in the nation’s capital. Even before the women’s portion was canceled, the WTA and Octagon, the player and event management firm that holds the rights to the WTA half of the Citi Open, were developing a Plan B.

“We [the WTA and Octagon] were all looking for an alternate site,” Kelly Wolf, a vice president at Octagon, told ESPN. “Trying to figure out that if they [Citi Open promoters] didn’t want to run the WTA event, was there a place to take it? The WTA wanted to make it happen, and this is where it went.”

The Top Seed Tennis Club hosted an ITF tournament in February, shortly before the pandemic forced the shutdown. Sanders also promoted an exhibition over the Fourth of July holiday featuring, among others, Eugenie Bouchard and CiCi Bellis. “The WTA asked if I had interest [in promoting the tournament] and I said we’d do our best,” Sanders said. “Lo and behold, here we are, ramping up and getting ready to go.”

On July 21, officials of the Citi Open canceled their event entirely. There were just too many pandemic-related concerns surrounding the high-profile ATP 500 event to forge ahead. Those included the spiking pandemic in the U.S. and burdensome travel restrictions, especially on trans-Atlantic travelers. The majority of the players in the ATP top 100, including every member of the top 10, hail from Europe. Many of those players continued to express reservations about travel to the U.S.

As a result, the ATP Tour no longer has any official events scheduled until the Western & Southern Open/US Open combination plays out in a safety bubble at the National Tennis Center starting on Aug. 22.

Sanders said he has no fear that his event will go the way of the Citi Open. He said players’ fears of having to quarantine were alleviated by the WTA, which is placing players on lists upon arrival or departure. Cuomo has restricted travel to New York from many states, but Kentucky is not among them. Thus, WTA players leaving Kentucky and heading for the combined events in New York will be spared quarantine concerns.

Another important factor working in favor of the WTA: While there are no active male Grand Slam champions from the U.S. or Canada (the highest-ranking American pro is No. 21-ranked John Isner), the talent in the WTA is more evenly distributed. That makes it easier to work around governmental travel mandates and private travel-related anxieties.

All three WTA events leading up to the US Open — Palermo, Lexington and the Prague Open (played the same week as the Top Seed Open) — are lowest-tier International events. The WTA’s 32 International events tend to feature fewer name players than the nine Premier-grade events.

Williams, like most WTA and ATP stars, usually focuses on the four Grand Slams and the Premier events. But in that regard the pandemic has been a game-changer, even more so now that the post-US Open Asia swing has been canceled by both tours. Only three of the nine original post-US Open Premier events remain on the 2021 WTA schedule, just one (with an undetermined draw size) following the Oct. 10 end of the postponed French Open.

Both tours have reduced the tournament entry and withdrawal deadlines from six to four weeks before any given event. Due to the crisis, the WTA also has recalibrated the rules governing the distribution of top players. In order to get fair value for their investment (of prize money), tournaments are guaranteed a number of top players or, in the case of International events, restricted from recruiting too many with appearance fees. Before the pandemic, International events were allowed to recruit only one top-10 player.

Players eager to earn a paycheck and experience formal competition have flocked to the International events, although — or perhaps because — only seven remain on the schedule, starting with Palermo.

After withdrawing from the Palermo Ladies Open, No. 2-ranked Simona Halep entered the Prague Open, which will also feature No. 8 Belinda Bencic and other top-20 players. Palermo still features 10 players who are in the top 30, led by No. 14 Johanna Konta. Joining Williams at the Top Seed Open: sister Venus, Amanda Anisimova, Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens, Aryna Sabalenka, and Victoria Azarenka. International events have rarely been so loaded.

By design, the plethora of International events has always allowed for a robust calendar and a global spread of talent. Because of the pandemic, those tournaments have morphed into de facto regional events. There is enough talent in the major tennis centers of North American and Europe to hold simultaneous WTA events in different regions, with a reduced burden from travel restrictions and quarantines.

Mark Ein, chairman and CEO of the canceled Citi Open, paid homage to the nimble WTA approach shortly after he was forced to pull the plug on his own event. He told ESPN a week ago, “It’s fascinating, how it’s all changed. A huge amount of our [ATP] field are concerned they can’t enter [or leave] the country because of travel restrictions. [Meanwhile] the WTA decided they can have regional events with analogous events in the U.S. and Europe.”

In accordance with the wishes of the state of Kentucky and the WTA, no spectators will be allowed. The tournament will take place in its own safety bubble, consisting of the official player hotel and the tennis club.

“There’s a special emphasis on making sure nothing goes wrong in Lexington,” Wolf said. “There’s a little bit of difference in terms of the stakes, because from there the players will go right into the US Open bubble. When you’re the lead-in, you’re the test case. It’s super important to not put upcoming events at risk.”

The players at the Top Seed Open will be tested repeatedly and won’t be allowed out of the bubble until they are ready to leave or the tournament ends. Entourages are forbidden. Each player will be allowed just a single “plus-one” companion.

For those wondering who Serena’s plus-one will be — her husband, Alexis; her daughter, Olympia; her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou; or her mother, Oracene Price? — Sanders offered a clarification: “Because Serena has a baby, the rule doesn’t apply the normal way. Mothers get an exemption for their children.”

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