The tennis world has reconvened at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center in New York, with an extensive safety plan ensuring the health of players, coaches and essential staff. Relocated from Cincinnati, the Western & Southern Open is set to begin with main-draw action on Saturday.
Ahead of the return to play, many of the stars of the ATP and WTA spoke with the media on Friday as part of a virtual media day. Below are some of the highlights.
On how the lack of fans and atmosphere might impact the draw:
I think it's going to be challenging for most players, especially for the top players, which are used to having a big fan base, being surrounding by fans cheering their name, having people that love them when they play. I think it's going to create a more equal space for any player. I think, yeah, again, it is going to be challenging. I think it benefits a bit the lower-ranked players.
On his level of concern regarding COVID-19 in the past months, and its impact on the ATP Tour:
I was worried about the virus at first. Despite all of the regulations that the US Open set from early on, I still felt it could be unsecure to travel to the U.S. So far it has been proven wrong of what I initially thought.
Well, I thought, again, tennis was not the number one priority at that moment. After I spoke to most of the ATP players, after that conversation and everything, I found it secure and safe to travel to the U.S., and that's why I did so. Plus I miss competing a lot. I felt like if they think it's safe for us to play, I should just go and try it out. They know better than I do.
On her decision to stay at a private house rather than the designated tournament hotel:
I didn't want to be in the hotel because I have lung issues, so I felt like it was actually a big risk for me personally. At my house, I can control more. There is no housekeeping, there is none of that type of stuff. And so, I mean, as much as I want to be here, it's great, but I have genuine health issues that I just really needed to put my mind at rest to even be able to perform in New York.
On the lack of fans affecting her, as a fan favorite in New York:
I hope I'm a fan favorite. I love playing here. I'm vintage, so, it's like I don't have that many years left at some point. It would be nice to try to keep winning.
I don't know. I don't mind not having the fans. I would love if the fans were here, because it's so special to play with the fans and they really pull me up when I'm down, but at the same time, we need to be safe right now, so let's not have anyone—when we are all feeling better, we can all come back and we can all have fun.
Clijsters withdrew from the Western & Southern Open on Friday with an abdominal injury. While she did not address the media, she did offer this statement:
I’m grateful to Western & Southern Open for the opportunity to play the tournament once again. I have great memories from playing in Cincinnati and was looking forward to being a part of the event this year. It’s disappointing to have to withdraw, but after discussions with medical and my team, I need a little more recovery time.
I’m grateful to be able to stay in the 'bubble' and continue to prepare with my team here at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
I want to thank the Western & Southern Open team, the USTA and WTA for all their efforts in putting these events together—they’ve worked really hard to create a great experience in a safe and healthy space for players.
On how it feels to be in New York and what the bubble experience has been like:
It’s definitely exceeded my expectations. At the hotel they have a lot of activities for us to do. I was a little bit worried that there wouldn’t be anything to do besides Netflix, but they actually have a lot of things to do and on site they have a lot of fun games that I’ve never tried before and I’m really enjoying it. The weather’s been great, so I like sitting outside. The bubble’s been great. The USTA has done a great job with everything.
On what it means to have vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris as a role model for African-American girls:
It’s definitely good to see some representation. I think it’s going to be cool for little girls to see themselves represented at such a high standard in this country.
On the absence of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer from the tournament and if he feels this could be his time to win:
Of course, there is a big opportunity for a new Grand Slam winner, because there is only three Grand Slam winners in the draw—Cilic, Murray and Novak—if I’m not mistaken, which, of course, gives a bigger chance for everybody. Talking about myself, I always take it match by match. At this moment, I don’t see myself lifting the US Open trophy. I just want to see at first where my game is at the tournament level, competitive level in [the Western & Southern Open] because, as I say, we’re almost 100 percent going to see some unbelievable results. Maybe some really bad games, some really good ones. We don’t know what to expect because it’s not usual that there is 150 players that didn’t play a match in six months, you know? … So I’m really curious, and I’m going to do my best to win as many matches as possible.
On last year’s experience at the US Open, being booed and then being cheered:
It was not easy, but the most important was that I stayed myself during all this time. So even when they were not happy with me, I still continued to be myself. I didn’t try to say, "Sorry, guys, that’s not me. I did mistakes, I admit it, but that’s me." And then finally, by fighting, playing good tennis, maybe being funny—but not being another person, not trying to hide something—they were cheering me, at the end, and that’s really cool. I really liked it. It was a great roller coaster, with probably the best result of my career.
On having tennis halted shortly after winning her first Grand Slam title:
It's tough. [I'm] really upset that this happened, but I really hope everything is going to go back to normal. Definitely, I felt I was playing really well. I was the highest level I could ever be in my career. So of course, [that] was a little bit upsetting. I had no motivation after that. But I'm picking myself back up and I'm playing well right now, and we will see how it's going to keep going.
On finding her motivation during the tour's shutdown:
The quarantine, at the beginning, once everything was canceling week after week, it was hard when you see the whole schedule, three months of no tournaments, no competition, nothing. Of course it's a bit hard, but my dad really helped me with motivation. He told me of course it's tough, but just try to do the best you can to motivate yourself. He helped me with that. Of course, once I found out I'm going to Charleston to play an exhibition and then WTT, World TeamTennis, which was a lot of fun, [my] motivation was right there. I was playing well and really fired up and super happy to be back on court and competing. Now I'm back here at the Big Apple, the Big Bubble, so it's nice to be back.
On how he feels fitness-wise heading into Cincinnati and the US Open:
Yeah, I'm looking forward to it, like just to be back competing again. I've really enjoyed, like, the last few days just practicing with top players, which I've kind of done it a little bit back home but not that much. I've had the chance to practice with Dan Evans and Cam Norrie. I played a match against Kyle [Edmund], which has been good. Since I got here, it's very different conditions, very lively, quick, very hot. I've been practicing. I practiced with [Dominik] Thiem, [Andrey] Rublev and [Karen] Khachanov. Those guys don't really hold back, as well. Yeah, a bit of a different speed to what I've been used to. I felt a little bit off the pace at times. But I'm feeling quite good on the court physically in terms of my hip. When I spoke to my team a couple months ago, that was really all I wanted. I wanted to get hopefully to the US Open feeling pretty pain-free so that I could go out and play and enjoy playing in a Grand Slam again.
On how he’s changed over the last several months, since his injury, surgery, welcoming his third child and COVID-19:
I mean, during the coronavirus, yeah, I learnt that I was quite patient. I learnt that with just being around my kids and stuff in the house, which it's very rare. Obviously, I'm used to traveling. I would see them a lot when I was home, but I would often be away. I was pleased with how I was able to keep my temper with them. Then as soon as I stepped back on the tennis court, I can't do it (laughter). I don't know why that is. I'd love to understand exactly why. But, look, last few years, obviously, they've been tough. Again, I felt like I was doing really well at the end of last year. I was so excited for the beginning of this year. Obviously, had the setback again in November, tough few months after that. Didn't really know exactly what was going on with the hip. Now I'm in a position to compete again, hopefully play in a major. I'll try my best to reduce the risk of having setbacks. Obviously, played a lot of tennis four weeks in a row before the Davis Cup, when my hip started hurting. Obviously, won't make that mistake again. So, yeah, that's kind of it.
On what she learned about herself during the break from tennis:
I'm not very sure because, for me, my main thing that I wanted to get out of it was growth. Yeah, for me, I just wanted to grow and not be as shy. I think that was the main thing. I feel like I've had so many opportunities to talk to different people just because I was focused on not being shy, not trying to hide what I wanted to say. I'm not sure if it's an eye-opening experience, but it definitely did help me out a lot.
On her tennis game now, compared to before the tour shutdown:
Yeah, I mean, I think since you said it, physically I'm very fit right now. I also think mentally I'm just happy to be here. I'm not sure if I was playing for a long time in Europe, then had to come here, I would have that same feeling. I think I'm just grateful to be here. I'm happy that there's a tournament that's going on that I can play. Yeah, I think that's where I am right now.
On being the only European in the WTA Top 10 [ed: Pliskova is the highest-ranked woman in the field at world No. 3] to make the trip to New York:
For me, it was easy decision because I was, since [the] early beginning when we started really thinking about playing some tournaments, I was sure I want to make this trip. I mean, for me, surprised that the rest of the girls, maybe not all of them -- I know maybe for some it's tough to make it, but I think some of the countries, I think they possibly could make it. But it's a decision on them. So maybe they don't feel that safe. I actually feel quite safe. I think everybody here is doing great job just to make this, everything possible, this all happen. I feel actually safe. It's not that nothing can happen. Of course it's always, even if I stay home, something can happen. But I always knew I want to go play tournaments when they start to be happening. So it was quite easy. I was not really thinking about it.
On her chances to win her first Grand Slam title at the US Open:
I think right now no matter who is playing, no matter who stayed at home, I think you just always you start from zero. So there can be players who are really practicing five months and they will be at such a good level, and there could be players maybe they didn't do anything because it's really tough to say. So I think I'm not thinking about winning or if I had the chance. Of course I'm first seeded here, but I think now that doesn't really count. Everybody starts from zero, and I guess everybody doesn't really know how they're going to play or how they're going to feel. So I think we just have to go through couple of matches and then we can talk about it.
On being the defending women's champion at the Western & Southern Open but playing in New York:
It's definitely strange to be defending my Cincinnati title not on Cincinnati courts, which hopefully we don't ever have to worry about again. I'm just really happy I am able to come back and defend my title no matter where in the world it is. [I'm] very happy to be back playing tennis and playing competitively. It definitely is a little strange. I think the biggest thing is it's strange getting ready for a tournament that's not the US Open at the US Open. That's been a little bit weird for my brain to try to figure out. Again, very happy to be back. Very happy that we're able to get two tournaments on one site.
On the perspective she gained over the hiatus:
There were a lot of different times when I kind of felt different things. At first it was obviously confusion of what's going on, how long is this going to go. I think everyone was very apprehensive. I was obviously in a really privileged position where I wasn't very stressed about a lot of things going on. I didn't have that added stressor, which I'm very thankful for, but also very blessed. I know I was one of the few people in that position. But it also just took me a moment to just be really grateful for the life that I have, the things that I am able to do, to get to stay home, just kind of hang out and not really be stressed. It really made me take a second to think how grateful I am for that, how I kind of want to start taking some steps to help other people who aren't necessarily in that position.
On closing the gap between himself and the 'Big 3' in terms of major titles and ranking:
I was very close to them before the break, with the five-set loss [to Novak Djokovic] in the finals of the Australian Open, and I guess, or I hope, that not that much changed during the break. I guess everybody was practicing well. Everybody is still playing great tennis. I'm curious how the first two tournaments are going. Of course, I hope that I got even a little bit closer to that gap between me and two guys, three guys ahead of me.
On the positives that holding the Western & Southern Open and US Open give to tennis this year:
I think there also is going to be quite a lot of people that are going to be happy to see tennis keep going and everyone try their best in organization to create conditions, bubble-like, that will protect the players and people around and allow the sport to keep going. This is not only about us top 100 players, you know, participating here in the US Open and Cincinnati, as well. This is about tennis ecosystem in general. I think it sends out a very positive note about our sport and I think it's important from a financial standpoint to start, you know, also generating money within the ecosystem, within the federations, like American federation, ATP for that matter, and start feeding certain percentages to the groups of lower-ranked guys.
On the opportunity to win another major title:
I really wanted to restart on a hard court where I feel the most comfortable. That's the surface that I have most success on. I love playing in the US Open... Every Grand Slam I play is an opportunity to get a title. I know that. But I'm not the only one. Every other player who is playing here has a chance to win it.