As the U.S. Open tennis tournament begins today under very different circumstances, one thing will still be the same: Sports legend John McEnroe will be in the booth at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
“I’ll be calling matches for ESPN,” McEnroe told FN late last week, speaking by phone from a music video shoot for wife Patty Smyth’s latest release.
The tennis star told FN he had “mixed feelings” about holding the tournament during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, “but I understand that players have to make a living. Hopefully it’ll work out and be good for the sport – that’s the main thing. I’m glad I’m not one of the ones playing out there.”
The U.S. Tennis Association announced in June that it planned to move forward with the annual Grand Slam event, though with several modifications in light of the health crisis. Among the changes, players are quarantining in a “bubble” and the typical qualifying rounds were nixed.
But the most noticeable change will be the empty stands, with no spectators.
McEnroe, famous for his interactions with crowds, said, “Without fans, it’s very weird. You’ve got to bring your own energy, obviously, so it’s a totally different animal. And you know, there are certain players who feed off crowds and others who get bothered by [them]. This is going to help those people.”
He added that this year, it’s especially tough to guess which players will take home the singles titles. “Nobody has played in so long, so it’s unpredictable,” said McEnroe. “You have to go with the obvious choices, but it’s definitely a crapshoot.”
While a number of top-seeded athletes — including Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep — are sitting out the competition due to injury or concerns about the virus, there will be plenty of talent on the court. Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams are due to compete, along with up-and-comer tennis stars Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka.
Osaka made headlines last week, when she withdrew from her semifinal match during the Western & Southern Open on Thursday, to protest the recent shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man shot in the back seven times by police officers in Kenosha, Wis. Her statement followed similar boycotts by athletes in the NBA, WNBA, MLS and MLB.
Of these recent protests, McEnroe said, “I’m proud that the players — starting with the NBA and then backed up by other sports — that they’re trying to make a stand to try to deal with the racial injustice. As an outsider looking in now, in a way, it makes me feel proud that I was once an athlete. And hopefully this time there will be some real change.”