US Open: Who could win, and why are so many players opting against COVID vaccines?

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

Australia’s Ash Barty is the frontrunner to win the U.S. Open this year, says Ben Rothenberg, who’s reporting on the U.S. Open for New York Times. In this photo, Barty plays during the quarter finals women's singles match against Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic on Day 10 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, February 17, 2021. Photo by AAP Image/Dean Lewins.

The U.S. Open is in full swing, with the stands filled at 100% capacity. Masks are optional. Fans must show proof of having received at least one COVID vaccine dose, while many of the players are choosing to go unvaccinated.

Ben Rothenberg, freelance reporter covering the tournament for the New York Times, says athletes in various sports have been slow to get inoculated. “But tennis players are on a completely different level of being behind. Only 50% roughly of the men and women at the U.S. Open, in terms of players, will have been vaccinated now, according to stats provided by the men’s tour and the women's tour.”

He explains tennis players’ skepticism and disinterest: “Some of them just think they're healthy young athletes and don't need it, and why would they take something that they conceive of as being risky for no purpose? … Some have had genuine reasons for being slower to get it, whether it's travel, you know, tennis players are very nomadic, going from different cities every week, different countries. And so if … one of the vaccines requires different doses at different intervals, that can be tricky to do.”

Meanwhile, he points out that tournaments are increasingly offering vaccines on-site for players, but lagging vaccinations is a major source of frustration for the sport’s administrators.

Positive cases have sprung up among the United States’ Coco Gauff (who missed the Olympics), and the United Kingdom’s Johanna Konta (missed both the Olympics and Wimbledon). France’s Gilles Simon, who’s unvaccinated, had to quarantine for 10 days in his hotel room because his coach tested positive.

Meanwhile, Rothenberg says Novak Djokovic has dominated the sport, having won three Grand Slams this year and beating Rafael Nadal at the French Open. “[There are] a lot of high expectations for him, and we'll see how he handles the pressure going forward.”

On the women’s side, 2021 Wimbledon winner Ash Barty has a good chance of taking the title at the U.S. Open as well, predicts Rothenberg.

“She's been very solid this year, racking up titles. She won the Cincinnati tournament just a couple weeks ago. And so I think she's becoming ... the most reliable number one, in terms of being bankable to win titles and compete week in week out. … It's a very open field, but I think Barty would be the frontrunner at this point.”

He says in general, he’s looking forward to the U.S. Open being itself again.

“It was really a shell of itself last year. And seeing what the crowds bring [this year] — the sort of energy. … We haven't had our first night match yet — that's always a special scene here. And having Naomi Osaka, I think, playing on the opening night session on Monday is pretty cool, especially having this be her first Grand Slam since her issues at the French Open. She pulled out of that tournament with mental health concerns and anxiety about doing press conferences. I think she'll get a warm reception here.”

Credits

Guest:

  • Ben Rothenberg - freelance reporter covering the US Open for New York Times