The United States Open men’s doubles final lacked drama, but the victors’ celebrations were enthusiastic: Mate Pavic collapsed to the ground on his back as Bruno Soares screamed his name. When Pavic rose, the two hugged enthusiastically before embracing each other and shaking hands with their opponents across the net.
Without facing a single break point, Soares and Pavic beat Nikola Mektic and Wesley Koolhof, 7-5, 6-3, to win their first Grand Slam title together.
The fraternizing looked as if it were any other year, but this has not been a normal year, of course. As tennis has billed itself as the ultimate sport for socially distant physical activity during the coronavirus pandemic, the camaraderie of doubles has challenged those notions.
In the trophy ceremony Thursday, each team had its own microphone stand on the court. Instead of being handed the trophy by a tournament official, the winners were instructed to pick it up off a table themselves.
When Mary Joe Fernandez, the ESPN analyst and former player, asked Koolhof how it had been to play in his first Grand Slam final, his answer seemed to apply both to his losing performance and to the lackluster atmosphere of a 3 p.m. match without fans.
“It was actually pretty bad, from my side,” Koolhof said. “I didn’t feel anything at all today. Yeah, hopefully next year is a better one.”
When Soares and Pavic arrived for their news conference, they were seated about eight feet apart on the podium and were wearing masks. Both reflexively tried validating the title they had won under these conditions by saying that “a Grand Slam is a Grand Slam.”
“It’s always a special feeling,” Pavic said. “To be honest, it does feel a bit strange because of the circumstances. But still, we had a very tough tournament, very tough five matches.”
It normally takes six matches to win a men’s doubles title at a Grand Slam, but the draw was halved to 32 teams to reduce the number of people on site.
Several changes intended to keep teammates socially distant from each other, including instructing them not to high-five or otherwise touch between points, also affected players on the court.
But Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau, who lost to Soares and Pavic in the semifinals, have kept their connection close on the court by touching and high-fiving as many as three times between points.
Tecau said that having to remember to tap rackets instead of high-fiving felt “mechanical.”
“The natural instinct is to high-five, to be close,” Tecau said.
The Coronavirus Outbreak
Sports and the Virus
Updated Sept. 10, 2020
Here’s what’s happening as the world of sports slowly comes back to life:
- N.F.L. teams have spent years trying to create over-the-top entertainment for fans inside stadiums. This year, they’ll just be trying to cover up echoes from empty seats.
- September Saturdays at Penn State are usually the apex of a week of hype. Now, as at other college football destinations, the approach of autumn has been unusually quiet there.
- More than half the players who made the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open were not supposed to be there. It’s a little bit easier when there are no fans, some say.
“During Cincinnati, it was on my mind a lot when I was playing, and I don’t want to have other things on my mind when I’m playing,” he said, referring to the Western & Southern Open. That tournament precedes the U.S. Open and is normally held in Ohio but was moved to New York this year. He continued, “But from match to match, I adjusted more to it.”
Rojer said that tennis players “in general are the best at adapting and changing,” which has slowly made the on-court communication feel less awkward.
“It’s something you can easily get used to, but it’s definitely weird,” Tecau said. “We spend a lot of time off the court together, and then you get on the court and you’re not allowed to touch.”
Rojer has also stopped holding balls in front of his mouth as he talks to Tecau between points, which he would normally do to stop opponents from reading his lips. With more awareness of the risk of contagion, Rojer believes he may stop doing that for good.
“When you think about it, Covid or no Covid, it’s probably not the nicest thing to do,” Rojer said. “Everybody’s touching those balls.”
Precautionary measures also affected communication during stoppages in play, as players’ seats on the sidelines were spaced farther apart.
“Normally on changeovers, we’re trying to talk and communicate strategy, and right now we can’t really do that,” said Hayley Carter, who reached the women’s doubles quarterfinals with her partner, Luisa Stefani. “That’s the trickiest part, I think. It’s now quiet meditation time on the sidelines, where usually it’s more talking.”
After Carter stood up from her seat in front of the camera to allow Stefani to follow her onto the Zoom call, a tournament official first sanitized the area.
Soares, who said he had tested positive for coronavirus last month in Brazil but had developed few symptoms, said last week that he thought the efforts to keep partners safe from one another were likely futile.
“To be really honest, I think it doesn’t really make a difference, not touching hands or something,” Soares said in an interview earlier in the tournament. “If we have something, we’re going to get it from the partner — we’re just spending so much time together. I think it’s a safe protocol, but I don’t really think it’s going to help. But you’ve got to do it because it’s the protocol, and we’ve got to respect that.”
For Soares, the toughest part of the tournament was the separation not from his partner, but from the public.
“With no fans, it’s quite difficult to play,” he said. “The energy, you have to bring it from yourself all the time. This is way more difficult than the protocols.”