Venus Williams entered the USTA National Tennis Center on Saturday through the subway-station entrance with one coach and nobody shouting her name or asking for a selfie or autograph.
On what was supposed to be Arthur Ashe Kids Day, a masked Williams strolled through the mostly barren grounds, past all the gated-shut U.S. Open clothing store kiosks.
She passed two women’s players tossing a medicine ball to a trainer by a closed sushi stand. She sauntered past the Ashe Beach recreational center set up by the normally overpopulated fountains outside the stadium.
The unprecedented U.S. Open hits unchartered territory Monday with no fans, no ballboys, no $40 T-shirt sales, no $13 hot dogs and almost no media. (Eleven print passes have been issued — down from last year’s 300.)
It’s just two weeks of tennis.
Novak Djokovic called the place “a ghost town.’’ But credit the USTA: Unlike Wimbledon, the Open will go on — without ever moving the date; there was once talk of moving the Open out of Flushing to California.
“I think tennis would’ve been sorely missed,’’ ESPN analyst Pam Shriver told The Post. “This is a great opportunity to sell the sport at the professional and recreational level. There was an extraordinary amount of time and details to figure it out, and have it in the city that had the worst of it in the beginning. But New York has done a safe, smart, slow re-opening, and now we’re more concerned with the protesting situation.’’
Naomi Osaka sparked the postponement of Thursday’s Western & Southern Open matches at the moved-to-Flushing WTA tuneup by forfeiting her semifinal due to the social injustice protests sweeping sports, then rescinding.
Now the fourth seed is just bothered by a hamstring — forcing a forfeit of Saturday’s Western & Southern final. Osaka admits between COVID-19 and protests against inequality, it’s a lot to take in.
“Honestly I’m a bit stressed, but at the same time, I feel like I have to keep forcing into my brain that I made the choice to come here,’’ Osaka said Saturday. “So I shouldn’t be stressed about it, and I should just be happy to be playing in the first place.”
The two defending champions — Rafael Nadal and Bianca Andreescu — opted out, making this the first Open without a reigning titlist since 2003. Six of the top 10 women’s players didn’t show — some Europeans staying overseas for the French Open, which moved its event from May to Sept. 21.
That gives Serena Williams a better shot at finally tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slams. Williams has been stuck on 23 for 3½ years.
“Normally you feel a little more worn in, ready to get this final slam over,’’ Williams said. “But it’s not even the final Slam any more, at least for this year.’’
After the shutdown, the WTA tour has staged two Open tune-ups, and the ATP just one. That makes the men’s draw even more unpredictable than the women’s. It also remains to be seen which players play more vibrantly in the empty venues.
“Those lower-ranked players could be most dangerous now on that stadium court without that atmosphere that won’t be as intimidating,’’ Shriver said. “It’s going to be more close rounds. The tennis might actually be better. I still feel the intensity will be there without the crowd.’’
With Nadal and Roger Federer missing, 17-time Slam champion Novak Djokovic stands as an overwhelming favorite, though a neck injury bears watching.
“There’s going to be more opportunities on the men’s side — it will feel more open,’’ Shriver said. “But no fans is a positive for Novak — not having to worry about that the fans are never for him.’’
Osaka misses several things about the pre-COVID Open, with players allowed only to go back and forth from Long Island hotel to the grounds.
“It is sad that I can’t, like, walk around New York and go to my usual restaurants and Japanese bakeries,’’ Osaka said.
Lack of baths — not bakeries — are foremost on Osaka’s mind.
“It’s the physio rooms on site, they don’t have ice baths, which I normally take after matches,’’ Osaka said. “It’s something that I have to adjust to. It definitely is a bit of a hindrance. But I understand it’s not hygienic in regards to COVID.’’