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The beginning of the U.S. Open on Monday looked like the future of sports, even amid one of the most severe waves of COVID-19 to date. At Arthur Ashe Stadium, there were no seats blocked off for social distancing and very few people wearing masks because 100 percent of them were vaccinated.
In the stands, it was a model of how to return to normal in a COVID-19 world. But on the court, the U.S. Open more closely resembles the divisiveness and confusion that is slowing society’s ability to bounce back: full of stubbornness, misinformation and junk science.
How retrograde is a significant portion of the tennis world these days? No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who has refused to say publicly whether he has been vaccinated, was on Instagram a year ago touting magic water.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 23-year-old French Open finalist and world No. 3, said recently he doesn’t “see any reason” for someone his age to get vaccinated.
Longtime tour pro Gilles Simon told the French publication L’Equipe he wasn't getting vaccinated because he’s “not afraid” of COVID — only to be forced out of the U.S. Open because he was deemed a close contact of his coach, who tested positive.
Why are these athletes even allowed to enter the country, much less play in our national championship, when they’ve refused a widely available, life-saving vaccine that the people watching them play were required to get?
But that ethical quandary is perfectly emblematic of the slow and sometimes sideways steps sports are taking toward the only obvious solution: Until spectators and participants are 100 percent vaccinated, none of this is going to make any sense — and life is going to continue as a series of absurd compromises that don’t help bring the pandemic to an end.
“I can see it's going to become an issue over the coming months,” said three-time Grand Slam winner Andy Murray, who has been one of the more outspoken players in favor of vaccination. “There's going to have to be a lot of pretty long, hard conversations with the tour and all of the players involved to try and come to a solution.”
Tennis isn’t the only sport dealing with these hypocrisies.
In the NCAA, there are several major college football-playing universities where students, employees and faculty members have been required to take the vaccine unless they get a medical or religious exemption. But at some of those schools — Indiana and Washington, for instance -- there’s no such requirement for fans coming into their football stadium.
On the other end of the spectrum, there's LSU and Oregon, where you have to be vaccinated or have a recent negative test to enter their stadiums — strange optics when they’ll host visiting teams with unvaccinated players and coaches.
We just had an Olympics where it didn’t particularly matter whether athletes were vaccinated, and the result was a set of protocols geared toward the unvaccinated. The positivity rates were low, but it wasn’t exactly an experience anyone would want to have again — particularly with all those empty seats at the events.
If there’s any sport where vaccine mandates make sense, it’s tennis. Unlike most any other tour, tennis travels across the globe from week to week with players required to hop across continents several times per year, increasing the risk of carrying the coronavirus or its variants from one country to another.
But rather than incentivize players to get vaccinated, all players essentially have to just adapt to the local rules. At the Australian Open this year, players were required to quarantine for two weeks upon entering the country with limited availability to go outside and practice for a few hours a day. At the U.S. Open, however, there’s no bubble to speak of and players are able to move relatively freely around New York.
The result is that tennis, according to informed experts and reports, has a vaccination rate of around 50 percent on both men’s and women’s tours. The NFL or NBA can get the numbers into the 80 or 90 percent range by making players’ lives easier or tying vaccination to financial incentives, but tennis players don’t have a union and don’t have contracts with a team. Though the ATP and WTA have put out statements encouraging vaccination, they have both eschewed any talk of mandates.
It doesn’t help matters that Djokovic has been lukewarm, at best, whenever the topic is presented to him. Before the U.S. Open, he said he “isn’t in a position” to discuss whether wide vaccine distribution would help the tour get back to playing in front of full capacity crowds everywhere, which would in turn help prize money get back to pre-COVID levels.
“I feel like that should be always a personal decision, whether you want to get vaccinated or not,” Djokovic said. “So I'm supportive of that. So whether someone wants to get a vaccine or not, that's completely up to them. I hope that it stays that way.”
The topic may come to a boil going into next year’s Australian Open, where there’s already lengthy discussion and speculation about what restrictions might exist for players. Australia has been one of the most vigilant countries in the world, with even small numbers of cases triggering lockdowns in various cities and states.
Because of the mandatory quarantine rules to enter the country, Australian players like No. 1 Ashleigh Barty or John Millman haven’t gone home for months even though both of them have been vaccinated.
“We have to start opening up in my opinion,” Millman said. “I think some people in Australia aren’t being too real about the whole situation. Let’s get the vaccinations up, let’s get it up really high and let’s be safe when we reopen.”
Will that happen before the Australian Open in January? Even though it’s 4 1/2 months away, it’s a key question for the tennis tour. Simona Halep said Monday she thinks a lot of players will skip the tournament if the quarantine restrictions are similar to what they were last year. If the Australian government is willing to give vaccinated players more freedom and privileges, that could end up being the first real fault line in tennis on this issue.
In the meantime, the U.S. Open has gone halfway toward creating a sensible model. After nearly two years with limited crowds, empty stadiums or curfews at big tennis tournaments, the U.S. Open is going to feel like a real Grand Slam.
“We missed all of that,” former champion Sloane Stephens said in her on-court interview Monday after beating Madison Keys.
Sadly, it’s still a rare experience these days. The sooner vaccines are required for spectators and players alike, the less notable it will feel.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Open hypocrisy: Tennis fans have to be vaccinated; players don't