A "weird" 2020 US Open got underway Monday with empty stands and enhanced safety protocols for some players after France's Benoit Paire sparked coronavirus fears following a positive COVID-19 test.
In the spectator-free quarantine bubble at Flushing Meadows, several top seeds brushed off the eerily quiet atmosphere to progress to the second round of the first Grand Slam of the COVID-19 era.
Match-winning points went uncheered, ball persons wore masks, and players had to reach for their own towels in a tightly controlled environment that made for a opening day Slam unlike any other.
"The conditions are strange, we miss the fans," said France's Kristina Mladenovic after a 7-5, 6-2 win over American Hailey Baptiste.
Mladenovic was one of several players forced to adhere to stricter safety measures after compatriot Paire was withdrawn from the men's draw on Sunday after organizers announced an unidentified player had tested positive for COVID-19.
Several players including Richard Gasquet, Adrian Mannarino and Edouard Roger-Vasselin had been in contact with Paire, according to French sports publication L'Equipe, leading to doubts about their participation.
The United States Tennis Association confirmed that a number of players were now being tested on a daily basis, rather than every four days.
And the New York Times reported that they were also only allowed to leave their hotel room to travel to the US National Tennis Center. Previously they had been allowed in communal areas.
But tournament director Stacey Allaster confirmed that no player linked to Paire had been thrown out.
"We got some bad news two days ago and since then I've been living in a nightmare," said 30th seed Mladenovic.
"I wasn't even sure if I would able to play. We've been in a bubble inside a bubble. So I'm very grateful that we were able to play today," she added.
Paire meanwhile was preparing to leave the tournament questioning the protocols put in place in New York.
"I'm fine for now I have no symptoms .. I hesitate to tell what is really going on in this Fake Bubble," Paire wrote on Instagram.
Elsewhere Monday, top women's seed Karolina Pliskova made light work of 145th-ranked Ukrainian Anhelina Kalinina 6-4, 6-0 in one of the early matches.
German Angelique Kerber, the 2016 US Open champion, also progressed to the second round, thanks to a tightly fought 6-4, 6-4 straight-sets victory against Australia's Ajila Tomljanovic.
"It's a little bit weird to play without fans and without the support and the atmosphere on the center courts," Kerber said.
"It's a little bit like the feeling when you play practice matches against the players. But of course you know it's like a serious game."
But there was disappointment for US starlet Coco Gauff, the 16-year-old who lit up Wimbledon last year with a run to the fourth round. Gauff fell at the first hurdle, losing to Latvia's Anastasija Sevastova 6-3, 5-7, 6-4.
In the men's draw, fifth seed Alexander Zverev was made to work hard in a three-hour-long tussle with 2017 finalist Kevin Anderson.
The German ultimately prevailed 7-6 (7/2) 5-7, 6-3, 7-5, in an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium, where Black Lives Matter banners were draped over seats.
Fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas eased into the second round with a 6-2, 6-1, 6-1 win over Spain's Albert Ramos-Vinolas.
Overwhelming favorite Novak Djokovic begins his quest for an 18th Grand Slam title on Monday night against unheralded Damir Dzumhur of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The 33-year-old Serbian superstar takes to an Arthur Ashe Stadium that will be without its usual 23,000 cheering fans.
The absence of defending champion Rafael Nadal and Swiss legend Roger Federer gives Djokovic a prime opportunity to gain ground on his rivals in the chase for the all-time men's Grand Slam singles title record.
Djokovic currently has 17, behind Nadal on 19 and Federer on 20.
The US Open is the first Grand Slam since the Australian Open in January and February, after the global pandemic wiped out much of the season, including Wimbledon.
Players are being kept in a tightly controlled environment to minimize the risk of infection.
Two-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka is scheduled to play Monday as well despite a left hamstring injury that forced her to pull out of Saturday's WTA New York final.
Serena Williams starts her bid for a 24th career Grand Slam women's singles crown to match the all-time record set by Margaret Court on Tuesday.
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