For two weeks, all seemed well with the plan to hold the United States Open in New York just a few months after the city had become the epicenter for the coronavirus in the Western world.
With a handful of notable exceptions, the best players in the world began arriving in mid-August, nearly all of them housed at a Long Island hotel, where they were supposed to comply with strict social distancing rules as they played a warm-up tournament and prepared to play the U.S. Open itself at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens.
The plan that leaders of the United States Tennis Association had developed closely with city and state public health officials — including closing the tournament site to spectators, regular testing, education, behavior monitoring and contact tracing — appeared to be working. And there were protocols in place for what would happen if a player tested positive — protocols that players had agreed upon.
Organizers thought they had all the bases covered.
Then, two days before the U.S. Open, Benoît Paire of France, a 31-year-old veteran known for his smooth strokes and his stylishly bushy beard, tested positive for the coronavirus.
The series of events that has ensued, including revisions to the protocols, disgruntled players confined to their hotel rooms, and contradictory rulings from different public health departments, led to matches’ being delayed and canceled at the last minute and injected chaos into one of the world’s highest-profile sporting events as the tournament heads into its climactic second week.
Electronic contact tracing revealed that Paire had been in close contact for an extended period of time — a card game at the hotel and possibly other socializing — with seven players, most of them French, including Kristina Mladenovic.
A day after two top men’s singles players had to wait two and a half hours to find out whether they would be able to take the court, tennis officials had to eliminate the top-seeded women’s doubles team of Mladenovic and Timea Babos. Health officials in Nassau County, where the players’ hotel is, decided that allowing Mladenovic to play would violate the county’s protocols, even though Mladenovic had been participating in the tournament all week.
The U.S.T.A., which was caught off guard by Nassau County’s sudden involvement in the tournament’s protocols, said in a statement that it was obligated to comply with the county’s ruling that all of those who had been in close contact with Paire would have to remain alone in their hotel rooms through a quarantine period that ends next Saturday. It was the third time in less than a week, and the second time in 24 hours, that the rules for players exposed to the virus had changed.
A Nassau County official speaking on behalf of its health department said it became aware of Paire’s positive test in recent days and was treating the players like any other person in the country who has had direct contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus. The official, who said he could not be quoted by name but declined to give a reason, was not able to explain why the county waited five days after Paire was removed from the draw to enforce its stringent rules on the quarantine.
“We always knew we were going to have to stay vigilant and monitor everything every single day, because we have learned how quickly things can change in this Covid-19 world that we are now living in,” said Chris Widmaier, chief spokesman for the U.S.T.A.
Those words were likely to be little comfort to Mladenovic, who said earlier in the week that the tournament had become a “nightmare” for her.
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“I have only one desire, and that’s to get my freedom back, and even that we don’t have yet,” Mladenovic said in French, fighting back tears, after she lost her second-round singles match Wednesday.
Mladenovic has maintained that her exposure to Paire consisted of playing cards with him and other players around a large table for roughly 40 minutes and that everyone had been wearing masks. None of the other players has tested positive.
Mladenovic and her representatives did not respond to messages Saturday.
Before the U.S. Open began, Alexis Colvin, an orthopedist who is the medical director for the U.S.T.A., said the tournament would be a test of how well players could adapt to changes in the middle of a competition.
Colvin, who worked in a coronavirus ward earlier in the year, said that because knowledge about the virus prevention measures changes seemingly each week, it was entirely possible that rules would change during the tournament.
“Our protocols are dictated by New York State and the Centers for Disease Control, so if they change then we change,” she said.
And yet, even Colvin could not have foreseen the shifting rules and the subsequent confusion that local health departments have caused.
Widmaier said that during the summer, the U.S.T.A. had made it clear to players, their representatives and leaders of both the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association, which represent players and the leaders of tennis tournaments, that players who tested positive would be withdrawn from the tournament and would have to go into quarantine in New York. Players who had come into contact with any player who tested positive would be subject to local health regulations, too.
However, Widmaier said, the organization did not have a final plan for what would happen to players who continued to test negative after they had been exposed to players who tested positive. Also, while the U.S.T.A. worked closely with health officials in New York City and with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, it did not work closely with officials in Nassau County, even though the player hotels are there.
Last weekend, after Paire’s positive test, U.S.T.A. officials scrambled to produce a new set of rules for players who had had extended contact with him but whose tests were negative. The rules, which received the approval of health officials in New York City, included daily testing and isolation from the rest of the players, including separate buses, use of hotel stairs instead of elevators and no access to common areas at the National Tennis Center. To remain in the tournament, players had to sign an agreement saying they would adhere with the rules.
Those rules remained in place until Friday, when health officials in Nassau County distributed notices at the player hotels spelling out their decision that the players who had been exposed to Paire would be required to remain in their rooms until the end of their quarantine period next Saturday.
Adrian Mannarino, one of the exposed players, was at the National Tennis Center at the time. For nearly three hours, tennis officials negotiated with state health officials over whether he would be allowed to play his scheduled match with Alexander Zverev of Germany. The match, originally scheduled for 2:30 p.m., began at 5 p.m. Mannarino lost and said after the match that he would return to the hotel to enter quarantine.
That appeared to clear the way for Mladenovic to play her doubles match, which was scheduled for Saturday, but the match was removed from the schedule before play started.
Daniil Medvedev of Russia, who was shown through contact tracing to have had some contact with Paire before his positive test, won his third-round match Saturday afternoon. For now, it appears that he will be able to remain in the tournament.
Mladenovic’s doubles partner, Babos, and Babos’s coach, Michael Joyce, were not directly affected by the quarantine rules as Mladenovic was, but they left the hotel Saturday afternoon to fly home to their respective homes in Hungary and Florida before the authorities could change their minds.
“This probably cost us a Grand Slam,” Joyce said.