HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Silence please - The US Open in times of corona


“Tennis is finally back.” That’s the official tagline of SuperSport’s US Open advertisements on all their dedicated channels. And right they are. In these strange and trying times, I’m sure it’s not just tennis fans who’ve missed watching their favourite sport, taking their mind off life and other anxious delusions to spend a few hours watching a ball being passed back and forth. It’s therapeutic, it’s spiritual almost, and it’s necessary – and my choice of meditation is tennis.

Because of the pandemic, lockdowns, borders shutting and well, the general legitimate fear of people dying from the virus, many tennis tournaments on the ATP, WTA and grand slams have been cancelled. In fact, the only one that took place this year was the Australian Open, the French held back until next year and we can’t expect a Wimbledon until 2021 either. But the US Open has decided to go on, but not as usual.

Back in January, when reservations open and you get a chance to pay your deposit (this does not reserve you a seat… yet), I “booked” two tickets for my mom and dad. Having travelled all over the world, they had never been to New York and after hearing about my US Open experience, they were keen to attend being tennis fans themselves. Also, it was a great motivation for my dad to heal from his brain tumour and have something to look forward to while just lying there in bed. Unfortunately, he died, and this very week is the one where had things been different, they would have access to two matches a day on Arthur Ashe court for the Labour Day weekend package. It’s a sad time and a strange time, but I digress.

You may be wondering why the US Open made such a drastic and somewhat irresponsible decision seeing as how New York is the epicentre of the pandemic in the US.

Well, they’ve done it without crowds and instead offered people with tickets access through fan cams. They were also kind enough to offer refunds on the deposit – which I gladly accepted because watching a game on a fan cam is exactly the same as watching it on TV – which is what I spend my time doing while still trying to heal from long-COVID. I fight through the headaches and blurry vision and get my fix because goddammit, what else is there in this world if not the joy of a Grand Slam.

But I have to admit, it’s weird. Our new normal is very, very weird. Among other things, ball boys are not allowed to fetch players towels or pass them water. All players walk on to the court with a mask and put them back on when interacting with physios etc. They obviously play without them. All linesmen, ball boys, refs and chair umps are masked up as well throughout the match and at the end, when there is one winner and one loser, there are no handshakes, just a tap of the racket between each player and then a tap on the ump’s chair as a thank you.

What I do find strange though is that the balls aren’t passed back to the players with gloves or anything. It’s done as it normally would be done – and this is the only normal thing about the game – besides, of course, the normal tennis rules which still apply. But how come they’re allowed to spread potential germs through the touching of balls, but not anything else? Do those circular bright yellow things come with some sort of immunity? Who can say? Not I.

What I can say is that I didn’t think the lack of a crowd would bother me that much while watching over broadcast. I mean, of course, it’s different when you’re actually in the crowd, you feel the energy, the vibration - there’s a great sense of being part of something magical. But when you’re home with one eye open and one eye closed and for some reason COVID-19 has decided that you shouldn’t be able to feel your legs for an hour or two, what difference does silence make? What difference should it make? But it’s the strangeness that doesn’t escape one.

Sport is togetherness in so many ways and there is a kind of peace and overwhelming sense of “we are all human” that washes over one when cameras pan across crowds and amongst the seating there are the young and the old. The black, white, Asian, European. The gay, the straight, the racially or gender ambiguous. Stadiums, in many ways, are great levelling grounds and there is something wholesome in witnessing that.

It’s a cheap shot, but it’s not the cheering that I miss most, it’s the Castle Lager type ad playing out in real life. Game. Set. We all match.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.