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How the 2020 French Open’s protocols differ from the US Open

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The French Open, which begins Sunday in Paris, is working like most every other sporting event under strict health protocols because of the coronavirus pandemic. The organizers of the event, which was postponed from its late spring time slot because of the health crisis, are hoping to make a bold statement.

“We want our tournament to be truly remarkable and to set an example, from all angles,” Jean-François Vilotte, director general of the French Tennis Federation, said in an interview posted on the tournament’s website. “By setting an example with our tournament, we hope to prove that we can get the economy back on track, though it goes without saying that certain conditions and certain restrictions must be respected.”

The only other Grand Slam played since the pandemic was the recently completed US Open in New York. While some of the protocols and restrictions adopted by the French will seem familiar, if not identical, there is one big difference in the approaches taken by the FFT and the USTA.

US Open officials designed their event to take place in a biosecure bubble which, among other things, ruled out fan attendance and somewhat limited player participation. The French have not copied the American major in that respect, taking a calculated risk to produce a more “open” Open.

Let’s compare the two approaches in some key areas:

The fan plan

French Open: The organizers at Roland Garros originally had an ingenious master plan to bring 11,500 fans onto the site, dividing them up into three separate areas in order to conform to a 5,000-person limit on gatherings. But a late-summer spike in COVID-19 infections forced the tournament, in consultation with health officials, to scale back the maximum number of spectators to 1,000. The zonal division idea was jettisoned.

Seats at Roland Garros will be allocated according to social distancing parameters, with empty seats separating fans. Up to four people in a single party will be able to sit adjacent to one another. Seats on the outside courts will be open, but there will have to be at least one empty seat between spectators. Everyone older than 11 will have to wear a mask or face covering at all times, and there will be hand sanitizer dispensers installed all around the stadium.

US Open: The USTA decided that since New York City was still just emerging from its worst days of the coronavirus pandemic, it would have to create a bubble if it wanted to get approval from local and state health officials to host a tournament. Allowing spectators in was antithetical to the bubble approach.

Without fans, the USTA was able to turn the entire grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center into a safe, comfortable zone for players and essential personnel.

The events

French Open: The French don’t want any asterisks attached to their Slam, so they decided to host all the usual major competitions. That includes qualifying, doubles, wheelchair and junior events. Only mixed doubles was dropped. It’s an enormous undertaking.

US Open: The organizers felt a strong need to limit the number of people inside the bubble while still staging a credible Grand Slam event featuring the main events. They settled on 10 events, with singles and doubles draws for men, women, and wheelchair competitors, as well as singles and doubles for quad participants. There was no qualifying, nor were there junior and mixed doubles events.

Prize money

French Open: The total payout in euros at Roland Garros was reduced only 11% from 2019, to roughly $44.3 million. But while top performers will earn less, the pros most in need in these difficult times will benefit.

To do this, the difference in prize money awarded to the winners of the singles tournaments has been drastically reduced. The singles champions will earn about $1.8 million (down from last year’s $2.7 million). This year, first-round losers will earn around $70,000, a 30% increase over 2019.

US Open: The total prize money of $53.4 million represented a reduction of 6.7% compared to last year’s tournament. The prize money for the men’s and women’s singles winners took the biggest hit, down 22% to $3 million this year. First-round losers earned $61,000, a $3,000 increase. Losers in the first and second rounds of doubles also received a modest boost.

Qualifying

French Open: The qualifying rounds are being played without spectators, mainly because of crowding concerns as large numbers of players began arriving on site at the start of the week to begin practicing for the main event.

The organizers stepped up and increased qualifying prize money by 27%. First-round losers will now bank about $11,500, a 42% increase from last year. “The players competing in this [qualifying] event are those who have been the most affected by the COVID-19 crisis, financially speaking,” FFT officials said in a news release.

US Open: New York state officials mandated that the tournament could not have a separate qualifying event, out of concerns related to the pandemic and the integrity of the bubble. Instead, the 16 places traditionally reserved for qualifiers were filled by those next in line for entry based on ranking.

Player protocols

French Open: Upon arrival in Paris, players (as well as other tournament-related personnel) had to be tested for COVID-19, with a second test 72 hours later. If negative, the pros will subsequently be tested at “regular intervals.” The players were also restricted to staying at one of two official tournament hotels, but there was no restriction announced on their movements while offsite.

The prohibition against private housing was troubling to Serena Williams, who owns an apartment in Paris and has had some health issues that left her concerned about the French restriction. “I’m super conservative because I do have some serious health issues, so I try to stay away from public places,” Williams said at the US Open. “I have been in a really bad position in the hospital a few times. So I don’t want to end up in that position again.”

The competitors will be allowed onsite at Roland Garros only on days when they have matches scheduled. On the alternate days (at Grand Slam events, the players alternate days of play and rest), the pros will only be allowed into the nearby Jean-Bouin training center, a facility used mostly for rugby. It will be set up to accommodate player needs in the same way as Roland Garros, with workout areas, relaxation areas and food services. The players will be obliged to wear masks or face coverings when not actually practicing or playing.

US Open: The bubble approach largely ruled out some of the freedom of movement that the players in France will have, but it also greatly reduced the risk of infection or transmission. The US Open was set up as a single biosecure site for training, play, dining and relaxing. Much of the National Tennis Center was converted into a giant outdoor player lounge, so players who so chose could spend the entire day there. The players were required to mask up at all times when not training or competing.

With no extraneous personnel or fans on site, the atmosphere was extremely relaxed and mellow. Players who wanted to stay in private housing were allowed, with some severe restrictions and conditions that ensured they would not violate bubble protocols and rules. Most lodged in either of two hotels nearby. Trips to Manhattan were forbidden to all players, regardless of where they stayed.

On-court safety protocols

French Open: There will be systematic cleaning of all contact surfaces around the site, along with an abundance of hand sanitizer stations around the grounds. Ball persons, line judges and the chair umpire all will wear masks. No towels will exchange hands. It will be up to the players to retrieve and use their towels while observing the 25-second rule (and clock) that calls for play to be continuous.

US Open: The US Open had similarly stringent restrictions. The towel rule irked some of players, who felt they were unable to use their towels without feeling overly rushed.

Infrastructure changes

French Open: The main stadium, or Court Philippe Chatrier, was undergoing massive renovations, including the addition of a roof and lights for night play, when the pandemic caused the postponement of the tournament until late September. The renovation is complete now. Twelve courts on the 30-acre site also have been equipped with floodlights.

While there are no night sessions planned until next year’s tournament, the lights may come in handy when it comes to finishing play in the early autumn dusk, or inside the stadium should the weather turn dark and wet.

US Open: The USTA made no significant structural changes in the past 13 months. The National Tennis Center takes up half as many acres (46.5 acres) as Roland Garros, and the American Slam has a long history of night play. Even with health-related restrictions and social distancing, there was no pressure on the schedule makers. But the tournament did forgo the use of the grandstand stadium (capacity: 8,215) that was inaugurated in 2016, turning it over for use in the Western & Southern Open front end of the “double in the bubble.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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