Top Seed Open: Social distancing, closed door matches, WTA players adjust to new normal in tennis

Marie Bouzkova expected some adjustment to her first tennis tournament in nearly six months. First was the matter of shedding rust from the layoff caused by the coronavirus shutdown.

The Czech Republic player also had to get her mind around the inaugural Top Seed Open and a significantly subdued competitive atmosphere without spectators and a sprinkling of officials around center court.

“The beginning felt like practice because my coach was clapping at some point,” said Bouzkova, who quickly adapted to upset No. 3 seed Johonna Konta, 6-4, 6-4 on Monday.

“But that quiet was a little bit weird.” Say hello to the new normal players will see for the foreseeable future because of the pandemic.

This week’s event is the WTA Tour’s first US competition since the shutdown. Added to the schedule in late July, the world’s top players such as Serena and Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens aim to hone their hard-court skills for the US Open later this month. The Williams sisters are slated to start playing Tuesday.

Practicing social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is important, and easily practiced at Top Seed. Players were at opposite ends of the court, of course, and the benches were spaced six feet away on either side of the umpire’s chair. Masks were prevalent as well.

“The only time that we’re not wearing a mask is obviously on the court,” Bouzkova said, adding that players are in a similar bubble at their hotel. “When you’re here walking inside, you’re wearing the mask the whole time.”

Konta donned a black mask during one nervous moment in which she required medical attention for an elevated heart rate. The British player acknowledged previous episodes but said they eventually subside before she resumes play.

“I’m not worried at all,” Konta said.

Players praised conditions at the Top Seed Tennis Club outside Lexington, where seating resembled more of country club than a tennis stadium. Cushioned lounge chairs lined center court, though few were occupied with competition just starting.

A smattering of claps replaced the usual loud applause on points, though players’ grunts on returns seemed more amplified. In a way, that seemed to be the perfect place to regain competitive focus after time away.

“Obviously, we’ve played a lot of matches with a lot of people watching, big stadiums,” Konta said. “But we’ve also played a lot of matches with nobody watching, whether it’s late-night matches or just the region we’re in.

“It still felt like a match should, but it also felt like I haven’t played a WTA event in six months. It’s kind of finding your feet again and finding that space and being able to compete well.”

Other seeds advanced past Americans on Monday as No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus outlasted Madison Brengle, 6-1, 7-6 (5), 6-2; No. 6 Magda Linette of Poland ousted Lauren Davis, 6-2, 6-3; and No. 8 seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia topped wild card Catherine McNally 6-2, 6-4.

Two unseeded Americans moved on as Jennifer Brady topped Britain’s Heather Watson, 6-2, 6-1; and Jessica Pegula got past Russian wild card Vera Zvonareva, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4.

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