NEW YORK -- It's easy to forget how much unspecific, ambient noise spectators can make at a tennis match, even when they are just sitting around, elbow to elbow, in a bowl made mostly of concrete and plastic.
And as the pandemic-altered 2020 US Open began at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Monday under cloudy skies, there was an inauspicious feeling on Court 17 as France's Kristina Mladenovic and American wild-card Hailey Baptiste walked down the stairs to the court like two spectators in a normal year heading to their prime, court-side boxes.
Of the 19 onlookers, there were six ball persons over the age requirement of 17 (adopted due to the coronavirus pandemic), six camera operators and the chair umpire. Mladenovic's brother and coach sat in a first row along the baseline so he could speak freely to his sister. Three people sat in what might have been Baptiste's "player-guest box."
The other two people? Who knows? Inside an empty stadium, it was anybody's guess.
"Not having a crowd is the worst part for a professional," Mladenovic said after winning the match. "It's difficult in a super-quiet stadium."
This year's Open will certainly be the most remarkable edition in the entire 140-year history of the tournament, and the lack of fans is certain to be one of the main topics of conversation.
And while the relative silence is the most conspicuous element players must adjust to, there are many others. The heath protocols -- repeated testing, masks, social distancing -- have certainly changed the way tennis players do business. Naomi Osaka's complaint: no ice baths in the locker or recovery rooms, another prudent concession to health experts. But many of the rules and elements in how the game is presented have also transformed.
There are the line judges, or a lack thereof, on courts outside of Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium. Those courts feature Hawk-Eye Live, which is electronically "officiating" them.
In the second game of that opening match, Mladenovic took a long, second look at the place where a shot by Baptiste had landed on, or very close to, the baseline as if she thought the ball were out. Hawk-Eye Live remained silent. Had the ball been out, Hawk-Eye Live would have cried, "Out!" in a human voice "harvested" (according to officials) from audiotape of various line judges at the 2019 US Open. The calls vary in tone and inflection, and the system replays close shots on the scoreboard just as Hawk-Eye did in response to a player challenge.
After Mladenovic won the match, Baptiste told ESPN the automated calls are so realistic, she wasn't aware that Hawk-Eye Live had replaced human arbiters.
"I didn't notice until you mentioned it," she said. Baptiste said that she did not mind the elimination of the challenge system. "They showed a lot of the shots on the screen; I would just look up to check it out. I mean, you can't really challenge Hawk-Eye, right?"
Not long after noon, when play officially began on Ashe and Armstrong, Ajla Tomljanovic found herself dealing with the opposite issue. Tomljanovic drew former US Open champion Angelique Kerber as her first-round opponent. She had an up-and-down match in which the human line judges made a few close calls. Tomljanovic used none of her three challenges.
"I was actually surprised there were lines people," said Tomljanovic, who had played with all-electronic line-calling during the lockdown. "I didn't notice until after the first game. I missed automatic line-calling because I question it way less. So I forgot to challenge a few times."
The players also had to adjust to taking care of their own towels, depositing them in color-coded boxes along the tall, baseline walls to keep them separate at either end of the court. Some players got stuck in "should I stay or should I go?" debates over toweling off. At times, they feared if they went to towel off, they would have to rush back to serve too hastily due to the 25-second rule -- an injunction created to speed up play in 2018 partly because of excessive toweling.
"Some points, you catch yourself rushing with just seconds left," Baptiste said. "You can't get set for the next point."
Karolina Pliskova, the top women's seed and a former US Open finalist, opened the proceedings on Ashe in a way that underscored the almost surreal nature of this event. Pliskova said the new, unusual elements such as the nine great LED screens surrounding the court, the towel rule, the smaller contingents of ball persons (three-person crews on outside courts, a complement of six on Ashe, Armstrong and Court 17) were small distractions.
"No, I think it's not really about, you know, getting those towels," Pliskova said. "That's really a small thing. It's the combination of many things which makes things different."
Many of those things were directly or tangentially related to the lack of spectators. Tomljanovic admits her mind wanders quite a bit during changeovers. She enjoys scanning the crowd. "People watching" is how she put it. It takes some of the stress and pressure off a player performing on a show court before thousands of eyes. But there was nowhere to look on opening day and nothing to hear.
"I play a good point, that's usually when a crowd erupts," Tomljanovic said. "But here, nothing happens, so all of it [the energy] has to come from you."
Well, almost all of it. One early feature of this edition of the American Grand Slam is in the flight path of airliners heading for LaGuardia or JFK International airports. The great airplanes passed overhead, their engines echoing even more powerfully than usual inside the nearly empty stadium.
No one grumbled about it, though. Despite all the rule changes and inconveniences -- all those lengthy silences and curiously still and empty areas of this tennis campus -- the players qualified almost any complaint they voiced with the caveat that, above all else, they were more than happy to be back playing matches that count for something again.