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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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Stacey Allaster is set to make history at an historic US Open. The Canadian will serve as tournament director, the first woman to ever hold the position in New York. 

"I'm not really sure that's all sort of hit me yet," she said. "I was so focused on the development of the return-to-play plan and getting us to the approval level."

But after taking part in a news conference with other United States Tennis Association executives on Wednesday to unveil how they intend to run a Grand Slam during a pandemic, it started to sink in.  

"I was a little kid in Welland, Ont., who was given a racquet and lessons at a community club and I took this journey," Allaster said. "I went from there to running what I think is Canada's greatest sporting event, which is the Rogers Cup, and then I had the privilege of going on to run the organization that Billie Jean King founded. Now, here I sit today in her house, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, as the first woman in 140 years to be the US Open tournament director. I don't take any of it for granted. I'm in awe of it."

Allaster is the USTA's chief executive for professional tennis, having previously led the WTA Tour as CEO and chair from 2009-16. Earlier in her career, Allaster worked as the tournament director in Toronto. 

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Billie and if it wasn't for Chrissie [Evert] and Martina [Navratilova] and all of the athletes who have paved the way and been trailblazers and at times challenged the establishment," the 56-year-old said. "I have this opportunity because of all of them. Now, I also have smashed a glass ceiling within our sport, and it is a great privilege, honour and responsibility."

Putting on the US Open while keeping players and staff safe is a daunting challenge in the era of coronavirus and already there is pushback from some of the most powerful voices in the game. With that as a backdrop, Allaster spoke with TSN this week via Zoom and laid out her vision for the event and why she believes it can and will be successful.

The following is an edited transcript of the interview. 

So, you're the tournament director and we have a Canadian defending champion in women’s singles. What does that say about Canadian tennis?  

"Canadian tennis is on fire. All of them, obviously, have the goods to win, so we hope that they will be here. We've had discussions with the majority of them. Nothing makes my heart feel full like when I see the red and white and I see those athletes. They're terrific, terrific ambassadors for our sport and even more so for our country.
"I was finally able to give Bianca her replica US Open trophy on the weekend. It was Friday and [vice-president of professional events for Tennis Canada] Gavin Ziv called me on FaceTime, and I was getting ready for the [USTA] board meeting and not knowing why he was calling. I thought it was maybe something to do with the US Open plan. And there was a Bianca. I had spoken to her earlier and she was like, 'I want my trophy!' We had been holding on to it to share that moment with a full stadium at Parc Jarry at Coupe Rogers and showing a video and having her family there and me trying not to cry and present her with that, but it wasn't meant to be. So it was pretty sweet on Friday to virtually hand her that trophy. So, yeah, we're looking forward to having as many Canadians here as possible this year."

Ottawa's Gaby Dabrowski, who is on the WTA Player Council, raised some issues about the US Open plan, expressing displeasure in the lack of a qualifying event, a limited doubles draw and no mixed doubles. What was the thought process on that? 

"Mitigating risk and health and well-being for all. This is a numbers game and to stage a normal US Open there's usually 11,000 people working daily here on site. So, in every area of the business we had to look at where we can reduce the number of people who will physically be on site. 

"And there's the hotel issue. We usually are not in the business of housing. The athletes usually come, and you give them a per diem, and they make their own accommodations. But to be able to develop this plan and get approvals a centralized housing solution was required. We chose hotels outside of Manhattan. This is important, because it's hard for young people if you're in Manhattan, because you're just going to naturally want to go out.

"So, TWA Hotel [at JFK Airport] is 512 rooms and you can just do the math: main draw singles is 128 plus 128, you know, and then plus one [additional room for every player for their support team] is 512 rooms. We originally were just trying to centralize in one hotel, but we had feedback from the tours and heard loud and clear that they wanted doubles, so there will be another player hotel to have those services and a 32 [team] doubles draw. The entry criteria is doubles-only ranking versus the usual best of singles and doubles. The tours have modelled that and the majority of doubles players who competed in the 2019 doubles will have an opportunity to compete at the US Open this year. 

"On qualifying, it's a really hard decision and not one we ultimately wanted to make. We looked at a smaller qualifying draw and it all just came back to how do we manage all of this? The hotels, the medical, the physical distancing, on site transport and we had to make that hard decision." 

It's a tough situation for players, who would've had a chance to qualify and earn the big money and ranking points that are only available at a Grand Slam. What's your message to them?

"We've offered a total compensation of $60 million and we have said to the tours there will be [about] $3 million each for a total of $6.6 million and they decide how they want to use those funds for those athletes. Both tours are now designing replacement ranking-point opportunities mirroring what those ranking points would have been as it relates to the US Open qualifying and they're building new events with that fund so that those athletes have a prize money-earning opportunity. Is it fair? None of this is fair, but it's an opportunity to try and mitigate that particular issue."

Serena Williams is on board, but how confident are you that we're going to see all the biggest stars at the US Open?

"I'm very confident that a majority of players want to play, and they will come. We've got 59 days to go and look how much has changed with COVID-19 since March. They now have a Masters Series and a WTA tier one event with the Western and Southern Open happening in New York, so the competitive opportunities to play before a Slam have been provided to them in one centralized place. They don't have to worry about travelling throughout the United States. With the plan and with the compensation that we have we will have a good field. Let​'s be real, you know, our cutoff will probably be between about No. 130 to 140 for the main draw. With Serena raising her hand, I did get a few emails after the press conference for wild cards. So, more to come. We totally understand and respect if an athlete doesn't feel that this is something that they want to do, and we wish them well and we really look forward to seeing them back in 2021."

You mentioned some innovations, some creativity perhaps to make this​ experience better for fans who are watching. Can you share any ideas?

"Where we have this opportunity is the virtual side like with ESPN camera angles. We've never been able to give fans a court-side seat in the past because, you know, we've had customers in those seats. I do believe from a social perspective there's a terrific opportunity. I hear things like there are apps that allow fans to actually be part of the show. They download the app and it can be piped into the stadium so that the athletes can hear their fans. 

"We have ESPN to help us create and produce and share the show worldwide with all of our fans. And we have the benefit of learning from the other professional sports that have returned to competition. I was watching with great interest the PGA Tour golf last weekend. It's a made-for-TV sport and, you know, I enjoyed watching and the same thing is going to happen for us."

What happens if a player tests positive during the tournament? 

"[NBA commissioner] Adam Silver said it best maybe three to four weeks ago, 'We should not return to play if one positive test means we stop the competition,' and that has been emblazoned on my mind in all of our conversations ...​ [Chairman of the USTA medical advisory group] Dr. [Brian] Hainline said, 'We can't stop it, but we can mitigate it.' So, in the event that there is a positive test ... they get isolated and they're under fantastic world-class medical care and we then evaluate what the next step is. If everyone does their part I feel very safe. I'm a mother of two and I intend to be COVID-free when this is over."

What will be the biggest challenge for you as tournament director?

"Well, I've been training my entire career for crisis management. We've had a few over the years at the Rogers Cup with blackouts, hurricanes and SARS in 2003. And working for almost 10 years on the WTA there were many, many geopolitical issues that we dealt with. Obviously, this is a different scale. ​For us, it's having everyone feel comfortable and everyone doing their part."

How do you view the challenge? 

"Some are saying, 'Gee, is this congratulations or condolences?' But we're up for it. We have an amazing team. This is one of the most talented sport and entertainment teams in the world. In terms of safety, we do this every year, every day so this is just a new dimension to safety with the health part of it. I'm only 5-foot-1-and-a-half on a good hair day, but I've got the might and the strength and inspiration of a lot of really talented and dedicated people."